The job description for 1,000 or so Division I men’s basketball assistant coaches typically involves instruction, player development and motivation, recruiting and scouting opponents.
First-year Gonzaga assistant Roger Powell Jr. is proficient at those tasks, but he’s also capable of adding a personal touch. He can compile scouting reports and then suit up and play with the scout team, demonstrating what the Zags might see from an opposing player.
“Surprisingly, I can still play a little bit. It just takes me a little longer to recover,” said Powell, who turns 37 on Wednesday, laughing. “With a lot of teams we play against, I was that 6-foot-6 stretch ‘4’ or maybe play some ‘3’. I can help the scout team: ‘Hey, maybe guard this guy this way.’ ”
The guess here is not many of his peers nationally can do something similar, at least not at Powell’s level. So, what’s the scouting report on Powell?
“Tough, hard-playing, super strong and athletic,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Can shoot, drive and post. Experienced.”
“He’s a big dude, so it’s tough (going against him),” senior forward Killian Tillie said. “He’s still in shape, as you can see, and he’s still getting buckets.”
Gonzaga’s coaching staff has experienced few changes in the past decade, but there was an opening after last season when Donny Daniels, transitioning toward retirement, accepted a player development position at Utah.
Powell had been at Vanderbilt with head coach Bryce Drew, but Drew was fired last March. Powell had options, including Pac-12 and SEC schools, but he also had some security, with a guaranteed contract at Vanderbilt.
Powell and longtime GU assistant Tommy Lloyd became friends 4 to 5 years ago while traveling in similar circles. Both attended NCAA seminars designed to help top assistants with head-coaching aspirations. They ran into each other recruiting at international tournaments.
“The one job that was appealing, and I thought I could see myself taking and moving my family for, was Gonzaga, because of the tradition, and Mark Few is one of the best coaches in the country,” Powell said. “To come here and work under coach Few, it’s a whole new perspective, and I could learn a ton.
“The other thing is I’ve always wanted to win a national championship. This is a place where you can definitely do that.”
Powell nearly won a national championship as a senior at Illinois in 2005. The Illini won their first 29 games and finished 37-2, falling to North Carolina – Powell had nine points and 14 rebounds – in the championship game. Gonzaga did nearly the same thing in 2017, also losing to the Tar Heels in a close title game.
Coaching wasn’t part of Powell’s plan after his standout collegiate career. He was with the Seattle SuperSonics in the 2005 preseason and had a short stint with the Utah Jazz in 2006. He concluded the season with Arkansas in the NBA’s D League before heading overseas with the goal of playing until he was 35.
Powell played four seasons internationally, with stints in Italy, Israel, Spain, France and Germany. The paychecks were great and Powell returned to the U.S. every summer, founding RPJ Ministries Organization, mentoring youngsters, and Integrity Sports Corporation, training high school and junior high basketball players.
His wife, Tara, suggested he’d be a great coach, but Powell dismissed the idea because of the enormous time commitment. Powell soon began noticing he was enjoying his summer work with kids as much as playing professionally.
He confessed to Tara that he might be tempted to coach if it was at a place like Valparaiso. Powell knew the Drew family, and coach Homer Drew had created a winning program with a family environment. Powell was unaware Bryce Drew was about to replace his father as head coach.
“My last year I was in Germany, in the semifinals, and I was talking with Bryce, it was Skype back then, and little did I know he was checking me out,” Powell said. “He offered me a job. I was 28. My agent was like, ‘Are you crazy? You have at least five more years of making good money.’ I told him I was going to follow my heart.”
Powell was on Bryce’s staff for eight years, including five seasons at Valparaiso that resulted in four Horizon League championships and two NCAA Tournament appearances.
During his second year at Valpo, Powell’s agent called to see if he was interested in replacing Kyle Singler, who had left Real Madrid in Spain’s ACB league to sign with the Detroit Pistons. Powell, who took a sizable pay cut to enter coaching, turned down the lucrative offer.
Powell has found what he was looking for at Gonzaga.
“It’s a very unique thing,” he said. “Everywhere I go, people know Gonzaga. Not many programs can say they’ve been as successful as Gonzaga, and we haven’t lost that mom-and-pop family tradition, the closeness.
“The success hasn’t gotten too big where you lose that charm, and that’s a beautiful thing that not many schools have.”
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