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McGRATH: Brad Stevens is smart, but he’ll need more than that in NBA

If past college-to-pros coaching moves are any indicatiformer Butler coach Brad Stevens will have his hands full as coach Celtics.

If past college-to-pros coaching moves are any indication, former Butler coach Brad Stevens will have his hands full as the coach of the Celtics. | AP

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Updated: August 8, 2013 6:39AM

Rick Pitino was at the top of his game when he left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics in 1997. Slick Rick’s abject failure in his second tour as an NBA coach was a surprise turn of events for the guy who invented basketball. Just ask him.

John Calipari, as crafty a talent wrangler as the college game has known, dipped his toes into the NBA waters around the same time (with the New Jersey Nets) and was similarly usuccessful.

Each has returned to the comforting embrace of college hoops to win national championships, Pitino at Louisville and Calipari at Kentucky after an eventful layover in Memphis. They were then and are now two of the most decorated coaches in their game, but their flashy college résumés offered no more promise of NBA success than a two-point lead in the first quarter does.

That didn’t stop Tim Floyd, Lon Kruger and Mike Montgomery from taking the college-to-pros plunge. They failed, just as Jerry Tarkanian did in an ill-advised 20-game stint with the San Antonio Spurs in 1992, and were happy to scurry back to college.

Rick Majerus spent one season as an NBA assistant under Don Nelson, hated it and never went back, though he had chances. P.J. Carlesimo survived Latrell Sprewell’s attempt on his life and has remained an NBA guy, though the Brooklyn Nets declined to retain him despite a successful run as their interim coach this past season. Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo have resisted big-money blandishments from pro teams and are committed college guys.

It’s called basketball at both levels, but it’s a vastly different game. That’s the reality confronting Brad Stevens as he becomes the 17th coach in Celtics history, four names down the list from Pitino. The hire set the basketball world on its ear. Stevens, 36, the fresh-faced whiz kid of college ball, could have had his pick of college jobs after leading humble little Butler to back-to-back NCAA tournament championship games in 2010-11. But he stayed put, with a 10-year contract indemnifying him for major success at a mid-major school.

Celtics president Danny Ainge found himself needing a coach two weeks ago, when Doc Rivers opted out of the team’s rebuilding plans for a win-now shot with the Los Angeles Clippers. Ainge called Stevens. This was different from Illinois, Northwestern, UCLA or any other inquiry Stevens had fielded since becoming a hot property.

‘‘The Boston Celtics. Wow,’’ he said at a news conference Friday. ‘‘What an incredible honor.’’

NBA coaches are recycled more frequently than baseball managers. Ainge could have gone the safe route and hired George Karl, Byron Scott, Alvin Gentry or any number of veteran NBA hands. Instead, he went outside the box for a coach he had been tracking since 2010.

‘‘I went to the Final Four that year with Steve Pagliuca, one of our owners,’’ Ainge said. ‘‘He’s a Duke guy. During the championship game, I said, ‘We’re looking at the best coach in college basketball.’ Steve thought I meant Coach K; I meant Brad. I watched and admired his poise, his intelligence and his team’s effort and execution under pressure.’’

Ainge acknowledged that college success means nothing in the hard-eyed world of play-for-pay hoops.

‘‘Rick Pitino and John Calipari didn’t fail because they can’t coach; they failed because of an organizational failure to give them what they needed to be successful,’’ Ainge said. ‘‘There will be a transition, but it will be fast. He’s a very smart guy.’’

And a good guy, by all accounts. Jim Whitesell, now an assistant at Saint Louis University, coached against Stevens for four years when Whitesell was the head man at Loyola.

‘‘Beat him twice,’’ Whitesell said. ‘‘And we got him three times last year with Saint Louis. We had similar teams, but we were a little older and more experienced.’’

There isn’t anything in Stevens’ approach that screams NBA, Whitesell said.

‘‘He uses a nice screen-roll package that’s nice, but what really stands out about Brad is his ability to get his teams to play hard and play together,’’ Whitesell said. ‘‘I don’t know how that translates to the NBA, but it worked in college. He was in back-to-back championship games with one pro [Gordon Hayward], one marginal guy [Shelvin Mack] and some smart, tough kids who busted it for him.

Instilling a similar team-first commitment in the Celtics will be Stevens’ greatest challenge. NBA players have been the center of attention since grade school, self-appointed go-to guys who neither are conditioned nor inclined to share the ball.

‘‘I was shocked when I heard, but I really hope it works for him,’’ Whitesell said. ‘‘Brad’s not only a great coach, he’s one of the best people in our business.’’

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