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Gonzaga Basketball

‘It’s just a testament to keeping my head down’: Former Gonzaga walk-on Connor Griffin follows unique path to Brooklyn coaching position

The Denver Nuggets’ playoff run coming to an end. A new job. Relocating to New York. Attending former Gonzaga teammate Rem Bakamus’ bachelor party in Southern California.

Squeezing in a few visits to the Portland area to see family and friends. Upcoming trips to Canada, Las Vegas and France for the Paris Olympics with Canada’s national team.

Welcome to Connor Griffin’s whirlwind spring and summer.

It’s all part of the former Gonzaga walk-on’s swift ascension up the NBA employment ladder, which follows his unique collegiate athletic career.

The 29-year-old Griffin hasn’t had much time off over the last calendar year and that won’t change for the foreseeable future. He just wrapped up his third season as video coordinator/player development coach with the defending champion Nuggets, who fell to Minnesota 4-3 in the Western Conference semifinals.

Griffin’s new job is as an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets for first-year head coach Jordi Fernandez, a friend since their paths crossed for one season when Fernandez was a Denver assistant.

“I don’t know what day it was announced that Jordi got the job, but I was playing video games that night (in April),” Griffin said. “I looked down at my phone and had damn near 100 messages, people texting me because they know how close I am to Jordi.”

Griffin nearly followed when Fernandez left Denver to become Sacramento’s associate head coach for the past two years, but Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave Griffin a promotion to stay for the team’s championship season.

Fernandez is big on building relationships and team culture. Griffin has spent Christmas with Fernandez and on numerous occasions hung out with his family. When Fernandez was named Team Canada’s head coach, Griffin reached out to see if he could help out.

“And he told me he’d already planned to call me,” said Griffin, who spent last summer as video coordinator with the Canadian team that beat the U.S. for third place – the country’s first medal at the FIBA World Cup.

Griffin will have a similar role next month for the Canadians, who will gather for training camp before a July 10 exhibition against the U.S. in Las Vegas and then on to France for the Summer Olympics.

Former Zag Kelly Olynyk was a key contributor for his native Canada in the FIBA tournament. Indiana coach Rick Carlisle has said Pacers guard and former Zag Andrew Nembhard will likely join Canada’s team for the Olympics.

The 6-foot-4 Griffin played two seasons for the Zags before trading in high tops for shoulder pads as a walk-on tight end at the University of Washington. Griffin was a standout on Lake Oswego (Oregon) High’s football team but turned down scholarship offers from Portland State and Northern Colorado to come to Gonzaga as an invited walk-on.

Griffin later joined the Lorenzo Romar-coached Washington basketball team as a practice player before finishing his eligibility at NAIA Vanguard (Costa Mesa, California) as an all-conference performer. He then joined Romar’s staff at Pepperdine as a grad assistant and video coordinator, which led to his job with the Nuggets.

And now, he’s on the Nets’ coaching staff.

That’s a career path few, if any, have traveled, but he believes every step helped lead him to Brooklyn.

“It blows my mind and I have some friends that remind me of it,” Griffin said of his career arc. “It’s just a testament to keeping my head down, pursuing new opportunities and being relentless.

“Some people have questioned it along the way, me switching from basketball to football and back, getting into coaching at Pepperdine, my first time behind closed doors and seeing how to build practices. I interviewed for a bunch of different jobs and I was always the last guy on the list and they went with another person. The fact that I was able to work hard speaks volumes and I’ve been pretty lucky to meet the people I have and build the relationships that I’ve had.”

And that’s why he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Do you wish you’d stayed at Gonzaga?’ Had I stayed, my senior year was the year they played in the (2017) national championship,” Griffin said. “If I didn’t pursue football, I wouldn’t have been in the college football playoffs.

“My deal is to make decisions and be fully into it and you’ll reap the rewards. Without that (UW experience) I wouldn’t have met Romar and then gone on to Pepperdine.”

Griffin was able to say postseason goodbyes to Nuggets staff and players he’d grown close to, including MVP Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray; the latter is expected to be on Canada’s roster.

“I’m on the coaching side, but those guys are my age,” Griffin said. “Aaron Gordon was on that Arizona team that beat (Gonzaga) in my freshman year. When I was telling Nikola, he was like, ‘No, brother, I’m so sad, but I’m so happy for you.’ Same thing with Jamal. They were bummed I was leaving but happy and very supportive.”

Griffin’s job with the Nets will obviously be different than his one with Denver.

“My biggest role is helping integrate everyone in how Jordi wants the organization to run,” he said. “Obviously, there’ll be some Denver stuff, some stuff from Sacramento and he’ll make his own philosophy as a head coach. I’ll probably be doing a lot more scouts, more on the offensive end and player development.”

Griffin is looking forward to seeing several former Gonzaga teammates at Bakamus’ bachelor party before his duties ramp up with the Nets and Canada’s national team. He’ll miss the wedding because it’s during the Olympics.

Griffin is staying at a New York hotel and will save about six weeks of rent before finding his own place after the Olympics. Sometime in August, he’ll drive his car 3,000-plus miles with his dad and brother across the country to New York, breaking up the trip with visits to special sites and landmarks.

After that, it won’t be long before training camp and the 2024-25 NBA season arrives.

“I do (still play basketball),” Griffin said. “I’m slowly aging. I didn’t think it would actually happen, but 30 is right around the corner. My knees are shot, my ankles hurt when I wake up.

“It’s still part of the job. The guys at Gonzaga will laugh at that. I can still compete a little with these guys athletically, but from a skill standpoint it’s not even close.”