One of the things that became abundantly clear to Dell Demps during his journey to become an NBA general manager is that you have to have a sound plan.
After seeing his best-laid plans washed away by a spate of injuries to key players last season, Demps is eager to see how his New Orleans Pelicans stack up this season in the extremely competitive Western Conference.
Demps, who prefers to remain low-key even in his high-profile position, said he didn’t want to talk about his journey. But he would say he was excited about this season.
“The Western Conference is tough,” he said, “but I think we have good players, a good group of guys, a good coaching staff and the opportunity to go out there and prove ourselves against the best.”
Through Demps’ maneuvering, this summer the Pelicans added Omer Asik — the big, strong center the team has sought since it selected power forward Anthony Davis with the draft’s top pick in 2012. Asik’s acquisition came on the heels of obtaining point guard Jrue Holiday, a tough defender, and guard/small forward Tyreke Evans last summer.
That came a year after Davis and guard Austin Rivers, the No. 10 selection, arrived in New Orleans in the same draft. That began the renovation to the Pelicans’ roster after they were forced to start over when star point guard Chris Paul forced a trade in December 2011. Paul no longer wanted to be part of an unstable organization, the team at that time owned and operated by the league.
Like the franchise he now runs, Demps, who is entering his fifth season at the helm, experienced plenty of change as he honed his craft.
Coach Monty Williams said he didn’t think he or Demps, 42, were thinking about being in their current positions when they played together for the 1995-96 San Antonio Spurs under coach Gregg Popovich. Looking back, though, Williams said he saw traits in Demps that were compatible with being an NBA player personnel executive.
“I just think guys who grind it out like that and love the game, they always have a chance to continue on in basketball,” Williams said. “Dell played ball all over the place. He’s a grinder. So those guys eventually figure out a way, when they find out what their niche is.
“You learn so much about the game, about this business. You just have to find out where you want to fit in, and he found his spot. But I think a lot of it has to do with his journey throughout basketball.”
That journey started in the California town of Hayward, where a once-pudgy kid worked his way into becoming a good high school player and more.
“He was always in the gym working on his game or in the library or at home, studying,” said Ron Benevides, Demps’ coach at Mount Eden High School in Hayward, a bedroom community in the San Francisco Bay area. “He made himself a good basketball player, and he was pretty much a straight-A student.”
Even then, Benevides said, Demps was personable and worked well with others. That, along with his academic achievements, feel for basketball and having hopped the globe for opportunities to play professionally, would serve him well at each stop.
That certainly was the case when the Spurs called in 2005. His playing career over, Demps had become a scout in 2003, then pro personnel director in 2004 with the New York Knicks after two years as an assistant coach with the NBA Development League’s Mobile Revelers.
“We knew who he was as a person, and that obviously was a big part of his success,” said R.C. Buford, who has been the Spurs’ general manager since 2002 and part of the organization since 1988. “When you spent time with him, you got a feel for what was important to him as a player.”
Buford said Demps had a hand in every aspect of the Spurs’ personnel management team, from player evaluations to contracts. But his biggest contribution came when the Spurs were able to tap into the experience he gathered while playing in the Philippines, France, Greece, Turkey, Croatia and Venezuela. With many of his former teammates overseas having become managers, coaches and scouts, Demps had a wealth of contacts. It’s an area the Spurs continue to mine, unearthing talented players who have helped them win championships.
“Dell’s relationship-building skills had a big impact on the way we were able to go about our scouting business,” Buford said. “We were able to know where to go and who to see and recognize the opportunities to allow us to bring people in, to find out details that can help you determine who are the good fits for what you’re trying to do and how to take advantage of those.”
When the Spurs sought their own D-League affiliate, it was a no-brainer to make Demps the GM. As the Spurs’ director of player personnel, Demps had worked well with Buford, Popovich and his staff in the organization’s process-driven way of operating, where idea input is important and egos are checked at the door. It’s a process now used by the Pelicans as Demps, his staff, Williams and team president Mickey Loomis constantly meet to discuss decisions and other ideas that could help the team improve.
After Demps took command of the D-League’s Austin Toros, he was hired in 2010 by New Orleans Hornets president Hugh Weber, who was let go when Tom Benson bought the team in 2012.
Heading up the Toros let Demps find his way and develop his skills as an evaluator, drafter, team-builder, manager and recruiter. The NBDL offered meager salaries, so Demps had to convince good players who couldn’t stick with an NBA team to bypass bigger salaries in Europe for an opportunity to build their games and names in a place where they would remain visible to NBA teams.
Those recruiting skills and international awareness served the Pelicans well last season when forward Ryan Anderson, Holiday and center Jason Smith were lost to injuries in January. Forward Luke Babbitt and center Alexis Ajinça, who had failed at the NBA level earlier in the careers, were plucked from Russia and France to give the team a boost. Demps also had swayed Anderson into believing in the team’s rebuilding project when he came to New Orleans in 2012.
The most important leg of the journey, though, came when Demps was a struggling player trying to find playing time in the NBA. He had been an All-Big West Conference player at Pacific back when UNLV had players like Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson.
After graduating in 1992, Demps qualified for a scholarship from the NCAA, said his coach at Pacific, Bob Thomason. Demps used that opportunity to return to Pacific and work on a master’s degree in business administration. All the while playing for Golden State (1993-94), San Antonio (’95-96) and Orlando (’96-97), he obtained his MBA in 1996.
That was pivotal, said Lewis Gale, dean of Pacific’s Eberhardt School of Business. Beyond classwork that would aid him in his NBA management career, Demps took a trip abroad that proved fruitful, too.
“Dell is a pretty high-tech guy,” Gale said. “He took an international course and went to Santiago, Chile, to study. One of the visits was to the telecom company in Santiago that was completely paperless. I think that was pretty influential on him about how he wanted to improve his efficiency and effectiveness to be really productive.”
He also had internships with traditional, non-sports U.S. companies and volunteered with the Spurs during the summer. It was there he worked with and formed relationships with former Toros coach Quin Snyder, now the Utah Jazz head coach; Dennis Lindsey, Utah’s GM; Sam Presti, Oklahoma City’s GM; Kevin Pritchard, Indiana’s GM; Mike Budenholzer, the Atlanta Hawks’ coach; and Rod Hennigan, Orlando’s GM.
“From talking with Dell,” Thomason said, “that was an incredible environment for learning, the exchange of ideas, and the bar was set really high.”
It was a bar Demps was determined to reach, Benevides said.
“He grew up three doors from the school, but it was somewhat of a rough area,” said Benevides, his high school coach. “He knew what people said the odds were, but he was determined to go on to better.”