Person of Interest: Raptors coaching candidate Ettore Messina


Ettore Messina directs Italian players against Israel during the Eurobasket European Basketball Championship Group B match in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The Toronto Raptors continue to take their time in filling the vacancy left by the firing of former head coach Dwane Casey.

There are several internal candidates in the running for the gig — assistant coaches Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian, along with Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse — but team president Masai Ujiri and his front office are pursuing several external candidates as well. One well-reported name, former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, is already off the market, but the team appears in no rush in its search for the right person for the job.

Last week a new candidate emerged when it was reported the Raptors had interviewed Ettore Messina, the long-time EuroLeague coach and current San Antonio Spurs assistant.

Who, you ask? Let’s find out. Here’s a bit more on the latest potential Raptors hire.

Name: Ettore Messina
Age: 58
Hometown: Catania, Italy
NBA coaching experience: 2014-present

Raptors connection

Before coming to the NBA, Messina had a long and storied coaching history in Europe. After getting his professional start with Virtus Bologna in his native Italy, he coached in Treviso, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid.

He’s taken his teams to nine EuroLeague Finals, winning the championship four times with two different teams between 1997-2007. All told, he amassed a stellar 279-98 record during his time coaching in Europe. He was named EuroLeague Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2008.

So we’ve established that he enters the Raptors coaching race well-credentialed, but this is hardly the first time Messina’s name has been linked to the Raptors coaching gig. In the mid-2000s, when the Raptors featured longtime EuroLeague executive — and Messina’s former boss — Maurizio Gherardini in the front office, and employed several European players at the time.

One of the reasons Messina was considered a legitimate candidate was because he used to be the head coach for Treviso in Italy, the pro team that Andrea Bargnani played on before being chosen first overall by Toronto in 2005.

The Spurs Way

Messina is part of the lineage of San Antonio coaches who either have, or will, go from an assistant role on Gregg Popovich’s staff to running their own team. Ex-Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer recently took over head coaching duties in Milwaukee for the Bucks, while Messina’s fellow assistants, Ime Udoka and Becky Hammon, have all been rumoured to interview for similar positions this summer.

Prior to landing in San Antonio, Messina also spent a season on the Los Angeles Lakers’ coaching staff, and made a favourable impression on at least one Lakers great.

Are you experienced?

Unlike Nurse, Kalamian and Stackhouse, Messina has NBA head coaching experience … sort of.

In March 2016, he filled in for Popovich and went 1-1 with San Antonio, beating the Indiana Pacers but losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves. This post-season he was again thrust into action, taking over Spurs coaching duties in Round 1 versus Golden State when Popovich had to leave the team after his wife passed away. San Antonio won their lone game of the series, Game 4, with Messina at the helm.

Obviously, Messina already had extensive head coaching experience during his time in Europe before stepping up for San Antonio, and his familiarity with what, exactly, the head coaching job entails is a part of why many believe he could make the transition from NBA assistant as smoothly as anybody.

The below video does a good job of outlining all of his previous experience prior to this summer.

Messina was pursued by teams beyond the Raptors — the Charlotte Hornets are one team that reportedly met with him — but he has expressed his loyalty to Popovich and the Spurs organization before.

“Look, I’m a soldier,” he said in 2016. “Whatever will happen in the future, the first person I will talk to is Pop and the second is (GM) R.C. (Buford).

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