Brittni Donaldson was almost literally born into basketball in Iowa, but even she could never have imagined her improbable path to becoming the league's 10th current female assistant coach, and the youngest at just 26 years old.
Donaldson spent the last two seasons as a data analyst -- i.e., advanced stats guru -- in the Raptors' front office before Masai Ujiri, Toronto's president and alternate governor, and Nick Nurse, the head coach, picked her in mid-July to fill an opening on Toronto's bench.
"Losing someone so smart [from the front office] is tough," Ujiri says. "But she has coaching in her DNA."
Ujiri expects the NBA's first female head coach or general manager to emerge before anyone might have predicted even a few years ago. "One hundred percent, the time is coming," he says. "That is going to happen."
Donaldson had thought about moving to the bench before. She does not fit the caricature of a stats nerd. She was an all-state high school player at North High School in Sioux City -- the same school at which her dad, Jeff, was a star, in the early 1980s. Jeff Donaldson went on to play at what was then Briar Cliff College in the NAIA, and scored over 1,000 career points. In 2014, he was inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association Basketball Hall of Fame.
Father and daughter bonded over the game. "Sometimes it seemed like 90 percent of our conversations were about basketball," Brittni says. Jeff Donaldson put a ball in Brittni's hands when she was 2 or 3 years old. "It became an addiction," she says, "something I couldn't live without."
Iowa has no NBA team. Lots of Iowans root for the nearby Bulls and Timberwolves. Jeff Donaldson grew up on the 1980s Celtics and raised his daughter a Boston fan. They watched the Celtics together on League Pass, delighting in Tommy Heinsohn's throaty homerism.
"Not many young girls in Iowa love the NBA, but she did," Jeff Donaldson says. She gravitated toward Rajon Rondo. "She would rather see a nice pass than a dunk," her father says.
She played four seasons at the University of Northern Iowa, where Nurse played in the late 1980s and then began his coaching career. She had aspirations of playing professionally before suffering knee injuries.
Donaldson graduated in 2015 with a degree in statistics and actuarial sciences, and started a job the next day at CBE Companies, a provider of call center solutions based in Cedar Falls. She analyzed the company's internal data.
"This was not what I saw myself doing at age 22," Donaldson says. In her downtime, she applied the skills she was using at work to tackle questions about what she really loved -- basketball. She didn't publish her findings, or really try to. She was experimenting.
She liked it. Donaldson started applying to every basketball and basketball-adjacent job she could find. She even kept a database tracking what happened to each application -- whether she heard back, the rejections, all of it.
Finally, Chicago-based STATS LLC hired Donaldson to work the graveyard shift monitoring data pouring in from motion-tracking cameras installed at NBA arenas. A supervisor soon pulled Donaldson into a more strategy-focused role. She began analyzing the data and producing specific reports for NBA teams. She made such a good impression on the Raptors that they hired her.
Donaldson excelled in the front office, but made sure to touch and feel the game up close. She played pickup with the team's staff, outplaying most of them. (Her Toronto player comp: Fred VanVleet.) She rebounded for players at practice. Her passes still snapped.
"Every rep I do, even if it's just passing and rebounding, I try to be really precise and show that I'm there to make them better," Donaldson says. "I don't mess around."
The players noticed. "They trust her," Ujiri says.
One highlight: The Raptors were on the road when they acquired Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, but Gasol had to visit Toronto to undergo a physical. He asked whether someone might run him through a workout. The team thought about calling one coach back in. Higher-ups decided Donaldson could handle it herself.
"That was special for me -- to be basically the first person he interacted with on the basketball side," she says.
Ujiri watched from his office and was impressed when Donaldson sat with Gasol after the workout, opened a laptop, and took him through some of Toronto's plays.
"We were confident Brittni could do it," Ujiri says. "But when you see her do it, it's different."
(Donaldson also traveled to Tanzania and South Sudan this summer as an instructor with Ujiri's Giants of Africa developmental program. "I watched her energy, and her skill development," Ujiri says. "She's going to be very good at that.")
Nurse made it clear Donaldson will not be "the analytics person" on the coaching staff, though she will take the lead translating such data for players and coaches. She will do everything the other coaches do: scout opponents, debate rotations and X's and O's, and pitch strategic ideas.
"The conversation with Nick was, 'I'm going to treat you like an assistant coach because that's what you are,'" Donaldson says. "That was great for me to hear."
(The Raptors had Eric Khoury in a similar role the past two seasons after Khoury jumped from a front-office analytics position onto the coaching staff; Khoury will be with the Raptors 905 in the G-League this season. "I must be doing something wrong because something about the front office is making them run," Ujiri says, laughing.)
The NBA -- overall, and in Toronto specifically -- has evolved to the point where Donaldson's hiring is not surprising. The Raptors under Ujiri have been at the forefront for elevating women into positions of influence: Teresa Resch is among the team's most important day-to-day managers as vice president of basketball operations and player development; Jennifer Quinn heads up public relations; Shelby Weaver interacts with almost every part of the organization as manager of player development.
Donaldson is the fifth woman hired as an assistant coach just this summer, joining Lindsey Harding (Sacramento Kings), Lindsay Gottlieb (Cleveland Cavaliers), Kara Lawson (Boston Celtics) and Niele Ivey (Memphis Grizzlies). The other current female assistants are Natalie Nakase (LA Clippers), Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs), Jenny Boucek (Dallas Mavericks), Kristi Toliver (Washington Wizards), and Karen Stack-Umlauf (Chicago Bulls).
Donaldson's path is different. She is younger. She was not a star in college, or in the WNBA. She has no significant coaching experience. She arrives through the side door of analytics. It is perhaps a sign that some of the unconventional paths to NBA power that have long been open to men are opening to women, too.
Donaldson is just excited to get to work.
"The strategy and the X's and O's -- that is where it's at for me," she says.