WNBA legend Candice Dupree finds her coaching path with San Antonio Spurs
In second season as a player development coach, Dupree attacks new career with same passion she had as a player
Candice Dupree didn’t know the 2021 WNBA season would be her last.
Following the conclusion of the season, Dupree was battling an injury that required offseason surgery. After undergoing rehab, and with another WNBA season looming, Dupree would need to ramp up her workouts to return to playing shape. What she found is she had no desire to do so.
“It was like overnight, I’m done,” Dupree said. “I just left it at that. With the exception of my family, nobody knew that I was going to be done. Nobody.”
Dupree never released a formal announcement of her retirement, opting instead to quietly walk away from the WNBA after 16 seasons. She left a statistical imprint that cements her status as one of the league’s best ever: the most 2-point field goals made in WNBA history, seventh all-time in rebounding, fifth all-time in games played, fifth on the all-time scoring list.
While it wasn’t the ending to her career she had pictured, Dupree was ready to begin her next chapter.
“It was time to explore different options, spend more time with my girls. I moved on from the W and moved on to the next stage of my life,” Dupree said.
For Dupree, that next stage has been coaching. In October, Dupree began her second season as a player development coach with the San Antonio Spurs. It’s not a job Dupree imagined she would pursue, but now she is attacking her new career with the same passion, goal-setting and grind she had as a player.
As Dupree transitioned into retirement and began mulling her prospects of what could come next, she received a call from a friend in the WNBA league office who suggested she look into the NBA Coaching Development Program.
The CDP program was launched in 1988 and has become an opportunity for former players looking to launch careers as NBA coaches. Alumni of the program include Detroit Pistons head coach Monty Williams, who participated in the program in 2006. Brooklyn Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn participated in 2010.
Dupree didn’t believe she had the patience to be a coach, but she joined the program in an effort to explore her options. She had heard about a similar opportunity for front-office development and figured she would partake in that after finishing the program. She wouldn’t need to.
“The coaching side just happened to fit,” Dupree said.
Through the monthslong coaching program, Dupree learned how to build scouting reports, network and learn the platforms commonly used to cut and analyze film. She underwent one of her first coaching experiences at the NBA draft combine where she was charged with leading a team of prospects for half of the event’s scrimmage.
It was at the combine where Dupree met Spurs assistant coach Mitch Johnson. Johnson asked Dupree to be a guest coach for the Spurs at summer league. That opportunity led to a conversation with Spurs general manager Brian Wright.
Two months later, in September 2022, Dupree was hired as a player development coach for San Antonio.
“It all just kind of fell into place,” Dupree said.
With the Spurs, Dupree is tasked with helping to develop the youngest roster in the NBA featuring burgeoning talent such as Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson and 2023 No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama.
“We’re trying to teach a lot. For the most part, they are all sponges. They try to absorb as much information as they can,” Dupree said. “It’s challenging for me with the younger guys. Challenging in a good way. I get to put my voice on certain things and show them how to go about different things on the court.”
In her first season, Dupree said, she used more of a touch-and-feel approach to the role in an effort to learn the inner workings of the position. She’s been able to better settle into the role in Year 2. Dupree prides herself on being a player’s coach, focused on trying to be as relatable to her players as possible.
“This year a lot of the guys will come to me and they want to chat and talk about different things on and off the court. I feel like that level of trust has definitely been created and built, which is great.”
Not far removed from playing the game, Dupree is familiar with the current generation of players, which she says is different from the players she came up with. Toward the end of her pro career, Dupree said, she struggled to play with the new talent in the WNBA who entered the league without a strong foundation in the fundamentals of the sport.
“I saw a lot of players come in and they don’t know how to set ball screens, they don’t know what help side defense is. Basic stuff,” Dupree said.
“You see this on both sides, your top players at the collegiate level, it’s [only] about winning. It’s almost like coaches just roll the ball out and say go score 30 points a game for me because that’s how we win games. … I think it’s probably even more prevalent on the men’s side because a lot of these guys are one-and-done. … You’re just not seeing a lot of teaching in college.”
As a coach in the early stages of her career, Dupree has had the opportunity to learn under one of the best coaches in the history of the game in Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Dupree is the second former WNBA player to sit on the Spurs bench. Becky Hammon, who has won back-to-back championships as coach of the Las Vegas Aces, was an assistant in San Antonio from 2014 to 2022.
“It’s about hiring people who are qualified. She happens to be a female. I didn’t hire her because she’s a female, I hired her because she’s a hell of a player. She understands the game. She’s got a great way about her and she will add to the program just like Becky did,” Popovich said of Dupree in 2022.
One of Dupree’s biggest takeaways from observing Popovich’s leadership has been how he interacts with his players and, as a result, gets the most out of them.
“Say in game he subs somebody out, he will just cuss them out on the sideline. Then 30 seconds later, he’ll go back and crack a joke about why they were subbed out,” Dupree said. “He’s hard on them but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Like, I’m going to teach you a lesson, but at the end of the day I still love you.”
Dupree models the way she coaches and interacts with players after her experience being coached by Ervin Monier, who recruited Dupree to play at Temple University, where he was an assistant coach from 2000-04.
“It was a personal relationship as well as business,” Dupree said. “I try to not treat it like it’s a business because they are real people. Yeah, we can lock in and talk about basketball all the time, but I’m trying to have real relationships with these guys.”
At Temple, Dupree played for current South Carolina women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley. Dupree talks to Staley every now and then, picking her brain from a coach’s perspective.
Dupree, 39, fields comments almost daily from those in the Spurs organization who believe she should still be playing in the WNBA. Dupree, however, is at peace with her decision. Does she miss playing the game? Absolutely, but not enough to put her body through the ordeal that comes with a pro season.
Dupree’s retirement from basketball marked the end of a historic career. Equipped with a patented mid-range game and a smooth jump hook, she earned seven All-Star nods playing for three franchises. In 2014, she won a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury in which she shot 66.3% from the field over eight postseason games. She ranks third in WNBA history in field goals made.
Many league fans have expressed displeasure that Dupree, one of the best to step on a WNBA court, left the game with little fanfare. That, in part, could be due to Dupree’s abrupt exit, closing the door to any kind of celebratory tour. But even in the seasons following her retirement, little has been made of Dupree’s impact on the league.
“I didn’t hope for anything,” Dupree said. “At the end of the day, my numbers were what they were. The history books are what they are. Can’t change that stuff. I did my job, hopefully made it a little better for the next generation. Move on.”
To some, the absence of an adequate celebration of Dupree’s career continues a discouraging trend in which some of the league’s greatest players have retired without the send-off their contributions warranted, or whose exits weren’t commensurate with their impact on the WNBA.
“There are certain players that, yeah, they absolutely celebrate. There are certain players who did the same, if not more, that got very little celebration,” Dupree said. “I don’t put too much weight on it. I was and still am very aware of how the league operates when it comes to that kind of stuff. So, for me it just kind of is what it is.”
With her playing career in the rearview, Dupree is focused on her budding coaching career ahead. She’s trying to soak up as much information as she can – plays, schemes, habits – with the same hustle and fervor she had when she played.
While Dupree enjoys her player development role and seeing the growth of her players, it’s not where she wants to stay long term. She eventually wants to help lead a team on the floor. Dupree is inspired by the other former WNBA players who have followed the same path to the NBA and have since become head coaches.
After several seasons as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings, Lindsey Harding was named the coach of the Kings’ G League affiliate, the Stockton Kings, in June. Kara Lawson (Boston Celtics) and Niele Ivey (Memphis Grizzlies) have excelled as coaches at the collegiate level at Duke and Notre Dame, respectively. After several years with the New Orleans Pelicans, Teresa Weatherspoon, was recently named the coach of the Chicago Sky. For Dupree, seeing the success of these individuals shows the different avenues her career can take.
“In my brain I’m like, do I go the men’s college basketball route? I don’t see a lot of [women], especially at the D-I level, that are head coaches at that level. I think the W would be relatively easy to get into but I was so burned out on women’s basketball I just needed to separate myself and kind of go in a different direction from that. In the NBA, [I’m] still waiting to see if and when we’ll ever have a female head coach. It’ll happen sooner than later.”
For now, Dupree is focused on enjoying this new chapter of her basketball career.
“We’ll see where the journey takes me,” Dupree said.