Bret Brielmaier was just 29 years old, in his sixth season on an NBA coaching staff, when he had the opportunity to serve as head coach of Cleveland’s entry at the NBA Summer League in 2015.
“It was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done as a coach, to be in that first chair, to make the final decision,” said Brielmaier. “You really don’t know how little you know, until you sit there. You’re the one that everyone comes to with suggestions, and thoughts, and ideas, and managing players. Even though it was only for a few weeks window, it was something I knew I wanted to try to pursue and continue to gain experience to eventually become that head coach.”
Five years later, he’s earned that chance. On Tuesday, Brielmaier was named head coach of the Long Island Nets. The 35-year-old takes over leading the organization’s G League affiliate after four seasons as a Brooklyn Nets assistant coach.
“He has inside information and knowledge about this organization, so he’ll be a seamless fit,” said Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash. “He’s going to grow as a head coach in that position, which is important for his development and for him to continue to refine his talents but for us to be able to have that two-way relationship with Long Island and have Bret who has NBA experience and inside experience with the Nets is a great fit. So we’re really fortunate he wanted to take that step and be a head coach at this time and help develop our two-way guys.”
With Long Island, Brielmaier will be charged with developing a young group of players, whether it’s two-way roster players, Brooklyn players on assignment, or players signed directly to Long Island who are getting started on their pro careers.
“Bret’s a great guy; great coach, but a great guy,” said Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert, who was a rookie in 2016-17, Brielmaier’s first season with the organization. “High-energy guy, has a positive attitude each and every day, and I think as a young player coming into this league, that’s all you really can ask for; someone who pushes you every day and someone who has a positive attitude, and he definitely does both of those things and I can’t wait to see him be successful being a head coach.”
Joe Harris has worked with Brielmaier through all six of his NBA seasons, first in Cleveland and then in Brooklyn, and was on that 2015 Summer League team that Brielmaier led.
“He’s an excellent young coach,” said Harris. “I saw how much he helped in development for a lot of the young guys on our team, especially somebody like Jarret Allen, who he kind of worked specifically with. I think he’s going to do a really good job on Long Island.”
Brielmaier’s basketball journey has brought him under the influence and into the orbit of some of the game’s great coaches and players, starting at the University of Arizona, where Brielmaier played for Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, passing on mid-major scholarship offers to take a shot playing at college basketball’s highest level as a walk-on, eventually earning a scholarship and playing four seasons for the Wildcats.
Olson was among those who encouraged Brielmaier to pursue coaching, bringing together his love for the game with his early leanings about going into teaching. After a year on the staff at Arizona after his playing days were done, Brielmaier got his first NBA opportunity as a player development assistant with the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich, on a staff that also included Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown, and James Borrego and with a roster that featured all-time greats Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. After a season in that role, he spent the next three years with the Spurs as a video coordinator, a role that has increasingly spawned head coaching careers.
“It’s basically a Ph D in coaching, is kind of the best way I can describe it for young people,” said Brielmaier. “You have to deal with all aspects of the game. Luckily, I learned under James Borrego, who was the head video coordinator at the time. Taught us so much about the quality of work to do, really understanding the league at a higher level and not just scratching the surface. You really had to become an expert in all things basketball, and as a video room participant, you’re basically helping an assistant coach build game plans and personnel reports, come up with factual information that assistant will eventually present to the team.
“You had basically an apprenticeship into being an assistant coach. Mike Budenholzer at the time was Pop’s lead assistant. Another guy that started in the video room, so he held us at an extremely high regard. Basically, formed my habits and the standards I set for myself going forward were really created in the Spurs’ organization and the video room.”
Aside from the education, it was also in San Antonio that Brielmaier first connected with future Brooklyn colleagues. Nets assistant coach Jacque Vaughn joined the San Antonio staff in 2012. Trajan Langdon, Brooklyn’s assistant general manager from 2016 to 2019, came on board with the organization in 2012, as did Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks.
“Sean was kind of a hybrid role,” said Brielmaier. “He was on the court, he was in the front office, he was in coaches’ meetings, he was in front office roles. We all know Sean’s spirit, his intelligence, his ability to connect people is what makes him so special. Immediately, I formed a very close bond with him. We talked basketball, we talked life, we talked all things regarding the experience of being in the NBA and his journey was an impressive one, which had a lot of stops, so I was constantly curious about what I could learn from him.”
An eventful three years in Cleveland followed, as Brielmaier took a leap from the comfort of what he called San Antonio’s “well-oiled machine” to join a rebuilding Cavaliers team fronted by Kyrie Irving, then going into this third NBA season. A year later, that rebuild sped up with LeBron James’ return to Cleveland. Over his three seasons with the Cavaliers, Brielmaier worked for three head coaches, went to two NBA Finals, won an NBA championship, and got that first taste of being a head coach.
Coming off that 2016 NBA title, the offseason shuffle brought a new opportunity in Brielmaier’s direction. Marks had taken over as Brooklyn’s general manager in February, and brought Langdon — who had also been working for Cleveland during the 2015-16 season — in as assistant general manager. Marks hired Kenny Atkinson as head coach, and the offer came to Brielmaier to take the next step in his career on Brooklyn’s reconstructed staff.
“Sean and Trajan did such an incredible job of laying out what they wanted to grow this into and the type of culture and environment they wanted to cultivate, and the type of players they wanted to get after, and the atmosphere of family and inclusion here,” said Brielmaier. “It became something that sounded so desirable, and it was a really difficult decision leaving a championship contending team and one of the greatest players of all-time, and learning from coach (Tyronn) Lue and his incredible staff, but I wanted to bet on myself, bet on Sean and Trajan, bet on the vision they had, and continue to grow my experience. The next step was being on the front of a bench, and being that much closer to helping the head coach in making decisions. I felt extremely comfortable and fortunate for that opportunity.”
With the Nets, Brielmaier has been part of an inclusive across the board staff working on the full range of responsibilities, from scouting reports to player development. While he worked directly with veterans like Wilson Chandler and Jared Dudley, as he had in the past with Manu Ginobili in San Antonio and Richard Jefferson in Cleveland, it was young center Jarrett Allen with whom you could always see Brielmaier on a game night, collaborating at courtside during pregame workouts.
Allen came to Brooklyn as a 19-year-old after one season at Texas, and has started for most of his first three seasons, steadily elevating his game along the way.
“An absolute joy to work for, a little bit of a blank slate,” said Brielmaier. “So we really got to start at the beginning. Really fortunate to have worked with a young man of his skill and his IQ. You see what he’s grown into with all his hard work.”
He’s also had an up-close view of the relationship between the Brooklyn Nets and their G League affiliate, and the importance the organization places on the development of players, coaches and staff there, keeping them fully integrated in the team’s operations.
“We have always viewed the Long Island Nets on the same level as the Brooklyn Nets,” said Brielmaier. “The care given to the players, the focus on player development, the onus of playing the right way and living up to the values of what it means to be a Net are all the same from the Brooklyn Nets to the Long Island Nets. I’m going to rely on all my experiences as being an assistant for countless years, and the player development, and all the great coaches I’ve worked for, and the leadership of coach Nash and his incredible staff to bring the same culture and identity to Long Island that we’ve had here in Brooklyn.”