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New wave of GMs take different road to top job

Saturday - 10/26/2013, 12:02am  ET

JON KRAWCZYNSKI
AP Basketball Writer

On an early September night in his new hometown, Denver Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly headed to the famed Red Rocks amphitheater to take in a show from one of his favorite artists.

The artist might surprise a few people: Connelly went to see Nas, the influential rapper whose 1994 masterpiece "Illmatic" still gives Connelly goose bumps when he throws it on his iPod to help him get through a long run.

Nas might not be the first choice for old guard NBA executive like Pat Riley, Donnie Walsh or R.C. Buford, but the 36-year-old Connelly is part of a new generation of GMs.

Six of the league's general managers are under 40 this season, including close friends Connelly, Ryan McDonough (33) in Phoenix and Rob Hennigan (31) in Orlando. Throw in Golden State's Bob Myers (38), who made the transition from agent to executive, and Philadelphia's Sam Hinkie (35), who made a name for himself on Daryl Morey's Moneyball-loving staff in Houston.

They illustrate a growing willingness of NBA owners to look outside the stereotypical ex-coach/ex-player candidates to lead the complex job of roster construction.

"I feel so lucky to be in this position," said Connelly, who started as an intern with the Washington Wizards in 1996. "Whether you're old or young, I've probably been on the road with you, shared a rental car with you, shared a flight with you.

"I think it's really important to create relationships based on sincerity and very important to treat everyone with respect, no matter what the position."

The youth movement may have started when the Seattle Supersonics hired a 30-year-old out of San Antonio's front office named Sam Presti to take over the basketball operations in 2007. Presti's success in turning the franchise now known as the Oklahoma City Thunder into a Western Conference power opened eyes.

Those who rose to fame as players or coaches, including Riley, Larry Bird and Danny Ainge remain highly successful. But the trend in recent years has been to go with candidates who have taken the back roads to the top. And to go young.

Morey and Toronto's Masai Ujiri, both just a jumpshot over 40, have already established themselves as stars in the front office game. McDonough was hired to start the rebuilding process in Phoenix this summer after serving as Ainge's right-hand man in Boston; Connelly got his chance when Ujiri left Denver to take over the Raptors this summer.

Together, Connelly, Ujiri, McDonough and Hennigan represent something of a new-age Rat Pack in the NBA, having crisscrossed the globe together while scouting players and climbing the ladder.

"We were just a herd," Ujiri said with a smile. "We just worked. I think we concentrated more on what we were doing at the time.

"I think then we were all passionate about drafting, finding kids and covering tournaments. Those were the things that drove me."

Pete Philo, a well-traveled scout for the Indiana Pacers, has watched them rise up the ranks the hard way.

"Tim, Masai, Rob and Ryan have all beat the heck out of the bushes," said Philo, who hopes to one day follow the same path. "I've seen them on every single continent.

"They're all very likable guys ... and fun to be around. When you're fun to be around, that's contagious."

And while Hinkie and Morey revolutionized the job by relying advanced statistics to evaluate talent, other young up-and-comers chafe at being pigeon-holed as "numbers guys."

"I think because of our ages and because of the increase in popularity of analytics, I think most people assume we're analytics guys," McDonough said. "Really not. Myself, Tim Connelly, Rob Hennigan and Masai Ujiri, we came up as scouts. That's what we did."

When the Magic were looking to navigate the end of Dwight Howard's run in Orlando, they plucked Hennigan from Presti's staff in Oklahoma City to make it happen. Initially criticized for the trade that sent Howard to the Lakers, Hennigan has since been lauded for landing steady shooting guard Arron Afflalo, promising big man Nikola Vucevic and a boat load of draft picks. In the end, Hennigan more than held his own against more experienced deal-makers like the Lakers' Mitch Kupchak and Philadelphia's Rod Thorn in the four-team trade.

"His experience, and what he's done in the organizations that he's been with, far exceed his years, and clearly that's what's important," Magic CEO Alex Martins said when Hennigan was hired in 2012. "Age is not a factor; experience and who you've worked with and the habits that you've developed, that's what's important in being successful in this role."

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