7:00 A.M. comes early in the G-League, especially when you are the Northern Arizona Suns and you got into Lakeland the day before and had to take a 90-minute bus ride from nearby Tampa International Airport, but that’s life in the NBA’s minor league.
Referred to as the “NAZ,” the team prepared to play the Lakeland Magic. Basketball Insiders got a chance to spend the day with them “all-access” style, sitting in on all of the meetings and conversations that take place during game day.
Unlike NBA teams, G-League teams travel light. The NAZ traveling party consists of their healthy roster players (injured players are left behind to rehab at home), three coaches, trainer/equipment manager Jervae Odom and general manager Louis Lehman.
The typical game day for the NAZ starts with head coach Cody Toppert having some breakfast around 8:30 A.M. and reviewing game film. He usually watches at least four games of an opponent, and usually watches those games more than once. G-League coaches usually have about 36 hours to prepare for a team, and the coaches waste little opportunity to get an advantage.
Assistant coach and offensive coordinator Nick Friedman has the responsibility to scout the Magic and put together a game plan. The NAZ assistant coaches split up the scouts, and try to balance the workload.
Friedman’s job against the Magic was to break down what each opposing player does well and craft a plan to take away their strengths, as well as exploit weaknesses that surface in the stats and the game film. He is responsible for cutting up the game film into packages that showcase players strengths and weakness.
The coaches usually convene for breakfast in the same room around 9:00 A.M. to review film, and after the meal, dig into the film and game plan together. It’s an open communication. Each coach tosses out thoughts and concerns. They debate what a player does and how to combat it.
The coaches’ review of the plan is usually about 45 minutes, and in this case, ran pretty smoothly. All three coaches weigh in on how they viewed the games and the areas of advantage for their team. Defensive coordinator and associate head coach Tyler Gatlin and coach Toppert work through who will guard who and lock in a plan to deliver to the team.
The NAZ players arrive just after the coaches finish their review at 10:00 A.M. and get breakfast while the coaches introduce the players to their opposition.
There is a tremendous amount of efficiency to the process. The NAZ coaches are mindful of trying to overload their players with too much information and usually stick to the things the players need to know about their opposition, with a specific focus on how to gain an advantage to what the opposition does.
After breakfast, the team piles onto a small 20-passenger minibus for morning shootaround at the arena at 10:30 A.M.
The NAZ coaches try and keep shootaround positive and light, pumping music into the routine. Cheering and encouraging their players and really pushing the effort.
Shootaround for the NAZ has a couple of parts—stretching and getting loose, getting up game shots and reviewing the defenses.
The NAZ coaches identified that their “diamond” defensive scheme would be very effective against the Magic’s base offense, so a lot of time was spent on making sure the NAZ players knew where to be and when to get there.
Shootaround lasted a little more than an hour, with the team adjourning for lunch and some downtime.
As circumstance would have it on this particular day, the Phoenix Suns were playing an afternoon game in Boston, so the coaches and Lehman, who is as much a part of the staff as anyone, gathered in the hotel lobby to commandeer a TV to watch the game.
What ensued next was almost comical as getting the game on the TV proved to be harder than expected. Between slow internet, funky League Pass connections and getting the TV on the right input, watching the match proved to be challenging. Fortunately, Coach Gatlin, fresh from a haircut, was able to deliver the much-needed iPad adapter which got the technology working.
Unfortunately, though, the Suns’ struggles in Boston were hard to watch.
With lunch in hand and the game on TV, the staff starts to wind down a little.
Around 2:30 P.M., the group breaks up for a nap.
Gameday naps are huge in basketball, and from this experience, almost necessary to survive the day with any semblance of energy.
With the group headed in their own direction, Coach Friedman works on the pre-game highlight reel. The NAZ staff puts together a reel of good NAZ plays. Before the game, the reel is played for the team, with a NAZ player selecting the music that will play under it. Friedman takes his time on this part of the processes selecting the right mix of team-oriented plays, dunks, and threes.
The team rejoins at 4:30 P.M. to head to the arena for game day, piling back into the 20-passenger minibus. The coaches get properly caffeinated with a stop at a nearby Starbucks.
Upon arrival at the arena, the players immediately take the floor and begin warming up and shooting. What’s impressive about the warm-up period is the intensity in which the players work. The routine feels more like a training session or a practice than getting warm and lose before a game.
Magic assistant general manager Adetunji Adedipe offers to rebound for the NAZ to help keep the routine moving; the prevailing thought was it was a nice gesture from the opposing team, although some jokingly suspected he might be doing some player scouting, too.
The warm-up period runs for almost 90 minutes, before the players return to the locker room for pre-game. The coaches convene together before they address the team, reminding each other of the details they agreed upon with GM Lehman adding his two cents to the equation. The lack of ego among the staff is impressive, while there is clearly an organizational chain, none of that plays out in the room or in conversations. There aren’t any competing agendas; the four minds come together on how to deliver the plan to their players.
Because this is Friedman’s scout, he again delivers the plan to the players. Since the morning review, Friedman has added more clips to his film deck, including some players that he didn’t have game film for in the morning. The messages are pretty much the same. The plan has not changed.
Each coach weighs in on the plan and what the team needs to do, with the player locked into to the message.
The whole process was efficient and succinct.
Before the players take the floor, the highlight reel is queued up, and Derrick Jones, Jr is tapped to provide the song. The highlight reel is a hit. The players cheer for each other, hooting and hollering at each play and rim-rattling dunk.
It’s game time.
The NAZ coaches were concerned that their team would start slow—something they have struggled with in previous games. They identified that Magic guard Troy Caupain was going to be a handful and he was, right out of the gate. The NAZ coaches also had concerns about Magic big man Khem Birch, which also proved to be valid.
After the first quarter, the game was tied 35-35, the game plan played out as scripted. The areas where the NAZ should have had success, they did. The areas the coaches identified as being a problem were.
The second half was much of the same. The Magic kept abusing the NAZ inside, Caupain was getting looks wherever he wanted them. After a 27-28 second quarter, the Magic were up by one at the half.
The coaches met in their locker-room before addressing the team. It was clear there needed to be some changes. Forward Alex Peters was getting beat too frequently at the four spot, so it was decided to shift him to the five. The coaches were also hopeful that Wizards two-way player Mike Young could stay out of foul trouble in the second half as it plagued him early in the first.
The message to the players was surprisingly calm and clear.
“We got this.”
“Our offense is fine, no problems there.”
“Tighten up our defensive effort, and we’ll open up a double-digit lead.”
As the NAZ took the floor for the second half, everything the coaches believed would happen did. The defense tightens up, the pace of play picked up, and the NAZ notched a 43-point quarter blowing past the Magic’s 25 points.
As the fourth quarter begins, the NAZ come down to earth a little, but so does the Magic. The fourth quarter ends 23-17 with the final score being 128-105. It wasn’t always pretty, but the NAZ coaches will take it.
The coaches and Lehman convene in the coaches locker-room and talk up the things that went well. It was a good day’s work for the staff. Friedman nailed the right places to focus. Gatlin and Toppert’s defensive assignments and changes at the half proved to be critical. The “diamond” defensive scheme proved to be too much for the Magic players.
Lehman’s thoughts at the half were spot on and proved to be part of how the NAZ pulled away. As much as it’s easy to focus on the team on the floor, it was impressive how well the team on the sidelines put the whole thing together with such unity and clarity of vision.
The coaches then addressed the team. It was fairly quick, mostly focusing on the 7:00 A.M. departure time for the airport. The team enjoyed the news that they were getting a non-stop flight back to Phoenix, as most of the cities G-League teams play in require changing planes. The news of a non-stop flight seemed to be more meaningful than winning the game.
In all, this wasn’t a bad showing for a coaching staff that had been together for less than a month. There was connectivity that was uncanny and perhaps resulted from the selflessness each person in the equation had.
There was a singular sense of purpose from all of the staff—it was about getting the players ready to play.
The coaches applauded the players for executing, saying repeatedly they wanted to turn the team over to the players and while that sounds a little cliché, the truth of the matter is everything done in the day was about that end goal. Put the players in a position to be the best version of themselves and the players really responded well to that.
As the team cleared out of the locker room to head off to whatever mischief they could find in Lakeland or the surrounding area, the coaching staff conveyed for a meal together. The talk was a little bit about the game, but mostly it was friends enjoying each other’s company and a pretty good meal.
As you would expect, there were lots of stories—stories about sharing rooms and traveling together. The meal went on for about two hours and then it was time to get some sleep.
This was game 11 of the season. Things are starting to come together for the NAZ, but there are a lot more games in front of them, the staff has to constantly be aware that roster change could come at any moment.
The Suns have a roster choice to make as they will need to convert current two-way player Mike James to a full NBA contract in the coming days, which means creating a roster spot. The NAZ are also hosting a Wizards player that could be called back to Washington at any time, so while progress is important, there are things that are out of the staff’s control. That is a part of life in the G-League.
All of the coaches mentioned this concept in their own way, which is an interesting truth. Team success will bring individual success. All of the guys on the NAZ roster dream of being full-time NBA players. Having real success at this level is the doorway to that, which is an interesting contradiction for a coach.
Ultimately, coaches need stability and continuity to really win, however, if they really win, there is a better chance than not that they will see their best players promoted or signed away. The NAZ staff seemed to embrace that as a good thing, even though it may make their jobs more difficult.
Maybe that’s why the NAZ players seemed to have bought into the plan and process the coaches have put on the table. Maybe it’s why there was no talk about salary or other opportunities. The focus seemed to be where its supposed to be—on the game at hand and the team in the locker room, which was unexpected and pleasantly surprising.
The NAZ players worked really hard and got a win as a result. It was just one day in their life, but it was an interesting look into a world that doesn’t get nearly enough exposure. It’s going to be hard not to want to watch from afar to see how the season plays out; there was a special vibe from the NAZ—one that was completely unexpected in the G-League.
Report: G League to Expand to Mexico for 2020-21 Season
The NBA G League, the NBA’s official minor league, and Capitanes, a professional basketball team based in Mexico City, today announced that Capitanes will join the NBA G League as its first team from outside the U.S. and Canada.
Capitanes becomes the NBA G League’s 29th team and will make its debut for the 2020-21 season. The team will play its NBA G League home games at the Gimnasio Juan de la Barrera in Mexico City.
Miye Oni — A Rare Breed
Matt John has a chat with Utah Jazz rookie Miye Oni about being the only Ivy League player currently in the NBA, the importance of education and adjusting to a new city.
Ivy Leaguers are hard to come by in professional basketball.
Coming into this season, there have only been 45 players in NBA history whose alma mater come from Ivy League schools. The most notable names among them have been Bill Bradley (Princeton), Rudy LaRusso (Dartmouth), Chris Dudley (Yale) and, of course, the most recent one, Jeremy Lin (Harvard).
This makes a fair amount of sense. As impressive as it is to get into a university as prestigious as an Ivy League institution, their basketball programs don’t get much exposure in the NCAA. There are plenty of colleges out there who may not have the same prestige as Harvard or Yale, but still provide great educational opportunities as well as top-notch basketball programs like Duke and UCLA.
In and of itself, it’s actually pretty impressive to be both a top-notch scholar and a top-notch athlete in the college ranks. However, because universities like Cornell or Brown don’t boast well-repped basketball programs, we don’t see a lot of their alumni make it to the NBA. Even when they do, they don’t last too long.
When Jeremy Lin wasn’t re-signed by anyone this summer and headed overseas — which by the way is still ridiculous — the NBA seemingly didn’t have anyone in the league who hailed from an Ivy League education at first glance. Upon further inspection, there actually still is one NBA player who’s an Ivy League guy.
He can be a little hard to miss because it’s his rookie year, but Miye Oni, who was drafted 58th overall by the Utah Jazz back in June, played his college ball at Yale. As the only player currently in the NBA who played basketball in the Ivy League, Oni believes he can do more to influence the younger generation.
“It’s crazy. I was talking about it with my friends yesterday that I feel like should do a little more with that,” Oni told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a good platform to reach out to kids and let them know that education is important.”
Emphasizing the importance of education is obviously a great message to send to our children. For Oni, he believes that what he’s learned from his own story of becoming both a professional athlete and being a student at a top-notch university can send an empowering message about what it takes.
“Control as you can control it if you take care,” Oni told Basketball Insiders. “I wouldn’t have been where I’m at without my education. At times it seems like I wasn’t going to play college basketball, so I always had my education to fall back on. I knew that if I had that, I would be able to have an opportunity to play and that’s what happened.”
In his three years at Yale, Oni majored in Political Science. In this modern-day and age, athletes are speaking out more and more about social issues that go beyond the sport they play in. In Oni’s case, he stresses that athletes should speak their mind because of what their point of view could do for the public.
“It’s important to an extent,” Oni told Basketball Insiders. “Some people maybe try to overdo it a little bit, but… athletes have a large influence over a large amount of people, so it’s good to get a point of view from a different group.”
Again, most Ivy League basketball players don’t make it to the pros, and the ones that do usually don’t have long and prosperous careers. Oni could potentially be an exception to the rule. Even with the odds stacked against him, he was the first Ivy League player to be drafted into the NBA since 1995.
The reason why players who come from such well-respected schools don’t last for long in the pros is that the smarts a college athlete can have in the classroom usually don’t translate as well on the court. Salt Lake City Stars head coach Martin Schiller thinks the 22-year-old rookie on his roster is very much to the contrary.
“Often, smart school guys are not smart basketball players,” Schiller said. “In his case, I think it goes together so I sense a good smartness on the court from (Oni).”
Now, it’s led him to the Jazz. Much like a fair amount of rookies nowadays, Oni’s starting his career out with Utah’s G-League affiliate — in his case, the Stars — but Oni credits the team for helping him adjust to the next level of basketball.
“It definitely helps,” Oni told Basketball Insiders. “Training camp was good. We learned a lot. We’re just getting more reps offensively and defensively, so it’s been good.”
Now, Oni starts his career off in Utah. As competent as the Jazz are as an organization, adjusting to Salt Lake City can be a tough — one, from the weather alone. Oni grew up in the hot and humid atmosphere that is Los Angeles before moving to the cold tundra that is the northeast. And so, he gets to start his professional basketball career in both a cold climate and at a high altitude. Even though the environment has changed around him a fair amount over the years, that doesn’t phase Oni.
“The altitude here is for sure crazy but you’re fine after the first day,” Oni told Basketball Insiders. “It’s probably the biggest change playing-wise, but I don’t think it impacts me there.”
As for his potential as a pro long-term, what Schiller’s seen of his abilities has gotten him to believe that Oni’s all-around game could make him a keeper for the Jazz.
“Miye is a very capable defender,” Schiller said. “Miye is a very capable driver to the rim. He will also develop into a good shooter. The last thing is… he can actually pass the ball. He’s a pretty good passer. He’s got the quality of potentially being a real three-and-D guy on the next level.”
Given the Jazz’s development with some of their young guys who have also played with the Stars in the past — Royce O’Neale and Tony Bradley as a couple of examples — Schiller’s analysis may not be too far off the mark.
Kyle Collinsworth In Familiar Territory
Kyle Collinsworth has been making his mark for the Salt Lake City Stars, which shouldn’t feel too different to him since he’s dominated in Utah basketball before. Matt John writes.
For Kyle Collinsworth, playing basketball in Utah is nothing out of the ordinary.
The 28-year-old grew up in Provo and went on to become one of the most storied basketball players in the history of Brigham Young University. Since graduating from BYU in 2016, he’s bounced around a bit in the NBA. He’s had stints with the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and the Toronto Raptors. When the Utah Jazz added him this season to play for their G League Affiliate, the SLC Stars, Collinsworth was excited for home aspect alone.
“It’s always good to be home,” Collinsworth told Basketball Insiders. “My family’s here. My wife’s here. We’ve got a house here, so it’s just nice to be able to be home and do what I love at the same time. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Even though Collinsworth grew up and played college basketball in the mountainous region, he surprisingly didn’t grow up a Jazz fan. In fact, the team he grew up rooting for happened to be the only one that has given him legitimate NBA minutes in his professional basketball career — the Mavericks.
Going from a Mavericks fan to a Mavericks player was an experience Collinsworth truly treasured, especially since he got to play with his boyhood idol.
“It was incredible,” Collinsworth said. “Growing up, (we were) huge Mavericks fans. (With) Dirk being my favorite player, being teammates with him was surreal.”
In 2016, Collinsworth was brought in to play for the Mavericks’ G League affiliate, the Texas Legends, before being called up at various points to play for Dallas. In the 2017-2018 season, Collinsworth played 34 games in Dallas. Collinsworth didn’t mince words when praising the organization and how they’ve been able to get to where they are now.
“It’s just another testament of consistency. Those guys, day in and day out, bring the work, and that’s why they are champions,” Collinsworth said.
Following his stint with the Mavericks, Collinsworth is now back where it all began for him. However, it’s not just the Utah climate that he’s used to. He’s also pretty used to filling up the box score when he’s on the court.
Back when he played for the Cougars, he was renowned for his all-around game. In his four years in college, Collinsworth’s total points scored (1,707) placed him 11th all-time among BYU men’s basketball players, while his total rebounds (1,047) and total assists (703) placed him first. In fact, his 12 triple-doubles are the most any player in NCAA history has recorded over his collegiate career.
His game has continued to shine through in the G League this season. In the three games he’s played for the Stars, Collinsworth’s all-around game has shined for the team, as he’s averaged 12.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Stars head coach Martin Schiller praised Collinsworth for what he brings to the floor.
“His all-around game, offensively and defensively, as well as leadership-wise, his game impacts the team a lot,” Schiller told Basketball Insiders.
With Collinsworth being the oldest player on the roster at 28 years old, his experience has made him quite the influence in the locker room, which has served very well for his younger teammates.
“It stabilizes us,” Schiller said. “The guys listen to him. The guys believe in him. He played legit NBA minutes, so the guys respect him and therefore it’s very important to have him.”
When the Stars faced the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on Friday night, they found themselves down by double digits in the second quarter. The Stars rallied back and were able to come up victorious for their first win of the season. SLC was never deterred even when the odds were stacked against them, which is exactly what Collinsworth has emphasized in the example he sets for his team.
“Just (be) Steady Eddie,” Collinsworth said. “Always bring the energy and just stay steady (because) there’s a lot of games…You have to keep your head up and stay positive, through the good games and the bad.”
Previous BYU alumni have opted to go different routes in their professional basketball careers. After failing to find a place in the NBA, Jimmer Fredette has gone on to become an icon for various leagues overseas. His former college teammate Brandon Davies has also played in various foreign professional basketball leagues.
Others have gone back and forth between the NBA and overseas. Eric Mika has played in several foreign leagues before signing with the Stockton Kings this season. For Collinsworth, his path has steadfastly remained the same in order for him to achieve his one goal — to play in the NBA.
“Back in the NBA is the goal for sure,” Collinsworth said. “That’s why I’m back in the G League. I’m trying to make that happen.”
Everyone has to pay their dues to make their dreams come true. For Kyle Collinsworth, that means showing Utah what he’s got in the G League.
It may not be ideal — but for him, at least it’s familiar terrain.