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.
The Six Things We’re Watching
Spencer Davies takes a look at a handful of storylines surrounding the NBA as the league’s suspension continues.
The NBA is at a standstill. Even as we approach the midpoint of April — over a month since the league ceased its in-game operations — the needle has yet to move due to the coronavirus pandemic, as the whole sports world continues to attempt to figure out its next course of action.
While we wait, let’s go over Six Things We’re Watching here at Basketball Insiders.
With one announcement on Thursday morning, Jalen Green made history. In an unprecedented move, the widely-considered top high school basketball prospect from Fresno will be joining the G League on its Select Team in Southern California. This is huge for the landscape of elite talent and a pathway to the NBA, especially considering the “traditional” nature of going through the NCAA ranks or traveling overseas to play professionally.
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim is at the forefront of the concept, which will include a lucrative salary and a college scholarship to receive an education if the participating prospect chooses to. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reports that Green will make over $500,000 in the program.
As far as the Select Team is concerned, it will not operate as a regular team in the league would. There will be a handful of open roster spots for the high school talents — Isaiah Todd is another player who has gone this route, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania — while the rest of the team will be comprised of veterans. Givony says the Select Team’s competition will range from regular G League squads, foreign national teams and worldwide NBA academies. Though most of these contests will be played in an exhibition, the main goal will be to mature on and off the floor. As reported by Givony, former NBA head coach Sam Mitchell is expected to be a top candidate to lead the Select Team. Uncommitted prospects such as Makur Makur, Karim Mane and Kai Sotto may follow Green’s lead, as well.
For a number of years, young athletes have been taking alternate paths to exclude the NCAA. Most recently, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton decided to head over to Australia to prepare for the NBA ranks. Even a couple of years ago, Darius Bazley decommitted from Syracuse University with intentions to go straight to the G League — although, that turned into a million-dollar internship plus training. Green’s decision today, however, has the potential to set a brand new standard for NBA hopefuls coming out of high school. It will be fascinating to see how this G League Select Team program for elite prospects turns out.
Winds of Change
Out with the old, in with the new. This past week, the Chicago Bulls announced the hiring of Arturas Karnisovas from the Denver Nuggets as their executive vice president of basketball operations. The front office shake-up is the organization’s first major change in nearly two decades, and it’s about time. There is light at the end of the tunnel with this team as constructed; a borderline All-Star in Zach LaVine, an exciting young point guard in Coby White, a physical presence in Wendell Carter is a good starting place. It’s who’s molding those players and the leadership that could use a facelift.
Karnisovas has already gotten rid of former longtime executive Gar Forman, while John Paxson will transition into an advisory role. Those two are extremely close to the Reinsdorf family, which made it a difficult sell, but ultimately the franchise is moving on. Could a coaching change be the next on the list? Whether people deem it fair or unfair, Jim Boylen hasn’t exactly gotten rave reviews from his players in public. There seems to be a tension with LaVine, the team’s franchise player, which doesn’t make staying any more favorable.
We know that Karnisovas’ philosophy is high-pace with multi-positional players, identical to what he helped build with the Nuggets. He mentioned during his introduction that shooting and rebounding were glaring issues, so those will likely be areas addressed in the offseason. Will his desired style line up with Boylen’s? We’ll find out sooner than later because Karnisovas doesn’t want to waste time in kick-starting Chicago’s fresh direction.
As usual, our founder and lead publisher Steve Kyler is bringing forth top-notch work through his one-on-one podcasting sessions. His latest talk is with Jordan Fair of Progression Daily, a former basketball player-turned trainer for high-level collegiate and pro talent, as well as a high school head coach at Oldsmar Christian School.
Other guests on the podcast recently include Delaware Blue Coats assistant coach and former NBA guard Xavier Silas, veteran Detroit Pistons big man John Henson and one of the game’s highly-regarded trainers, Tyler Relph. You can find these interviews on our Insiders Podcast page.
What Could’ve Been (?)
A friend of mine texted me the other day about what could be lost if this season is indeed canceled.
The Milwaukee Bucks were rolling with Giannis Antetokounmpo and had a high chance to go all the way and win the NBA Finals. Could this be a situation like the 1994 Montreal Expos, where their best chance at a title was strictly halted by a league stoppage? Let’s not forget that this would result in one less year of Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, and unfortunately for the franchise, his free agency comes up in 2021.
What about the Los Angeles Lakers, who seemed destined to bring a title back to the city behind LeBron James’ leadership in the most emotional year the team and league have ever seen? And the other squad in town, the Clippers — could all of those assets and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sent to Oklahoma City potentially be worth one season of Paul George? That’s quite an all-in scenario, no?
As for the others — In a season most teams consider a failure or a success, is there more of a neutral outlook now? Maybe coaches who were on the hot seat before all of this get a little more time to sort things out. It will be interesting to see how those evaluations are made.
Player General Management
Before the Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas as their next top front office guy, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie decided to roleplay and have some fun on Twitter as player-general manager. Not too different from Jackie Moon — do you have the marketing skills in you, Spence? Anyways, it was a cool little project he put together and the results were quite intriguing regardless of actual possibilities and logistics. This doesn’t appear to be a tampering situation, and hopefully the NBA wouldn’t treat it as such.
Check out the results of Dinwiddie’s pretend GM activity for the Bulls on SB Nation.
The Cream of the Crop
If you’re looking to stir up a good, ol’ fashioned debate up with your friends, start with us! Over the past week-and-a-half, Basketball Insiders went ahead and ranked the top players by their respective positions, point guard through center, in our own unique ways. Check out what our writers came up with and let us know how you feel about these!
- Ranking The PGs: Matt John
- Ranking The SGs: Ben Nadeau
- Ranking The SFs: Spencer Davies
- Ranking The PFs: Drew Maresca
- Ranking The Cs: David Yapkowitz
Hopefully, you enjoy those articles and the content we’re putting out in these trying times we’re facing as one big basketball family. We will keep you updated as the information presents itself in real-time. In the meanwhile, please stay safe and stay smart!
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.
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