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NBA AM: Anthony Bennett Didn’t Pick Himself

Anthony Bennett is one of the modern era’s busts, but he’s not giving up on his dream.

Steve Kyler

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He Didn’t Pick Himself Number One Overall

The sports world can be cruel and unforgiving. Even more so in a world of lists and rankings that are subjective and heartless.

You’d be hard pressed to find any list of NBA draft failures that didn’t include Anthony Bennett near the top, as he is generally considered one of the biggest draft busts of the modern era, but is that really his fault?

Rewind back to the 2013 NBA Draft, the top names at the time included Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, Georgetown’s Otto Porter, Jr., Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Kansas’ Ben McLemore.

All were considered the top names regardless of whose mock draft, scouting guide or TV report you listened to. UNLV’s Anthony Bennett was mentioned in the top 10, but few thought that Bennett was the top pick, right up until then NBA commission David Stern announced him.

It was an unexpected blessing, that in hindsight has become an unbelievable curse for a player that genuinely has NBA ability and just now shaking the emotional weight of failing at such a high level.

Bennett had success last year, winning a Euroleague championship with Fenerbahçe Doğuş in Turkey, and is currently in the NBA’s G-League with the Northern Arizona Suns. Not only is he trying to play his way back into the NBA, he’s trying to leave the past behind him.

“I guess at the time it was just I didn’t have someone on the team to talk to,” Bennett told Basketball Insiders. “Didn’t happen in Cleveland. In Minnesota, I kind of had Wiggins and all the young guys, but I didn’t want to open up to them.”

Bennett admits that he didn’t know how to deal with all of the things going on in his career and struggled to open up, choosing to internalize his struggles, which only made things worse.

Imagine for a moment unexpectedly being the top overall pick and failing. Bennett got injured early in the draft process and underwent surgery. He gained a ton of weight while rehabbing and was never able to get himself right from a physical standpoint. Then, he was traded and then traded again. Suddenly, he found himself spiraling downward as things slipped from his grasp.

“It wasn’t until I got to the Raptors, when I was with Luis Scola, that’s kind of when everything just changed,” Bennett recalls. “I saw how he worked and you know he was on my side because he saw how I played in FIBA. He was like ‘This is not how you play, you know just play it free, play it loose. I know how you do, just go out there and play’. That’s when I kind of followed him and he walked me through what his day was like, his routine. And then again in Brooklyn, he was there as well. That was where things started flowing for me, but things didn’t go right in Brooklyn then I went out to Turkey. At the same time, I wasn’t going to let that routine stop.”

Bennett spent his summer at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, training twice a day with NBA players like New York’s Kyle O’Quinn and Philadelphia’s Amir Johnson. He was looking for a chance in the NBA.

“I was trying to go to the Suns,” Bennett explained. “There was just a whole bunch of injuries at the wrong time. I felt nice with hard work during the summer. I felt like I was ready to go but just at the time everything just kind of hit me. It was my back, my ankle, just a lot of things I couldn’t really push through.”

The Suns suggested Bennett consider the G-League as a means to stay in their program.

“I definitely got the opportunity to come down here, still show what I got, still stay close to home. I have a 5-month old son and you know I don’t want to go too far especially with him being here.”

After Bennett’s success in Turkey he had a number of high dollar international offers.

“It was different out there. Everything switched, it just completely switched. Going to a whole different country on the other side of the world pretty much,” Bennett said of his experience in Turkey.

“I didn’t know any Turkish at all. So, I was like an alien out there. But you know I am thankful to the guys that helped me out, brought me in, welcomed me with open arms when I was over there. They showed me the ropes, pretty much made sure I learned the plays. It was definitely tough, especially playing for a coach like Obradović. He just wants perfection every time and it kind of changed the way I look at things now, I guess. But it was definitely a great experience.”

Spending any amount of time around Bennett, it becomes clear that he’s finally found some peace with everything behind him. He just plays and plays loose, something he wasn’t able to do in previous stops in the NBA.

“I got nothing to prove,” Bennett said with a smile. “I’m out here with all these guys just trying to win games. At the end of the day, just trying to get everybody involved. I know my role and I am just trying to fulfill that to the best of my abilities.”

Some of that sounds cliché, but there is some truth to how Bennett approaches the game now.

“I wouldn’t say it’s more drive, it’s just every time I work out I know what I can do,” Bennett explained. “I know what I need to work on, and I need to know what I can improve on. I take workouts very seriously. I try to be the best. Do a lot of things like push myself like during workouts, even if I’m tired during workouts. That’s one of the things I try to do the most.

“Working out in Vegas, at Impact throughout the whole summer, with all those guys coming in, playing in runs. It was just like an opportunity for me to go because I never really got that up and down feel for a long time. Just play free and that’s what it was in the summer and that’s what kind of got everything going.”

Bennett is far and away the most notable name on his team’s roster. It would be easy for them to treat him differently, as his story isn’t like many of theirs, but the connection they all seem to share is genuine and that’s been helpful for Bennett too.

“Everybody’s pretty cool. We laugh and joke but at the same time when things get down to it we’re pretty serious in what we need to do,” Bennett said. “Everybody just treats everybody like family. I could talk to anybody about anything that’s going on. Everybody is all ears and that is one thing that I’ll say is different. It’s not just everybody trying to get theirs. Like at the NBA level, if you talked to someone in the same position, they may use that against you and tell coach or whatever. But here everybody is just on the same playing field.”

It is easy to write Bennett off as a draft bust, but when you look at the 2013 NBA Draft class today, Bennett was hardly the only player that never lived up to the draft status.

Equally, Bennett didn’t select himself number one overall. He just has to find a way to live with that burden. The 24-year old from Ontario, Canada seems like he is figuring out how to do that for the first time in his career, its likely why he’s playing some of the best basketball since his UNLV days.

Bennett may never be the franchise NBA player some expected when he was the first name called in 2013, but it’s pretty clear that the still young Canadian isn’t giving up, even though so many people have tried to write him off.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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G-League

NBA DAILY: Tyrone Wallace Is Breaking Out in His Own Backyard

On his second G-Leauge team in two years, Tyrone Wallace is putting up numbers close to home, working towards his NBA shot.

Dennis Chambers

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Located in the heart of Southern California, Bakersfield sits just on the cusp of Los Angeles’ shadow.

In terms of size, it’s not easy to overlook this Californian destination. Bakersfield is the ninth most populated city in the state. But it doesn’t hold the glamour that its contemporary two hours south down Interstate-5 possesses. Instead, Bakersfield rests its laurels on the farming past that made it the city it has become today, with three of the four top employers in the city either being farm or produce companies.

Working for a produce company doesn’t interest Tyrone Wallace, though. He’d much rather spend his time on the hardwood. Wallace grew up in Bakersfield. He’s Bakersfield High School’s all-time leading scorer and two-time Bakersfield Californian Player of the Year.

Wallace has sown his oats with a leather ball as opposed to some vegetables.

Growing up in Bakersfield is crucial to Wallace’s story, however. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, Wallace grew up a hardcore Lakers fan, caught up in the generation of kids who idolized Kobe Bryant. It’s Kobe, and Wallace’s brother, Ryan Caroline, who led him to where he is now.

Where that is, exactly, is playing professional basketball in the NBA G-League for the Agua Caliente Clippers. About another 45 minutes down Interstate-5 from his hometown.

For Wallace, getting an opportunity to work towards his dream of playing basketball at the highest level so close to home is a blessing.

“It’s been really fun for me,” Wallace told Basketball Insiders. “You know (Bakersfield) is a smaller city, not too many guys make it out, especially for basketball. It’s more of a football city, but the support there is awesome. Everybody’s behind me you know. Good games, bad games, guys are treating me, and you know the whole city is, I feel the whole support from the city. So to be so close to home is definitely a treat. I have friends and family that will come out to our games quite often. During preseason I had friends and family come out and watch. It’s been a blessing.”

Playing in front of familiar faces isn’t new territory for Wallace. After making his mark in Bakersfield, the 6-foot-4 guard went on to play his college ball at the University of California. Amid his four years at Cal, Wallace finished first-team All-Pac 12 his junior year, along with being named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

Sharing the court with the likes of other NBA players like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb in college, Wallace joined the professional fraternity himself at the eleventh hour on draft night in 2016 when the Utah Jazz selected him 60th overall.

Pick one, or pick 60. It didn’t matter to Wallace that night in June. He was just happy to get the first chance he worked his whole life for.

“It was emotional, man,” Wallace said. “You watch everybody and see them go, I had Jaylen (Brown) earlier in the first round who I was really excited for. Just sitting there, pick after pick you’re waiting there hoping you get called. But it was a dream come true, better late than never. Very few people get the opportunity to say that they were drafted so it was emotional. But after I was finally selected, I was happy, there was tears of joy. There was a lot of family with me watching throughout and we were just sitting there hoping to be called, and it happened, so it was a dream come true.”

After being selected by the Jazz, Wallace experienced his first summer league action. His performance at the time was marginal, and didn’t warrant an invite to the big league club. Instead, Wallace found himself down in the minors for Utah, with their G-League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars.

During Wallace’s first taste of professional basketball, he displayed some flashes of why, as he put it, he was one of 60 guys drafted in 2016. His first season in the G-League was promising when he posted per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 steals on 27 minutes of action a night.

Alas, that wasn’t good enough for the Jazz organization. On July 18, 2017, just over a year after being selected with the last overall pick on draft night, Utah renounced Wallace’s draft rights, leaving him free to sign with any team.

For some, being let go after what could be considered a productive developmental year may have been a derailing let down. Not Wallace, though.

“I think in every situation you always reflect,” Wallace said. “And look back and say what could I have done better, on the court or off the court. So I think you know you always do that, but I’ve always stayed confident in myself, and I believe in myself. I kinda let that as a new opportunity that I was gonna have to go somewhere else and prove that I can play, and that I can belong. So I wanted to continue. I look at everything as a chance to learn and grow so I was just excited for the new opportunity that would be coming for me.”

New opportunities did come for Wallace. More than a few actually. But it was the opportunity that allowed the California native a chance to return to the place that led him to professional basketball initially, that has really allowed the second-year guard to flourish.

On Sept. 27, Wallace inked a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. They weren’t his childhood favorite Lakers, but they were the same distance down Interstate-5 from his hometown. Most of all, they represented a chance to keep chasing his dream.

After playing in the preseason, Wallace was one of the last players cut from the NBA roster, and he again found himself in the G-League. This time with Agua Caliente.

Wallace’s second go-around in the G-League so far this season feels different than his last, though. Almost as if the comfort of playing in his own backyard, something he’s been accustomed to for the majority of his basketball life, is easing him out on the court. Whatever it is, it’s reflecting itself in his performance. This year, Wallace upped his averages from last season to 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and five assists per game.

“I worked really hard this summer,” Wallace said. “Just going to the gym, hitting the weight room. I don’t think I necessarily changed anything. I just think being a year in, another year of experience playing in the G-League, I think that helped within itself. Then I think the system here that we run in LA helped a lot, fits my game,  more uptempo. Trying to get out on the break, a lot of pick and rolls. So I think everything just took off at once. I definitely feel like I got better in the offseason, but also just playing in this system where it helps my game.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Wallace since he left college. With the way things have shaped out, especially during this season where he seems to do no wrong on the court, it’s imperative he stays focused on his own goals. Instead of looking at others across the league who may be getting a shot he feels he deserves, Wallace wants to just “stay in my own lane.” Patience and hard work are what Wallace believe will ultimately deliver the goals he’s after.

“I know it’s coming,” he said.

When that opportunity does come, whether it’s near home in Los Angeles, or somewhere else across the country, Wallace will be happy to just be wanted. Just like the way Bakersfield has always treated him.

“Man, I’ll tell you any team for me it would be great,” Wallace said. “I haven’t really had a real NBA deal, and so for me just getting to that level on a team would definitely be a dream come true. I don’t have a specific team I would like to play for. Whoever wants me, I’ll want them.”

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NBA AM: Three Stories From The G-League

Steve Kyler speaks with three players attempting to make the jump from G-League to big league.

Steve Kyler

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Three Stories From The G-League

Over the last couple of days, we have focused the AM feature on the G-League’s Northern Arizona Suns (the NAZ), as you can imagine, when you spend a full day around so many people, many stories of interest emerge. Rather than lump them all into a massive 7,000-word piece, we decided to break them up a little.

On Tuesday, we walked through a day in the life of a G-League coaching staff, yesterday we dove into Anthony Bennett’s quest to get back into the NBA and today we’ll look at three players trying to make their way, in very different situations.

The Veteran

NAZ guard Xavier Silas has been around the proverbial block. He’s had stints in the G-League league, he’s played internationally, had stints in the NBA on 10-day contracts and even in Ice Cube’s Big3 league.

For Silas, the dream of being an NBA player is real, mainly because he’s been so close so many times.

“I have been so close so many times that I feel like just can’t give it up,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I mean last year for the Phoenix call up, I was one of two names they had on the board, and they went with the other guy, you know what I mean.

“Then that happened a little earlier in the season and that happened before, the year before when I was in Bakersfield, so I feel like the odds have to fall in my favor one of these times. I feel like it won’t happen if I give up on it go somewhere else where I can’t get out of a contract or something like that. Playing in the Big3 helped give me some freedom to stay here and do this.”

Silas was one of the inaugural players in the Big3, and earned the kind of payday that made sticking around in the G-league viable.

“My wife is always about going after it and staying with it and not giving up on it,” Silas said of his dream. “I think that if maybe there was some pressure coming from that way, it would be [harder to turn away bigger money]. But right now, I’m not even thinking about it.”

Silas has played in a number of different leagues, but continues to explore the G-League, in part because of how the teams play.

“With me just I like the style of it,” Silas said. “I like the style, the NBA style of it. European basketball is completely different, and you have to be in the right system for it to fit and it’s just a lot of different factors that go into it. Here, it’s like how we grew up playing basketball, you know what I mean. It’s a natural way of playing for us and that’s what I enjoy.”

Silas is having a pretty solid season for the NAZ, his hope is that it translates into a real NBA opportunity this time around.

The Brother

At first glance its hard to not notice the last name Hollis-Jefferson on a G-League roster. However, the Hollis-Jefferson playing for the NAZ isn’t Rondae, the 22-year old phenom with the Brooklyn Nets, but his older brother, Rahlir. The 26-year-old brother of the Nets emerging star is trying to make his own way as a professional.

“I enjoy watching him play at a higher level,” Hollis-Jefferson said of his brother in the NBA. “I just continue to watch and work. I try to work hard so I can get there with him.

“We trained together over the summer. We don’t really talk about it much during season. We just focus on what we need to do. I’m proud of everything he does, all of his achievements. This year he’s playing really great and I’m definitely proud of him for being focused and going out there and doing what he needs to do.”

Much like his younger brother, the elder Hollis-Jefferson has a unique skillset that has put him on the NBA radar, in part because of the success his brother is having in Brooklyn.

“It’s very possible that people may be coming to that analysis,” Hollis-Jefferson said with a smile.

“We’re kind of similar in terms of play. We both are slashers, I just think I’m a better shooter… watching him play, I’ve got to learn a bit.”

At 26, the elder Hollis-Jefferson has a tougher hill to climb, but the season he’s having with the NAZ, combined with his brother’s emerging success in Brooklyn make Hollis-Jefferson believe in his ability to get a chance in the NBA—something that seem unlikely when he was coming out of Temple.

The Guy On Loan

Not every NBA team has their own G-League affiliate, so from time-to-time, franchises without their own team assign their player to other team’s minor league team. In the case of Mike Young, he is a two-way player for the Washington Wizards who has seen time in Delaware and most recently with the NAZ Suns.

On the surface, you would think being associated with another NBA franchise would be awkward, but the NAZ coaches embraced Young’s skillset and he’s a big reason for some of their success.

“The most strange part is the move,” Young explained. “We had a game Friday with Delaware, we get back to Delaware Saturday, Sunday morning I wake up, they’re like ‘Hey, you’re leaving to Phoenix tomorrow,’ so I think that’s the strangest part.

“Coming to this team, you know, it’s like going to any new situation, I got to learn these guys, they got to learn me, off the court, then on the court we got to figure out each other’s games. It took me three or four games, but we’ve been rolling the last couple of games, and everything’s been good. I’ve been playing better. Everybody’s been playing better, so it’s been good.”

Young tried his best to keep up with the Wizards from afar, knowing that he could be headed back at any point.

“Pretty much everybody calls and checks in, from the Assistant GM, to the player development, to the players on the team,” Young said. “I was with them all preseason, summer league and training camp, so, I’ve built a relationship with pretty much everybody, so everybody texts me. Whenever I play well, I get texts. Whenever I don’t play well I still get texts, you know it’s part of the game.”

Young does his best to focus his attention to his NAZ team and the situation in front of him, something the NAZ coaches appreciate, because it would be easy for a player on loan to not buy into to the plan.

Over the years, the NBA’s commitment to its minor league system has grown from what was an afterthought to most NBA teams five years ago to a mechanism teams are investing considerable time and resources into.

As a result, more and more players are looking at the G-League as a real opportunity to make their way into the NBA, that is something that is evident in talking with G-League players. They understand it’s up to them and that the G-League is simply the stage for them to make their mark.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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G-League

NBA AM: A Day In The NBA’s G-League

Life in the NBA’s G-League isn’t as glamorous as the big leagues, but the focus and attention teams have on the task at hand is still impressive, Steve Kyler spent a day with the Northern Arizona Suns with an All-Access look at a day in the minor NBA leagues.

Steve Kyler

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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.

On a personal note, I wanted to thank NAZ GM Louis Lehman and head coach Cody Toppert for allowing me to tag along and sit in on all of their meetings. There were no restrictions placed on where I could go and what I could listen in on, so I saw the whole day and process unfiltered. Coach Friedman and Coach Gatlin took time to educate and enlighten me, even though they had a hundred tasks to complete. Thanks to the entire team and organization. Go NAZ! Look for more interviews with some of the NAZ players and staff tomorrow and Thursday.

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