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.
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