Today I wanted to share my thought process when developing an NBA rookie. Every team and/or Director of Player Development has a different philosophy on developing their young talent, but I wanted to give the readers of my Blog an inside glimpse of what it looks like. The typical year of an NBA rookie is a long one filled with lots of ups and downs.
Most rookies need to be “Managed”, what I mean by that is they can’t just be thrown on the court just needing minutes to turn into an NBA Superstar. Most of the players that come into your program need direction on how to develop certain habits and routines that will help curate their talent and maximize their potential. Most of the players drafted or not will be lifelong role players that can impact the game in at least one (hopefully more) way to help their teams be successful. It is up to the staff to start the process ASAP to get their players on the right track, so lets start it shall we??
The goal for the Development Staff is to try and turn all of our young players into serviceable assets that the club can sign long term to a second contract or trade for future value. The first stage of the plan is regardless of talent/skill level is to teach them the value of being invested into being a professional. Not every player that the front office brings to you will be an NBA player regardless if they are drafted 1st, 60th, or not drafted at all.
The best attribute that you can instill in a player is to teach them the habits and routines of a winning player. Many think it is all about getting the players on the court and working them out and the rest will work itself out in time and they couldn’t be more incorrect. On court skill is a very important part of a player’s development, but instilling daily habits to curate their talent is much more important. Most likely a player will play for multiple teams or leagues in their career and being a professional that is invested in their craft on a daily basis will help keep them keep employed.
Most NBA players hit their peak in their 5th year of their career so getting them to that point is what needs to be figured out. So many players flame out for one reason or another far before that point. It could be lack of talent, attitude, injury, or wrong situation . Some things on that list will be out of our control as coaches, but we need to do everything in our power to give them the best possible chance to succeed with the club.
The goal is to take their NBA Skill that can get them in a game and combine it with the attributes of a winning player that is invested in their craft. The more that can learned from past mistakes & formulate plans with staff ahead of time the better chance of success you can have.
Throughout the draft process it is important to communicate with your front office from their perspective about the players and what they think their strengths and weaknesses are. The weaknesses are the most important thing to zone in on ahead of time so you can start thinking of how you are going to deal with them. Most players that will be mentioned in Draft meetings will never be in your organization, but it is always good to get early intel on them.
Scouts are invaluable to the development of players because they are the ones that gather all of the useful intel about them. It’s not their opinion on how good/bad a player is, but the intel that they get from sources as far as character, work ethic, etc is what is gold to us. Scouts spend thousands of hours a year traveling to games, attending practices, and acquiring information on the prospects and should be utilized to the fullest. All of this information from meetings are put into a database for future use.
During Pre Draft meetings it is always important to communicate to your coaching staff on hypotheticals of how these players will be used if acquired by us. You always want to plan ahead and get as much data as possible as far as role definition to start your preparation well ahead of time. These are great exercises in development roles because you want to prepare for as many different situations and scenarios as possible.
Before the draft depending on your club’s pick there are pre draft workouts that are hosted in your facility. The workouts are anywhere from individual workouts to as big as groups of 6. They are usually 1-2.5 hours in length centered around positional skill sets to competitive situations. It’s a good indicator as far as a player’s attitude taking instruction/coaching as well as their techniques and skill sets. I tried to interact with the players as much as possible to get indication on character and study their shooting mechanics and other skills for later use. Pre Draft Workouts are nice small indicators of a player’s potential, but shouldn’t be weighed all that much as you can can be fooled very easily on a workout wonder.
Draft Night comes and goes and 60 picks are called. After the draft teams scour to get the best undrafted players onto their Summer League Rosters for further evaluation. After you know who the players are that will be part of your team at least for the short term. On to the next Phase…. Summer League.
After the draft the players that were drafted fly to their club within usually 24-48 hours for Press Conference and to meet the team’s front office/coaching staff. About a week later Training Camp opens up for Summer League. Summer League is the biggest Showcase for the League’s Young Talent that takes place in multiple cities throughout the month of July, the flagship being in Las Vegas where almost every team in the league will be playing.
Training camp usually lasts about four days to prepare for summer league. The coaching staff tries to cover the basic techniques and spacing for NBA screen roll and open offense as well as NBA Defense 101. As far as player development goes, you want to give the players space here. They only have a few days before playing in their first official NBA event and you don’t want to throw too much at them. You want them to absorb the instruction that that the coaches are giving them and let it sit in for the week. The most that you want to do is start a little bit of the bonding process and get to know them a little bit. There might be 1-2 little things to show them on the floor individually, but that will come in time.
Before the club’s summer league team gets on the plane, we meet with the rookies usually a day or so before the flight. In this group meeting we would reiterate team expectations on how to conduct themselves on the business trip. We talk about what the club daily schedule is going to look like as well as what the development staff’s schedule for them is going to be.
Once the club flies to Las Vegas we would meet with each rookie individually at the hotel talking to them about their role and what to expect from Summer League. Most players try to make a splash and showcase to everyone that they can drop 40 a night in summer league regardless of where they were drafted. Problem with that philosophy is most need 30 shots to do it. We stressed efficiency, playing their role, and showing off their NBA skill that can impact a game.
Everyone plays about 5-6 games during Summer League. The first few games are pretty entertaining and then it becomes like Ground Hog Day. Usually teams play every other day or so and are relegated to either 1 practice or a shoot around a day. Again, not much individual skill development is done as there just isn’t time as gym time/space is scarce so you just try to bond with the players throughout the 10 days and analyze their games. I tried to talk to players coming out of the huddle and give them a few words of instruction. We would meet with our drafted rookies the morning after every game to talk about the game and check in on how they are doing. The constant communication and Feedback was Instrumental in developing trust and rapport with the players. Don Kalkstein Dallas’s Director of Psychology got me into the routine of player meetings and they were instrumental in the development of our players.
Summer League is great to get to know your players and see them in live competition. The players that play in Summer League are mostly Non NBA Players, besides drafted 1st/2nd year guys rosters are filled with mostly D -League and International Level Players Europe/China/Etc. Each Club would send their rookies and usually 2nd year players to get repetitions in live game situations. There isn’t a lot of defense that is played and it’s not a true NBA game so it is easy to get sucked into thinking players are a little bit better than they really are. I would try to communicate that to our players as effort and efficiency were judged much more in my eyes than what they would put up in a stat sheet. For most of the rookies that play this would be the closest thing to an NBA court with real minutes that they will see in a while. It is good for them to get confidence and learn the NBA game in surroundings like this. For the second year players that played on good teams and couldn’t get many minutes during the season, this is great to see their growth over the last 12 months. You can always notice the difference in true confidence and comfort of a second year player compared to a rookie. Every experience is an opportunity to evaluate and improve. Summer League is a big fixture of NBA Player Development and Evaluation. From here players would get a few weeks to rest and recharge. Off To the next event…… GRG Camp…
In the middle of August Coach Tim Grgurich puts together one of the unique basketball development camps that I’ve ever seen. The camp is a NBA 101 Training Camp open to any NBA Player or invited Professional that wants to attend. Most teams will send their young players along with multiple staff members to attend the camp in Las Vegas,NV.
The Format of the camp is an old school two a day sessions(3Hrs Each) with drill stations/skill sessions in the morning and a night session containing some drill work with games to finish the night off. What makes this camp special is the staff. Nothing but NBA Assistants,Development Coaches, and D League staff. The staff brings an unbelievable amount of energy to the stations and games, which reflects back to the players. There is usually a clinic on specific Offensive/Defensive Topic that is covered to start the morning and then it is nothing but 8 stations of pure teaching covering every relevant topic in the NBA game to educate the players before reporting back to their teams in September. Things like spacing, screen rolls, pick and roll defense, moving without the ball, transition offense/defense, finishing, and much more are covered. For the players it is a crash course on winning NBA Basketball in a bootcamp environment.
The camp really gives the young players an education of what to expect from their teams during Training Camp and the season. It also allows them to compete against other young players to evaluate themselves against the NBA’s top 1st/2nd year players. The stations are grueling and intense with the coaches constantly correcting players. For coaches it is a great way to bond with their players in camp as well as watching them compete in a very intense environment. I took the time to get the young players used to what we expected in Dallas about being early to everything. We always wanted our players to be the first ones in the gym always leaving before the camp shuttle services to set the tone for the week. It was great to spend time with our guys in the vans talking and getting to know them.
In development it is so important to spend time and develop a relationship with your players. It’s not good enough to just work them out and see them in practice. Taking time to get to know them and making an effort to engage is so important in this process of development. It could be in cars, taking them out to eat, talking before/after workouts, texting, or a number of other things to get players to buy into you. During this specific camp setting things are coming at the players fast and furious especially the rookies. When we got to the gym in the morning we would get shots up to get going, the only skill specific things I would do with them were usually cleaning up their footwork or spending time on their floater. Throughout camp I might talk to them here and there about shot selection, energy, the importance of body language , etc. I want them to know that I am paying attention and caring about them, but not overbearing as it is still the summer.
The games are very good and officiated by high level referees that have some type of professional experience. The Camp has High ranking NBA officials that oversee the referees. This is an excellent opportunity for players to ask questions about rules in the NBA as they differ from college. It’s also a great chance for them to introduce themselves to referees that will be officiating their games come the winter time. The referees actually had a video station the last year that I worked it going over important rules that the players would face. They did an excellent job of explaining things to the players and opening up for any questions that they would have. Getting along and having a cordial relationship with officials is just another layer of a player’s development and maturity process in the NBA.
The GRG Camp is one of the most important Off Season Development pieces that a player will have . It’s a perfect combination of intense dedicated staff, teaching, correction, and competition. It’s the best teaching camp that I’ve ever been involved with and hopefully will continue to be a staple in the Summer for Players/Coaches for years to come. Off To Pre Training Camp….
Young players are usually asked to report to their club the Tuesday after Labor Day. This gives them 3-4 weeks to be in their city to get acclimated with the daily routine, the staff, and getting ramped up for training camp. There is usually an opportunity for them to get shots up, lift, and play with their teammates for a few weeks. It’s a great way for them to get their bonding in and help with their transition into training camp. For a development standpoint here is where we would put the foot on the gas a little bit with our player meetings and communicating what is going to be expected of them. Prior to them getting into town , I made it a point to talk to the coaching staff again to go over each player’s role so they could tell us what was needed in each individual player’s development program.
One of the biggest adjustments of rookies when they get to the NBA is getting used to NBA Strength & Conditioning Programs. The consistency of daily work and time that needs to be invested at times can be overwhelming to a player. Coming from college where most would have some type of program, they could get away with not being that strong even if they attended a Power 5 School. They need to know how important developing their physique is to having success in the NBA and that takes some time to sink in to a young player. I always would tell players in our development program that our Strength Coach Jeremy Holsopple should be their best friend ASAP because he was one of the keys to their success. Being in great physical condition and improving strength are two huge advantages a player could acquire. Spending the month of September getting to know Jeremy to me was a very important step in their development.
We would setup some times to meet with our rookies to check in on how they were doing in private meetings. We would always ask about the summer and how the adjustment was from what they were used to, to competing in a Full NBA Summer. The two main development points that we would discuss is first what their daily routine would look like once the season started. That would include getting to the gym 90 minutes before all practices, getting their reps on the floor for morning workouts, seeking out coaches to watch film with, knowing their playbook, getting to the training table early to take care of any issues with their body, being on the same page with our Strength Coach, Starting to know names of our travel party, and making sure they take care of their bodies post workout/practice as far as ice/heat etc. The second would be what the coaches expects of them as far as role for the upcoming season. It is so important to communicate that to them so they can start getting it in their head on what the coach expects.
Part of our job in Development is to be a firefighter. Not only putting out active fires, but more importantly getting to issues before they get to be issues. A lot of our Pre Training Camp Meetings would be giving them the answers to the test to stare them away from any issues. To communicate their role and tell them the things that our coaches wanted to see out of rookies would set the stage early in helping them cement their presence early with our staff , veterans, and organization. Most of the players that we drafted in my time with Dallas were players that would have to be the 4th-5th options at most times because we always had Dirk or other players that were high end NBA starters that would dominate touches on the floor. One of the hardest things to do in Development with an NBA team is to tell a college player that was the LeBron James of their college team that had every play called for them and was treated like a God that they for the most part had to stand in the corner and play off of 3-4 other players on the floor. It’s a hard pill to swallow for any player, but a must needed one to build a foundation for a strong career. We wanted our young players to play simple and to be spot up players, cutters, defenders, energy players, etc. There was little need for our rookies to take tough isolation shots to clear everything out for them. To be honest there was zero need for it, and since Head Coaches control minutes and opportunity in the NBA it was important for them to play the way they needed them to play. The earlier they accepted this for the short term at least the better things would be for them. Next Step is Training Camp.
Training Camp is essential in the development of a rookie. This is where everything is introduced to them with a little more realness to it. Unlike Summer League and other summer events there are NBA Veterans and their full coaching staffs implementing tactics, techniques, and strategy. We want our young kids attentive and to ask as many questions as they can. Things such as offensive concepts/sets and defensive coverages come at them very fast and it is a little bit overwhelming. Finding coaches to watch film and explain after sessions is an important part of their development not only to understand things better, but also build strong bonds with their staff.
Through the years it seems like NBA Training Camps have gotten shorter and there are more exhibition games added giving young players less time to prepare. It is important for most of them to get a good jump on things and make great impressions. Every club is constructed differently, but in Dallas we were always a veteran heavy team so our rookies had low responsibility on day 1. It was important for them to show energy, good body language, make plays off the ball, and show effort on defense. We wanted them to play with simplicity to show the coaches that they can be trusted on the floor when given their chance. Throughout practices we would approach our young players and encourage them as well as give them small instruction points here and there. In my experience during training camp like Summer League it was important for them not to have too many things on their mind. They were getting it from every angle as it was so it was always good to try to simplify things when you could. It’s important to keep an eye on them at all times and approach them when you feel they need it. Trying to help them navigate their first time .
Once things start to slow down after the physical/mental wear and tear off we would start assigning individual workouts at night with our rookies.In these sessions we’d revolve the sessions around the one or two skills that our coaching staff needed them to do to make an impact for our team. In the workouts we would continuously communicate with the player the importance of what they were doing while correcting technical mistakes if any that they would make. Corrections in workouts were so important as they needed to get constant feedback.
Before Pre Season games we would meet with our players and talk to them about how their minutes would be elevated in these games than they would be for the regular season. Usually the veterans, especially if they were older wouldn’t see regular action until the last game or two , leaving plenty of minutes for our young players to be evaluated. The message was plain and simple, but a hard one for them to understand is they didn’t have to make splashes in every game. The same issue of wanting to put up numbers to impress would creep in for most of them and our message was clear which was to play simple and stay with the plan.
Pre Season is one of the better developmental resources that you have for your young players because they are playing real minutes against NBA players in actual NBA arenas. It’s not exactly the real thing, but probably as close as they are going to get. As important as Summer League as well as the D League are they are pretty far off from the feel of actual NBA action. The minutes that they receive in these games are invaluable for them to get actual game reps in. Mistakes are the best things that a player can make in these types of settings. I think when players make mistakes and are able to process them through their own eyes/minds as well as watching them on film with coaches. Every young player is going to get their asses kicked at some point on the court metaphorically. It is how they handle it the next day in practice leading up to the next game and put in the same situation to see what they’ve learned.
After the month of practices and games, rookies get a real taste of NBA basketball, and as a coach you get a lot of data to process of where your players truly are heading into the regular season.
Like I said before, different rookies experience different situations. For example, a player that is drafted in the top 5 will most likely get significantly more time than someone that was drafted at 25. In game NBA minutes is one of the biggest keys to a player’s development that they can get. The combination of NBA minutes, daily routine, feedback from coaches, health, accountability from the organization, & a little luck is what makes or breaks a career of a young NBA player.
Once the season is about to start the most important things that I would stress to our young players is routine & stay ready. Developing an early routine for a player is so important for them. Our philosophy was a simple one with them and here it was:
Every player in our Developmental Program would have to arrive to practice 90 minutes before practice or they would face a fine. In that 90 minute window they were expected to:
It was important for our players to develop a get to the gym early mentality to be able to get those core things done before the day started. It also showed the staff that the player was invested in their craft. What we also wanted is for the player to adopt this practice throughout their career. In year 10 we want them getting to the gym an hour early to just have great habits when it came to preparation.
On top of the 90 minute rule players were asked to get shots up the night before home games as well as the night before road trips. We wanted to get them in the habit of getting themselves prepared for games and getting in the gym. Sessions would be 30 minutes and only be rep based, not very hard when it came to intensity. The last thing we wanted them to do is meet with us the first night of every road trip when we got into a city. We would meet each developmental player for about 15-30 minutes to talk about what was going on with them, talk about our evaluation on their play of late, and any other intel that the coaching staff was feeding us about them. These were great sessions to check in with the player, give them true feedback, and allow them to vent about anything basketball/non basketball related. The talks could be a quick 5-10 minutes or they could last an hour. These types of meetings were essential to the development of our players because it kept us in continuous contact with them and enabled us to put out any type of fire that was brewing with the player.
With these programs in place with our developmental players, we felt as though in the long run they would start to evolve even if it was through osmosis. We wanted to develop their routine and hold them accountable to be where they needed to be. It helped that not only we communicated with them on a daily basis, but also constantly checked in with the coaching staff to make sure that the players were doing what they needed to do in their eyes.
Minutes are usually the biggest issue a player would have which is a natural occurrence. If we had 2-3 players ahead of a particular rookie that was use to playing 35 minutes a night and having every play called to them the year before in college that could be something new and bothersome for them. Our message would be a simple and clear one to continue to be prepared with their routine and stay focused with what their role was. The problem for young players who don’t play was they start to go south with their preparation and body language especially if they don’t get to play in multiple games in a row. They had to continue to challenge themselves to stay ready and prepared for an unseen opportunity that would present itself at a strange time in a game. We would always question our players coming out of a huddle asking them what the play is and who it was being run to. We wanted to make sure that they were into the game. Throughout the game we would ask questions about tendencies of an opposing player to make sure they were keyed in on the scouting reports. They needed to know the plays that were being drawn in the huddle even if they weren’t playing because they knew when after erasing the play that our coach would sub that player in after erasing the play and breaking the huddle.
The season is a long one, 82 games plus pre season and post season is a very long time. Players will go through a lot of ups and downs and that is to be expected. If a player isn’t playing there is a long time to keep pounding at it every day to earn minutes. There are blowouts in both directions, injuries, illness, and slumps that can throw a low minute player into the rotation. They are being evaluated in every minute and it isnt like they have to look like MJ in every game, but they have to look prepared and engaged in the action. That is why preparation and developing a routine is so important for a player. It gets boring as hell no question doing the same things everyday, but that is part of the process of development. Most players I would say close to 70% are role players that come into the league and need to keep their spot. Routine and preparation is the only way they can get through the night. Through a season as a development coach we have to make sure that our players are working on the right things, we are communicating with them constantly, and we are following the instructions from the head coach as they are the ones that control the minutes.
Sometimes the act of developing players gets sensationalized on social media. True development isn’t done only by the person that works a player out before a game there are countless people involved with how a payer gets better. I was lucky in Dallas to work with such an impressive medical/strength & conditioning department, assistant coaches that were motivated to help players, and an organization that stood by them. It’s truly a group effort in the NBA without question. Development for most is all about embracing Ground Hog Day. Its filed with days of doing the same exact thing every day and staying mentally focused in on the task at hand. A lot of talented players fall off their path because they can’t take doing the same thing every day and want to do it their way. Not many players are good enough to just show up and play doing everything their way.
Player Development is very important at every level of basketball, but an absolute must in the NBA. For most clubs it is almost impossible for them to acquire high level players unless it is through the draft and developed internally. The only way that they can trade for a top 20 player is if that player becomes disgruntled on another club and they trade a bunch of young players developed through their system. You don’t have to try to make every young player into an All Star as developing a group of players into consistent rotation players/starters could be beneficial as well. A lot of times teams would sign second round picks and/or undrafted players to 3 or 4 year non guaranteed deals to keep them at a low number salary wise and under contract for a long time. This means if they can make the jump on their development and develop them into a starter or high end rotation player they can have a player that they is worth 10 million dollars a year that they are only paying $2.8 Million to. Franchise players are usually drafted in the top 4 some get lucky and slip, All Star Level players are usually in the lottery, so for other teams that draft out of the lottery it is important to develop their players into rotation players to continue to refresh their rosters and surround their star players with high end starter 4th/5th options.
It is really hard to play and stay relevant in the NBA. Everyone wants to become the next LeBron, Doncic, or Giannis. In reality that isn’t going to happen to 99% of the league. For most they have to find that 1 skill that can get them into a game consistently and add a work ethic and professional mindset with it. Not every role player will stay a role player as they can develop into something better down the line. What I try to tell players especially on good teams is to embrace playing simple. Make the simple play like running the floor, straight line drive, making an open shot, playing solid help defense, etc. The phrase I adopted was “Dominate Simple”. Show the coach that you can be trusted with one or two things and then once you build equity with them build on that and then shoot for the stars. A typical NBA player takes 18 months to develop. Usually Two Summer Leagues, Two Training Camps, and Two Pre Seasons. My mentor Tates Locke told me that and it makes a lot of sense. Most players unless they get a boat load of minutes and a big green light form their coach take 1-1.5 years to truly get adjusted to the NBA. It is a fun process, but one that both sides need patience with.
I know this was a long Blog and believe me don’t expect this because I’m not Ernest Hemmingway. I’m more like Ernest CantSpellingWay. I just thought it was an interesting topic that not a lot of people know about unless they worked in the NBA and saw it for themselves. Thank you for taking the time to read my content as I really appreciate it.
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