Culture of Hoops

Reno Bighorns: The Kingdom’s Vassal

Photo by Steven Covella | Baller Mind Frame

Photo by Steven Covella/Baller Mind Frame. Bighorns players do a stretching routine before playing the Santa Cruz Warriors April 5, 2014.

Just right of the heart of downtown lays the Reno Events Center. It isn’t The Biggest Little City in the World’s main attraction, a designation which probably belongs to the casinos or the bowling stadium a few blocks west. Like the venue that houses them, the Reno Bighorns are also a sideshow of sorts, although they are overshadowed by something hundreds of miles west rather than mere blocks.

Even inside of their own building, the Bighorns compete for the attention of ticket holders. Within the Reno Events Center, which looks more comfortable hosting a convention or show than a sporting event, is Reno’s makeshift basketball arena. In the center is the hardwood court, sitting plainly atop the concrete floor and surrounded on three sides by fan seating. The fourth side is a little distracting. There’s a “fan zone” playing the NCAA men’s Final Four games, a bounce house course and an RC car race track, each with a number of patrons.

The Bighorns aren’t quite the sideshow in the arena, but the sound of RC cars whirring and crashing persists from tip-off to the final buzzer.

Despite the surrounding distractions, over the past year, the Bighorns have managed to gain the focus of one particularly attentive group: the NBA.

Last summer, the Sacramento Kings struck a deal to take over basketball operations of the D-League team, creating between the two a single, exclusive affiliation. In the past, Reno has been connected with as many as three NBA teams at one time, making the team more of an afterthought than anything else.

April 5, the Bighorns played their last regular season game at the Reno Events Center to an announced crowd of 3,000 that looked more like 800, and with worn basketballs that seemed like hand-me-downs from the NBA. The game was up-tempo, with some highlight dunks and even some smooth jumpers from a Curry brother – Seth, not Steph – and the Bighorns lost 115-93.

They got bounced from the D-League playoffs a little over a week later, marking an end to Year One of the exclusive partnership between them and the Kings.

Single-affiliation is an increasingly popular trend, but a recent development. This season, 14 of the 17 D-League teams have a sole NBA affiliate; the other three teams are associated with 16 NBA franchises altogether. There is still a long way to go before the D-League matches its big brother team-for-team, but it has come a long way.

In 2001, the National Basketball Development League (NBDL), as it was known then, tipped off its season with eight teams scattered throughout the Southeast, in regions mostly untouched by the NBA.

Rob Levine, who has since moved on from the NBA, was the senior league executive tasked with overseeing the growth of the Development League. Levine said David Stern’s vision at the turn of the century was to create a league that provided players, executives and communities with an opportunity to be exposed to the game.

There were a few basketball minor leagues before and after the inception of the NBDL, but none had the integral backing of the NBA. Over the last 13 years, the D-League has gradually become a tool to be utilized by the NBA, rather than a mere offshoot. It’s a league of cultivation in every aspect. Players, referees, coaches, various organizational personnel – most everyone in the D-League is training to make the leap to the next level.

“If you look at coaches, coaching, team affiliates, the number of executives and business practices (exchanged) from the NBA to the D-League and from the D-League to the NBA – it has been a positive environment,” Levine said.

Since its creation, the D-League has always had a connection to the NBA, however minor it may have been at the outset, but with the advent of team affiliations between the two leagues, the bond grew much stronger.

Professional baseball has an ideal minor league system, each MLB team with multiple levels of affiliates, though it’s been around decades longer than the NBA’s. Team affiliations, however, have opened the door to increasingly effective player development for NBA organizations. Where before a late draft pick would have to toil in practice and at the end of a team’s bench, he can now get starter’s minutes and build confidence in the D-League, theoretically speeding up his readiness to play at the next level.

The most advanced NBA teams – the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs lead the way – pass down systems and philosophies, on and off the court, to their D-League teams, preparing minor league players for a seamless transition to the next level.

Last year, Cory Joseph played an important role off the bench in San Antonio’s late season and postseason runs, spelling Tony Parker. After 26 games with the Austin Toros, the Spurs’ D-League team, it didn’t take Joseph long to gain the trust of Gregg Popovich. Months after being called up in March, Joseph was playing in the NBA Finals. This season Terrence Jones, formerly of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, has made a splash starting next to Dwight Howard as a key piece of Houston’s frontcourt.

The D-League has grown exponentially since it started in 2001, and has room to continue doing so still. Levine said that when he and his team set out on creating the D-League, they did so without a definitive plan for its future. Now, simply as a fan of the game, Levine praises the steps forward the league has taken.

“We had aspirations to grow something that would have a positive effect on the NBA and didn’t set it in stone, we allowed it to evolve,” Levine said.

In the past, when they shared the Bighorns with other NBA teams, the Kings used the D-League sparsely. The minor league was young and underutilized even just a few years ago; on a team with multiple affiliates, when Sacramento did send a player down, it would have little control over that players’ minutes and how they were used.

After one year in control of basketball operations, the Kings’ partnership hasn’t yet matched the efficiency of the Spurs’ or Rockets’, but Sacramento did get a glimpse of what dividends the takeover might pay down the line.

The last three weeks of the season, after Isaiah Thomas went down with an injury, Ray McCallum exploded onto the scene, making poised plays and precise passes in games that he played over 40 minutes. He made noticeable improvements game-to-game and even half-to-half at times. Just a month earlier, McCallum was struggling to get off the bench in garbage time, and there he was in April, seamlessly filling in for one of the Kings’ integral pieces.

McCallum entered a particularly difficult situation for a rookie last summer. He was drafted in the second round by a team that took lauded guard, Ben McLemore, in the lottery. Those two were added to an already crowded backcourt that consisted of Thomas, Greivis Vasquez, Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette. McCallum’s chances of playing this season looked beyond slim.

The conditions were ripe for the Kings to test their newest tool, the Bighorns. Less than a month into the season, the decision was made to send McCallum to the D-League, where rather than sitting in stasis on the end of a bench, he could get some much needed in-game experience. The rookie sat down with members of the Sacramento front office to go over the plan for what would be a three-game stint in Reno.

Assignment to the D-League can be approached a number of ways, with two prevailing outlooks: as a disappointing demotion or as an opportunity for growth. McCallum, perhaps with more to prove coming fresh off of a second round selection, took to the latter mentality.

“Our coaches give them structured plans on things to improve on, so it’s not just them running up and down the court, it’s them actually with a plan and an idea of things they want to improve and get better at. Ray did that,” Bighorns GM Shareef Abdur-Rahim said. “When he went to the D-League, he actually took that plan seriously, implemented it and we can see some of the benefits now.”

Over the last three weeks of the season it became apparent that the Kings solidified their back-up point guard spot with McCallum emerging as a legitimate option.

After the February trade deadline, most of his backcourt competition had been shipped off, opening the door for McCallum to make an impression. Still, he didn’t have much more than a foot in. McCallum’s playing time gradually increased from last minute check-ins to truly spelling Thomas.

In late March, Thomas went down with a deep quad contusion and McCallum seized the opportunity, kicking in the door and cementing his presence within the lineup. With Thomas sidelined and the Kings’ options thin, McCallum took almost sole possession of Sacramento’s point guard spot. In 10 games, he averaged 44.6 minutes, playing in all 48 of a game against the Dallas Mavericks.

The Kings experienced little, if any, drop-off from the position with McCallum running the show. The rookie scored, defended and set up teammates, but what was perhaps most impressive was his headiness and ability to adjust.

One game, McCallum struggled to get the ball high enough over defenders to finish at the rim, so the next one he made sure to arc his floaters just out of reach of the seven-foot behemoths in the paint. He’d watch film at halftime and between contests with Michael Malone, picking apart his game. Despite the massive minutes McCallum was logging, he only averaged 1.9 turnovers a night. Two months prior he hadn’t played more than 11 minutes in an NBA game.

McCallum’s production wasn’t much different in the D-League, where he excelled in seven appearances. More than anything, playing in Reno provided him the chance to test what he’d been working on in practice. Communication was constant and the terminology and system in Reno were similar to Sacramento’s, making the transition easier. All that was left to do was to go out and put his training to work.

“Everything was a plan. It was just to go down there and get to play instead of sitting here on the bench,” McCallum said. “It’s one thing to practice and work out every day, but the opportunity to go out there and get game experience – I thought it was definitely helpful to go down there and play some games and see what I can and can’t do.”

McCallum said his game didn’t change over the course of his two D-League assignments, insisting his regimen and approach was the same all season long. After three years at Detroit Mercy, where his father Ray McCallum, Sr. coached and guided him, the younger McCallum entered the NBA with a self-confidence that stemmed from a foundation of situational experience and refinement that accompanies a three-year college career.

Despite his lack of true NBA minutes, McCallum’s play with the Bighorns did prove something – to others and perhaps even himself; he was ready. Once his number was called with the Kings, McCallum was unfazed and lacked the wide eyes or timidity that often plagues rookies (something Ben McLemore seemed to suffer from at times this season). At that point, all McCallum needed was a chance, and he seized it.

“It’s just all about opportunity. The NBA’s about getting an opportunity and at the time I didn’t really get an opportunity here; there were a lot of guys in front of me,” he said. “Then after the trade happened, they gave me the opportunity to go out there and play… and I tried to make the best of that.”

McCallum’s late-season success after getting experience in Reno is just what Sacramento hoped for when it secured that exclusive D-League partnership.

It’s a hybrid operation; the Kings don’t have any say in the Bighorns’ financial decisions, but answer to no one when it comes to the team’s basketball operations. To solidify a through-line between the two organizations, Sacramento sent one of its own, Abdur-Rahim, to Reno.

Abdur-Rahim, Bighorns general manager, is the self-proclaimed “conduit” between the Kings and their D-League affiliate, taking directives, philosophies and an overall vision with him to Reno to create synergy between the two.

“I help build that infrastructure and form the direction of Pete D’Alessandro and our head coach, try to build the structure and the environment that they would like for our guys to be in,” he said. “(The vision is) to simply be an extension of the Sacramento Kings. So the same values and mission that we have here, we want to extend that to Reno and to that community and to the players that play there, whether they’re actually Sacramento Kings players or not.”

The management group is still working to implement its NBA vision, and the one in the D-League has blurred at times. McCallum had his success story, and Trent Lockett, who showed well enough in the preseason, but didn’t make the NBA team, stayed with the Bighorns throughout the season.

However, after the trade deadline, the team was used as a tryout for 10-day signees Royce White and Willie Reed more than anything. McLemore, who struggled plenty – especially to find a rhythm amongst stars like Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and Thomas – may have benefitted from a D-League stint as a top option.

The personnel are in place, but it will take more than one season to implement a philosophy and stock the Bighorns with players that fit the vision.

“In changing a culture, culture starts with habits and those habits are passed from individual to individual. We’re at the beginning stages of the development of culture. Just as we are here (in Sacramento), I think,” Abdur-Rahim said.

The Kings front office is constantly reevaluating and looking to improve, and its objective with the Bighorns remains the same: to develop talent. Abdur-Rahim said that, like Malone’s staff in Sacramento, Reno coaches were hired with the player development in mind.

Joel Abelson was hired in September to helm the Bighorns in the first year of the partnership. Shortly thereafter, he and his staff were invited to the Kings’ training camp to get some familiarity with Malone and the system he planned on implementing. Since then, though, Malone’s attention has been almost completely focused on Sacramento, he said.

“To be very honest – I know playoffs have started – I, personally, couldn’t tell you their record, how they’re doing,” said Malone, who despite his lack of involvement has been satisfied with the teams’ partnership this season. “I think it’s worked out well. When we’ve sent players down or called players up, there’s been a very smooth transition.”

While the front office may have an overarching vision for the Bighorns, on a day-to-day basis the affiliation’s bond is held together primarily by three people: Abelson, Abdur-Rahim and Chris Gilbert, Reno’s assistant general manager.

The trio each contributes in their own way to manage the Bighorns’ on-court product and to facilitate a connection between Reno and Sacramento. Gilbert communicates with players, giving them feedback on their progress and updates on their standing within the organization. Abdur-Rahim does that as well, but is also tasked with managing a roster that is a revolving door, with players constantly moving on to other opportunities.

Abelson is charged with putting it all together on the court and making a dynamic team play cohesively, especially challenging in the D-League where players’ top-priority is to get a call from the NBA.

“You know what you sign up for when you’re a head coach in this league, or a coach in this league period. There’s a new player every week, so that’s part of the fun,” Abelson said.

This season has been more fun, in general, for the Bighorns than years past. They made the playoffs for the first time in three years, and, despite getting knocked out in the first round, may be trending upward with the power of single-affiliation behind them.

The grind of the D-League is intensified when there’s a lack of central control off the court, which can lead to division on it. On a team with multiple affiliates, there’s a higher potential for misdirection and a lower potential for D-League regulars to get a legitimate look from the NBA. More teams connected means more teams trying to get players at the end of their NBA bench playing time in the D-League. Pressure from multiple teams can muddle attempts at a singular direction and push native D-Leaguers to the back-burner.

“You have to play your NBA-assignment guys, so sometimes that messes up chemistry or what other guys have been doing. So you kind of have to sit down and take the back role,” said Reno forward Mo Charlo. “For the single-affiliated, like the Kings, you only get a couple of rookies. There’s only been a couple. It hasn’t been a whole starting five coming down. It’s been better that way.”

For better or worse, Charlo is familiar with just about everything the D-League throws at him. This season marked his seventh in the D-League and fifth-straight with the Bighorns.

Sacramento’s primary motivation when taking over Reno’s basketball operations was to cultivate and add to the culture of its NBA team, but the decision will also have an impact on most Bighorns players, whether they get called up by the Kings or not.

A player like Charlo, who was an honorable mention for All-NBADL this season, will get more exposure to the rest of the NBA with the opportunity to play in a more centrally-focused system, and has invaluable direct contact to one NBA organization.

In addition to the Sacramento Kings, Abdur-Rahim and Gilbert represent hope. Their presence and communication serve as a constant reminder that D-League players are just one step away from living their dream, and that someone is indeed watching and ready to facilitate that fantasy.

When Charlo looks to the stands and sees those representatives from the Kings, the NBA becomes more of a reality; he gets an extra boost of motivation. Sacramento is only two hours down the road from Reno, a trip that’s made often by Kings’ personnel. That connection makes players feel a part of something bigger than the Bighorns. After all, their uniform’s shorts have Reno’s emblem on one side and Sacramento’s on the other. Whether they’re signed with the Kings or not, Charlo said, D-League players feel a bond with the organization, and it’s by no means trivial.

“When you see those guys, it makes you feel like they care about the single-affiliated team instead of just ‘OK, we’re going to buy (the Bighorns) and leave them on their own.’ No, it’s not like that. They really care and show a lot of appreciation for what we’re doing down here. It’s not just for ourselves, but for the Kings,” Charlo said. “Just seeing them in the building gives us that much more motivation, because you got eyes on you. … They make us feel like one big family.”

A pattern emerges when talking to players about the Kings and Bighorns. When discussing movement between the two teams, players always travel “down” to the Bighorns. Someone from the Kings going to a Bighorns game? They’re going “down” to Reno. Someone at a Bighorns game? They’re “down” in Reno.

While it may be figuratively correct, since moving from the NBA to the D-League can be considered a demotion, it’s a little striking regardless. Geographically, Reno is anything but “down” from Sacramento. It’s northeast of the capitol and at a higher elevation.

Not to insinuate the D-League will ever approach the significance of the NBA, that’s not its point. However, single-affiliation, while still in the early stages of development, looks to be suiting both teams’ needs.

Reno is headed in a new direction: up.

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