Abelson Takes Unlikely Path to Sioux Falls Skyforce Head Coach Gig

When the four-year Idaho Stampede assistant coach takes over the reins of the Skyforce program from longtime coach Mo McHone, it signals a stark new direction for one of the NBA Development League's most respected franchises.
When Joel Abelson, aspiring broadcaster, walked across the University of Michigan stage in 2006, he just kept going.

For talking-heads-to-be – and, as Abelson said in 2010, because “that’s what every Jewish person who went to Michigan does” – the next step was a clear one: New York. So he headed to the City, took a job in real estate to finance both the dream and the Chinese takeout container he called an apartment, and put his charisma to use selling off parts of the Manhattan sky.

He hated it.

Abelson’s first career didn't last long. His second – well, that’s shaping up to be quite a bit more.

Abelson left New York in 2007 to take a basketball operations internship with the Charlotte Bobcats. Now, five years after working his way onto NBA Development League benches – including the last four years in Idaho – Abelson was named the new head coach of the NBA Development League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce on Aug. 10.

He takes over a program that’s long been synonymous with Mo McHone, the former NBA assistant (and, briefly, NBA head coach) who ran the Skyforce on three separate occasions – dating back to the team’s CBA years – and racked up a 195-159 record while he was doing it.

On Thursday, Abelson talked to NBADLeague.com about what he expects from his first-ever head coaching gig – and the mark he hopes to leave when he’s done – before officially taking over in Sioux Falls.

Abelson, though only 29, has worked under some of the best coaches the NBA D-League has -- or has ever had -- to offer.
NBAE via Getty Images
Kevin Scheitrum, NBADLeague.com: So what’s easier: moving real estate in Manhattan or getting guys to the NBA?

Joel Abelson, Sioux Falls Skyforce Head Coach: I think it’s probably a little easier to sell real estate, but it’s much more fun to get a guy to the NBA.

NBADLeague.com: So, five years ago you’re not even in basketball, and now you’re the head coach of an NBA D-League team. Are you surprised at all at where you are at this point in your career?

Abelson: Well I’ve been fortunate to work with some really great coaches. Joey Meyer gave me a start in Tulsa. With [former Idaho Stampede head coach and current New Orleans Hornets assistant] Bryan Gates, [former NBA coach] Bob Hill, [current Springfield Armor coach] Bob MacKinnon and [current Stampede coach] Randy Livingston, I worked for four great coaches in five years.

Over the summer, I’ve worked with some of the best developers of talent in the country, and I’ve trained high-profile guys from those experiences as well [Abelson's trained Baron Davis, Jermaine O’Neal, Chauncey Billups, and Paul Pierce, among others, in Vegas]. The D-League affords those kinds of experiences in the summer, and it’s up to the coaches to choose those paths.

You say am I surprised, though? If there’s a blueprint to say that this is the way to go about it, I could say I’m surprised. But this is a niche league. There are very few guys who walk in off the street and have success right away, even if they’ve coached 30 years. But you look around the league and there are many, many guys who’ve struggled their first year.

So am I surprised? I guess I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity. I’ve tried to prepare myself the best I could for this opportunity.

NBADLeague.com: You're in a league where coaches like Paul Mokeski played -- or Eric Musselman coached -- in the NBA. What was the last level of competitive ball you played?

Abelson: High school varsity team. I was the sixth man. [Laughs]

The dream kind of ended when I looked myself in the mirror saw I was 6-2, couldn’t jump and couldn’t run. I could shoot and I could think. The dream kinda died, and I wanted to be a sports broadcaster, so I was focused on that more than playing D-III – not to say I could have played that. But I could always see the way the game developed.

NBADLeague.com: What kind of skills did you bring to the table?

Abelson: I could see the way the game developed. My best attribute when I was a player was my mind, as opposed to what physically. But it’s been a long road. I learn more about the game every day. I watch as much as I can every day. I’m certainly not the best X’s and O’s guy in our league right now, but every day we learn, and the best coaches in the world will tell you that.

People are gonna report to me, so I have to have all the answers
NBADLeague.com: You’ve had the chance to work with four great coaches. What have you learned from them about what it takes to be a head coach?

Every single person I’ve talked to – every single one who’s been a head coach – says you have no idea what you’re in for. So, when they offered me the job and I said yes, I already knew that there's nobody to report to. I report to my owner, but on the court there’s really nobody to report to: people are gonna report to me, so I have to have all the answers.

Bob Hill gave me a piece of great advice, which is just be prepared for the job you have. That’s what he imported to me, as far as advice, but as far as being a head coach in this league, Randy Livingston gave me the opportunity. He let me put in our defense over the past two years and be his partner, really, with personnel decisions. The final decision was his, but I did a lot of personnel information-gathering. That’s how I took the next step to be where I am today. I’ve learned from all four guys I’ve worked for in the league, and those are four different styles that I plan to use.

NBADLeague.com: What about the NBA D-League makes it an attractive place to play and coach?

Abelson: The D-League is the most scouted league in the world, mid-season, for NBA teams and for overseas teams.

This is a league where, if they need a quick fix, this is where they come. And the way the league is headed, the NBA’s coming to look for young coaches, especially, that they’d like to keep track of. To see what they like about those guys.

For a coach or a player, there’s really no better league to coach in except the NBA if that’s what you’re trying to get to. Same with overseas [scouts]. There are more overseas scouts all the time at our Showcase now. People can tune in online – the D-League’s done well there – and somebody’s always watching. They’re making improvements every year from access to scouting the league to making the league more enjoyable for players and coaches while you’re here.

The D-League is the most scouted league in the world, mid-season.
NBADLeague.com: With the way Malcolm Thomas, Donald Sloan, Jerome Dyson and a couple other former D-Leaguers played at Summer League, there’s been a lot of talk about whether players should go overseas for a paycheck or stick around in the NBA D-League to get more NBA looks. What’s your pitch for staying here vs. jetting overseas?

Abelson: You can come to the NBA D-League and rehabilitate yourself. You can come to the D-League after a bad season overseas. You can come to the D-League if you don’t have the best reputation in the NBA. Or, if you’ve been out of the NBA a few years, you can show that you can still play. For each of these cases – not to mention that if you’re a younger guy there’s no better way to be seen and develop – for each scenario, this league offers great opportunity.

NBADLeague.com: OK, so the best part of your coaching game is…

Abelson: Best part of my coaching game is I think I have a really good idea of what I want to do defensively, and I have a really good ability to teach what I’m trying to defensively. What we’re trying to do defensively. Defense is what we’re trying to hang our hat on. I really, truly understand the point of this league, after being in it five years, and I hope guys are going to want to play hard for me.

NBADLeague.com: You’re replacing Mo McHone, who’s…

Abelson: A legend

No matter where I was gonna end up being a coach, I hold myself to a certain standard, and I hold my players to a certain standard. Everybody’s gonna be held accountable.
NBADLeague.com: Right. He’d been coaching there for a loooong time, and he’s meant a lot to that team and that area. Is there any pressure to either continue his tradition or, on the other hand, carve out your own path?

Abelson: I’ve known Mo since I was an intern for Joey Meyer five years ago because they’re best friends. Mo was instrumental in helping me get this job, and Mo’s someone I’d call a friend. I just spent time with him in Vegas at the Korean tryout and at Summer League, and Mo’s definitely someone I look up to and bounce ideas off.

I’m not Mo McHone. I haven’t been doing this as long as Mo McHone. But everybody’s different, and I think I bring some youthful energy where maybe Mo, at this stage in his career, isn’t as youthful. [McHone is 70]

But no matter where I was gonna end up being a coach, I hold myself to a certain standard, and I hold my players to a certain standard. Everybody’s gonna be held accountable.

NBADLeague.com: Sioux Falls is a special case. Canton’s been around for one year, Rio Grande’s been around for five years, but Sioux Falls goes back far into the CBA days. In a community that’s so attached to its team, are you comfortable taking on that responsibility as a first-time head coach?

Abelson: Part of the reason why I was an attractive candidate for them is I just spent four seasons in Idaho in a very similar situation. This is something I’m very aware of, and it won’t shock me. I told the business guys today I’m available to help them sell tickets at any time, or speak for them or go play golf. To get the Skyforce name out there I’m more than happy to do that.

It’s part of my job here. As far as being passionate in the community for our basketball team, I don’t think there’s a better situation than that. I think the Sioux Falls community has always come out when we play. This is always a difficult place to play, and I want to get this proud franchise back to winning on a consistent basis.

NBADLeague.com: There’s a mass movement toward single-affiliations going on. Would you like to see the Skyforce go that route, too?

I’d love for the Heinemans and whoever else in the organization, if they want to go single-affiliation – and they’ve made it clear that they do – I hope that happens as soon as possible
Abelson: There are challenges with being an independent team, but there are challenges with being a single-affiliate, too.

But [the Skyforce leadership] are trying to go single-affiliation. It could happen during this season [for next year] or it could happen in the off-season. For me I’d love for the Heinemans [owner Greg and son/president Mike] and whoever else in the organization, if they want to go single-affiliation – and they’ve made it clear that they do – I hope that happens as soon as possible.

There are some advantages and disadvantages of being a locally owned team. I look forward to facing them.

NBADLeague.com: What are the advantages of being independent?

Abelson: There are two. The main advantage is that you have four teams you’re dealing with, so at any point any one of the four teams can send you a player or get an affiliate guy [a player who joins an NBA team for training camp, gets cut, and then reports to the NBA team’s affiliate if he chooses to go to the NBA D-League] before the season. Sheer percentage-wise, it’s easier to get players

And also I feel like walking in off the street would be difficult, but being in this league five years I have very strong opinions about running the program there. The Heinemans will hold me accountable, but they will allow me to run the show, which is what I’m looking forward to.

NBADLeague.com: The Skyforce had a ton of talent last year, but couldn’t ever seem to get on the same page as a team. In a league that’s based on individuals trying to show themselves well to earn a trip to the NBA, how do you get past that and get guys to kind of sublimate that stuff and play for each other?

For us, we might not be the best staff in the world, but we’re gonna work as hard as anybody, and that’s a promise.
Abelson: It's the main challenge of our league. The league looks like it’s set up for people to be individuals, because individual numbers get rewarded – and individual success gets rewarded – and that’s what players and agents think. But Gerald Green played 28 minutes a game last year and now he’s making 10 million dollars in the NBA.

You look at the history of the league, and something like 80 percent of Call-Ups come from teams with winning records. . I’m not sure that 80 percent is completely accurate, but it’s something like that. The example I always use is Joe Dabbert, who came to [now-defunct] Colorado with MacKinnon and made $13,000 because he had nothing else to do. They won the championship that year and the next year he was making $250,000 in Korea.

Abelson: If we win, people will come and see why we’re winning. If we’re losing, nobody’s gonna come to see why we’re losing. The proof is in the percentages.

NBADLeague.com: To finish, what are your goals this year?

Abelson: Goals are twofold. The organization’s main goal is to win basketball games, to get to the Playoffs and have a nice run in the Playoffs. As a young coach, I want to win in everything I do in life, but I certainly want to win on the basketball court this season.

We’re gonna stress development. We’re gonna practice every day and have optional-slash-mandatory shooting sessions every night.

My goal is to have players here that are here for the right reasons, which are that you’re here to get better. If you’re not here to get better you’re not here for the right reasons, because this is a league with many hungry guys. You’d rather have a hungry guy than a guy who’s been here five years and hasn’t gotten what he wants and is cynical about it.

And for us, we might not be the best staff in the world, but we’re gonna work as hard as anybody, and that’s a promise.