From the Ground Up: Building a G League Franchise in Greensboro

By Sam Perley

It’s a typical cold and blustery early December morning in Chicago when the alarm clock goes off at 4 a.m. Just a few hours ago, the Greensboro Swarm had put the finishing touches on a three-point victory over the hometown Windy City Bulls at the Sears Centre just north of the city. There’s little time to rest though as a home date with Raptors 905 awaits back in North Carolina later that night.

Mother Nature has other ideas though as a snowstorm soon rolls into town just as the team’s commercial flight is set to depart O’Hare International Airport. Hours tick by and the plane stays grounded on the icy tarmac. As contingency plans begin to develop for that evening’s contest, the plane finally takes off, although spares the players hardly any time to regroup upon landing before they need to head back to the arena.

Scenarios like this are common in the formerly-known-as NBA D-League (now the G League thanks to a new partnership with Gatorade). This slice of somewhat organized chaos is perhaps even trickier for a team navigating through its inaugural season. At the time, the Swarm was hardly 12 months removed from having no players, staff, home arena or identity.

Fast forward to today and the foundation (and all the necessary infrastructure) are firmly in place for the Charlotte Hornets’ G League affiliate. Putting everything together has been a whirlwind process for everybody involved, but certainly one that’s gotten easier as time passes.

The origins of the Swarm began in May 2015 when the Charlotte Hornets organization began scouting the local region for a place to put its new G League franchise. This team would be a direct affiliate used to scout and develop basketball talent in accordance with the Charlotte style of play. A regular host of ACC and NCAA tournament games, basketball-crazy Greensboro, NC was selected in October 2015 with the franchise’s nickname settled on two months later.

The team would also need a place to play. Cue renovation of the Greensboro Coliseum’s Pavilion in June 2016, which would eventually become “The Fieldhouse”. Now a 30,000 square-foot arena with the ability to host over 2,000 fans, this state-of-the art structure also houses the team’s training facility, locker rooms and basketball operations offices.

Head Coach Noel Gillespie was hired by the Hornets on July 25, 2016 after spending three years as an assistant with the Denver Nuggets. Prior to that, Gillespie had spent a decade climbing the ladder in the Phoenix Suns organization.

A month later, the Swarm picked up the rights to 12 players in the G League Expansion Draft before rounding out its coaching staff a few weeks later. After the Charlotte Hornets made their final roster cuts at the end of training camp in 2016, rookies Perry Ellis, Rasheed Sulaimon and Mike Tobey all signed deals with the Swarm.
The Swarm soon participated in its first G League Draft after that, growing its roster even further. In the end, 11 players eventually made the opening-night lineup: Ellis, Sulaimon, Tobey, Mike Anderson, Shonn Miller, Xavier Munford, Frank Rogers, Ralston Turner, Damien Wilkins, Prince Williams and Rodney Williams.

Roughly a year and half after the entire process had begun, the Swarm was ready to host its first-ever regular season game on Nov. 12, 2016 at home against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

The squad went on to post a 19-31 record in its first G League season, finishing tied for third in the Atlantic Division and tied for eighth overall in the Eastern Conference. Munford emerged as the star of the team, ranking in the top 15 in the league in scoring (18.5 points) and top 10 in assists (5.3).

Another bright spot, Tobey averaged 12.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game and was the first Swarm player ever called up to the Hornets. The former Virginia Cavalier made his NBA debut for a short-handed Charlotte team on Feb. 15 and finished with two points and three rebounds in 11 minutes of action against the Toronto Raptors.

Tobey’s availability in this situation perfectly illustrates the primary benefit of the Hornets operating their own G League franchise. The ability to swiftly bring players onto the NBA roster who understand the same play calls, schemes and formations makes the adjustment much easier.

“The seamless transition is the phrase we keep using,” said Gillespie earlier this summer. “Last year, we had Mike Tobey go back and forth. So, for Mike Tobey to come from Greensboro to the Hornets and for Coach [Steve] Clifford to have comfort putting him in a game in Toronto is what this is for. The seamless transition, knowing the terminology, knowing what’s expected of you, knowing the culture.”

Over the past 12 years or so, the G League has rapidly expanded from eight teams to now 26 franchises with the eventual goal being for each NBA club to have its own directly-affiliated squad. Each team plays 50 games a season and four franchises have been added for this upcoming campaign with another pair on the way the next two years.

Organizations that don’t have their own G League affiliate can assign players wherever they choose under the “flexible assignment system.” These players and their rights are still exclusively controlled by the parent club while they are in the G League.

Players with less than three years of service can make G League assignments as frequently as their NBA organization chooses. Those that have been around longer need to provide consent before any roster moves can be made.

Last year, the Hornets sent both Christian Wood and Aaron Harrison on multiple assignments to Greensboro. Harrison was later waived by the Hornets in January 2017, reacquired by the Swarm and then traded to the G League’s Delaware 87ers in exchange for Anthony ‘Cat’ Barber in March.

Not having a G League franchise of their own, the New Orleans Pelicans assigned 2016 first-round pick Cheick Diallo to the Swarm a handful of times as well. None of these aforementioned players (with the exception of Harrison after he was waived by Charlotte) were eligible to join any other organizations while in Greensboro as they were all under NBA deals at the time.

An interesting wrinkle added to the G League this season is the implementation of two-way players, which increase NBA roster sizes from 15 to 17 guaranteed contracts. These players on two-way deals can only be recalled from the G League by their parent club for a maximum of 45 total days throughout the season. They will also receive prorated salaries based on how long they spend in the NBA in addition to higher overall G League base salaries.

The first pair of two-way contracts for the Hornets organization were signed on August 2, 2017 by point guard Marcus Paige and forward/center Mangok Mathiang. A University of North Carolina product, Paige spent his first professional season playing for the G League’s Salt Lake City Stars last year. Mathiang, a Sudanese native who primarily grew up in Australia, recently wrapped up his collegiate career at Louisville.

The primary purpose of these two-way contracts is to incentivize more players to stay stateside and develop in the G League rather than head overseas. In the past, undrafted and sometimes fringe NBA players often signed more lucrative deals with international teams. More often than not though, these players were forbidden from accepting any NBA offers until their current contracts expired.

Already this season, the Pelicans have sent both their two-way players (rookie Charles Cooke and second-year professional Jalen Jones) to Greensboro under the flexible assignment system. In all likelihood, the duo will spend a majority of the 2017-18 campaign suiting up for the Swarm.

As previously mentioned, there will be a quartet of brand-new, directly-affiliated G League teams this season: the Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario (Los Angeles Clippers), Wisconsin Herd (Milwaukee Bucks), Memphis Hustle (Memphis Grizzles) and Erie BayHawks (first-year franchise purchased by the Atlanta Hawks after the existing BayHawks were bought by the Orlando Magic and relocated to Lakeland, FL).

The Swarm was able to protect nine players on its roster going into the most recent G League Expansion Draft, losing the rights to Ellis (who recently signed with an Australian team) to Memphis and Josh Davis (currently plays in Japan) to Wisconsin. If either Ellis or Davis elects to return to the G League at any point, they would automatically be assigned to these respective teams.

Each organization with a G League franchise can designate up to four affiliate players as well. This essentially means anybody cut after NBA training camp who elects to play in the G League will be assigned to that team’s affiliate. This year, the Swarm have already added rookies Terry Henderson (N.C. State), T.J. Williams (Northeastern) and Luke Petrasek (Columbia).

Every year around the start of the regular season, the G League holds its annual draft featuring a pool of players who didn’t make NBA training camps and are electing to stay stateside. On Oct. 21, Greensboro picked up the rights to Cole Huff (F, Creighton), Daniel Dingle (F, Temple) and Denzel Ingram (PG, UNC-Wilmington)

Players can also be added to G League teams via open tryout. Recently signed to a guaranteed multi-year deal with the Orlando Magic, Johnathon Simmons played in 133 regular season games for the San Antonio Spurs from 2015-17 after latching on with the organization through an open tryout in September 2013.

So, if you’re keeping track, the Swarm’s roster this season will be comprised of NBA assignments, two-way contracts, affiliate players, G League Draft picks, any returning players from last season (must have played for team and not been released) and free agent acquisitions.

With a year under its belt, the Greensboro Swarm is primed for its second G League season, which begins on Saturday, Nov. 4 at home against the Canton Charge. There might be plenty of new faces on the team, but the style, system and atmosphere will all be the same according to Gillespie.

“I want us to have the best home-court advantage in the G League and that’s not just coaches speak or bulletin board material. Our home-court advantage we had starting in the calendar year and after the G League Showcase last season, it’s a huge advantage. It’s our building. That’s where we work out and it should just be an extension of that when we play the games. I think it’s going to be a tough place for teams to play on the road.”

Gillespie also mentions he wants the team to continue taking progressive, incremental steps throughout its sophomore season. The Greensboro Swarm certainly seems to have found tremendous value in its coaching staff, roster, facilities and fan support, but hard-earned, first-hand experience might be the organization’s most prized asset moving forward.