February 17, 2011
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—NETS rookie forward Jordan Williams was the first player sent on assignment to the NBA Development League's Springfield Armor since the teams began a one-to-one, "hybrid" affiliation earlier this year. A successful stint has translated into NBA results.
This is the way it was supposed to work.
Nets rookie Jordan Williams, who battled severe dehydration throughout his first training camp, shedding weight and gaining little on-court experience against NBA competition, couldn’t crack Avery Johnson’s rotation. In this compressed rookie season, practice time proved scarce, providing Williams little opportunity to improve and Johnson little sense of what he could offer.
Through 14 games, Williams made only six appearances, totaling 37 minutes – not even a full game’s worth – while posting six points and nine rebounds. He often looked lost, caught out of position and only able to offer the quickest of breathers for a teammate. His single-game high minutes total was 10.
So the Nets assigned him to the NBA Development League. In the first season of their hybrid, one-to-one affiliation with the Springfield Armor, the Nets took advantage of the relationship to get more minutes for Williams and more game tape for themselves to review.
“We talked to Jordan,” says Nets general manager Billy King, “(telling him) ‘It’s not a demotion – it’s a chance for you to play. Being where you are on the depth chart, you weren’t going to get minutes.’ It gave him a chance to go down there and play games, and get himself in game shape, because sometimes when you’re riding on the treadmill, riding on the bike, you don’t get that game conditioning.”
Williams got plenty – in 10 days with the Armor, he played 192 minutes in six games, an average (32.0) nearly as high as that cumulative NBA total. Playing under Armor coach Bob MacKinnon, Williams averaged 10.5 points, 7.8 rebounds (2.7 offensive), 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. That run, which included three double-doubles and single-game highs of 18 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots, began to show why the Nets believed enough in Williams’ potential to sign the second-round pick (No. 36 overall) to a three-year guaranteed deal.
Milton Lee, the Nets' general manager of minor league operations, who oversees basketball operations for the Armor, calls the assignment “the No. 1 reason” why the Nets purchased into a hybrid affiliation: “Bob executed it perfectly, in that Jordan was running a lot of the same plays that Avery would call, they were all the same terminology, schemes; it was very fluid for Jordan to come in and immediately play 35 minutes. There was no time lost on teaching a new scheme.”
MacKinnon says that the Armor players, aware of the hybrid affiliation’s nuances, readily accepted Williams onto the roster. They knew helping his development would earn positive recognition from the staff, and veterans like Lance Hurdle and L.D. Williams were able to take leadership roles during the assignment. Impressed by the hunger of players striving to achieve what he had already earned – an NBA guarantee – Williams committed himself to playing with a similar passion.
The transition back to the parent club was just as fluid. As injuries impacted the front line, the Nets recalled Williams and he saw light action in two straight games, notably grabbing four rebounds in nine minutes against the Pacers on January 31.
But one day later, with the team closing out a back-to-back set at home and only eight players healthy, Williams was the only available backup forward. He took advantage in an improbable 99-96 victory against the Pistons, setting modest career highs with nine points, eight rebounds (three offensive) and two steals in 20 ½ minutes off the bench. Seeming more comfortable on the floor, Williams even earned six free throws by cutting aggressively toward the basket on offense.
“Tonight was a great opportunity for me,” said Williams, afterward. “I got to play 20 minutes – the most I’ve played all year. Just to be in the rotation felt great. To know that coach trusts me enough to put me in there in regular situations was a great confidence booster for me. I’ve just got to take this and roll with it and continue to build my confidence.”
The 6-foot-10 forward said that the game experience in the D-League helped him slow down upon his return to the NBA, reigniting his ability to make “the little plays” he’s always done, grabbing offensive boards and keeping his turnovers in check. Williams’ role remained expanded for the next five games; he averaged 7.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.6 minutes during the six-game stretch.
“I think Bob MacKinnon and Chris Carrawell, our coaches down there, really did an outstanding job with Jordan,” Johnson says. “This is why I really believe in that minor league system. We’re able to send him down there, then get him back fairly quickly, in a short time frame: he played in a game on a Saturday night and came in and suited up for us on a Sunday night. For him to go down and run a lot of our offense down in the D-League with a lot of the same terminology, that’s what this experiment is all about. And we feel it was successful, with the way he came back physically and mentally.”
Johnson gave the Armor staff notes on what he wanted Williams to work on during the assignment, and MacKinnon and Carrawell – both Nets employees, and an extension of Johnson’s staff – were able to easily integrate a player already familiar with the system and terminology. The Armor coach points out that you see this in baseball all the time, where the long-established minor league system encourages the development of young players, even after their MLB debuts.
But the Nets aren’t only focused on developing players on the current NBA roster – their goal is to develop every player on the Armor, out of a belief that by aiming to improve everyone’s individual situation, team wins will result. That commitment has led to a season of success in Springfield, where the Armor have already set a franchise high for wins (19 and counting) as they ride a franchise-best six-game winning streak, having defeated the Iowa Energy, 117-102, on Thursday.
Three Armor players were recently named to the NBA D-League All-Star Game, which takes place during NBA All-Star 2012 in Orlando:
“I think it’s a great testament to our Springfield franchise and the Nets’ investment in this franchise to have three players (in),” MacKinnon says. “And I think it’s a great opportunity for our players now, if they go in with the same attitude that they have here: that they’re going to work hard and defend and rebound and play as a team. I think they will prove to people in the NBA that they can play at the next level. And I think all three guys going there are capable of playing at the NBA level.”
While guards Curry and Smith had each played for the Armor in 2010-11, and are reprising their roles in the starting backcourt, Horner had been selected in the third round of the D-League Draft; Foote was acquired out of the waiver pool, after the 7-foot center was cut by the Portland Trail Blazers toward the end of their NBA training camp. The Nets then held the highest waiver priority, allowing them to capitalize and add a player they’d been targeting since the offseason.
The executive staff then had to convince Foote, who was fielding offers from European teams, that playing for the Armor was his best available option. Lee and MacKinnon were able to sway the Cornell graduate by explaining their vision for the culture they hoped to create.
“I think that we are an attractive franchise to play for in the D-League,” Lee says. “Bob and I have talked about that from Day One, about creating a program where players really get a chance to develop and get better. The reason a player will go to the D-League is to get exposure to NBA teams and/or to develop; it’s not always mutually exclusive, and oftentimes, it’s the same thing. I think it’s something that we’ve been conscious of and that we’re trying to execute.”
As the second half of the season approaches, with mid-season benchmarks behind them, the Armor staff is redoubling its focus on development, hoping to see several players called up to the NBA now that 10-day contracts are options for team GMs. Lee and MacKinnon will continue their daily chats, strategizing and working with King, Johnson and assistant general manager Bobby Marks to ensure – as MacKinnon puts it – that the Springfield way is a “carbon copy” of the Nets’ way.
That’s what allowed Williams’ 10-day assignment to succeed, and why his numbers have improved upon his return. Even his teammates have noticed the difference. Williams has been playing behind power forward Kris Humphries, and the seven-year veteran is encouraged by what he’s seen.
“We didn’t practice much, and I didn’t see him play much (at first),” Humphries says. “But he’s in shape now. That’s good. I think he’s finding out that the NBA, there’s a lot to it, and there’s a lot of components to being successful in the NBA. He’s a rookie and I think he’s going to continue to learn; he’s asking questions and we’re answering them. The great thing about him asking questions is, if I’m telling him something, I’ve got to be accountable for that myself, and it reminds me what I’ve go to do, too. I think he’s going to continue to improve.”