Winding Journey Comes Full Circle (Again) for New Swarm Head Coach Joe Wolf
By Sam Perley
Maybe it’s only fitting that heading into its 30th anniversary season, the Charlotte Hornets’ newest G League Head Coach is somebody who’s been through the organization’s doors not once, but twice before.
Joe Wolf, who spent parts of three NBA seasons playing in Charlotte from 1994-95 and again in 1999, has officially been chosen to take over the Greensboro Swarm as the franchise heads into its third G League campaign.
"[There's] a little bit of pride figuring out that after almost close to 20 years of coaching that my resume spoke and I was able to get a position that I really wanted," said Wolf at his introductory press conference. “[There’s] a lot of good energy around the G League and knowing that this is a growing league and I’ll be a part of that. Just happy to be able to work for a great organization and a great owner. I’m more than pleased.”
But this isn’t a hiring motivated simply by familiarity or convenience. Since kicking off his coaching career nearly two decades ago, Wolf has circled the globe (literally) and dabbled in nearly every level the sport has to offer.
Standing 6’10” at the time of his graduation from Wisconsin’s Kohler High School back in 1983, Wolf had not only been a part of three Class C title teams, but was also the state’s first ever McDonald’s All-American. Twenty-two years later, Wolf was voted the greatest high school basketball player in Wisconsin history through a poll conducted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A big fish (emphasis on big) in a small pond though, Wolf wanted to compete against the best that the college game had to offer, which meant heading south to play for the legendary Dean Smith and his North Carolina Tar Heels. This also meant following in the footsteps of his older brother, Jeff, who played for Smith from 1976-80.
Over the course of his four years in Chapel Hill, Wolf played with the likes of his now-boss Michael Jordan, Buzz Peterson, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith and J.R. Reid. He averaged 15.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists his senior season on his way to First-Team All-ACC honors, capping a career that included four Sweet 16 and two Elite 8 appearances.
Wolf would soon land with the Los Angeles Clippers, who took him with the 13th overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. His career became that of journeyman’s as he suited up for seven different NBA teams over a 12-season professional career that also included one year in Spain. His playing days ended in 1999 after he suffered a dislocated elbow while playing for the Hornets.
And like for many players, when one door closes, another one opens and that’s exactly what happened for Wolf, who then returned to Kohler to coach three years at his alma mater. In doing so, he began incorporating the lessons he learned playing for Coach Smith and others in the NBA including Paul Westhead (Denver), Rick Adelman (Portland), Allan Bristow (Charlotte), Brian Hill (Orlando) and Dave Cowens (Charlotte).
He began coaching in the college ranks in 2003, when he was hired as an assistant at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. From there, Wolf went on to serve as the head coach of the Continental Basketball Association’s Idaho Stampede (2004-06) and the then D-League’s Colorado 14ers (2006-08), leading the latter – who he was also general manager of – to a Western Division title in 2007.
Wolf jumped to the NBA in 2008 to begin a five-year run as an assistant for his hometown Milwaukee Bucks, who made a pair of playoff appearances during his time on staff (2010 and 2013). Notable players on the roster during this period included 2010 All-NBA Third Team center and 2011 NBA blocks leader, Andrew Bogut, and 2010 All-NBA Rookie First Teamer, Brandon Jennings.
He spent another two years as an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets (2014-16), before winding up back in the college ranks on UNC-Wilmington’s staff this past season.
Additionally, Wolf also served three summers as the Director of Basketball Development for the Ukrainian Basketball Federation under Head Coach Mike Fratello. He helped lead the country to an unprecedented sixth-place finish at EuroBasket 2013 and its first-ever FIBA World Cup berth in 2014.
Summed up, Wolf’s resume is certainly extensive and looks even more impressive when you consider the fact he’s ventured down almost every path the sport has to offer.
“What helped me most? I think you’ve got to take a combination of all the places I’ve been and the experiences I’ve been through,” stated Wolf. “I don’t think you can say one particular spot. I hope that my resume was attractive because I’ve been so many places and I’ve learned possession by possession, a lot of different ways. Fortunately, for me, I get to learn from Coach Borrego. I’d like to think in total, I feel very confident in my skills.”
“He's got a teacher's mentality,” said Hornets Head Coach James Borrego. “We want to develop at the highest level. He's done that at different levels. He's played in the NBA, but he's coached at different levels, different organizations. You put it all together between his experiences as a coach, as a player and the person he is, he was the right fit for us.”
Wolf will indeed have a challenge on his hands as he looks to turn around a Swarm team which has struggled over its first two years of existence. The squad finished tied for last in the G League last season with a 16-34 record after going 19-31 back in 2016-17.
One of the most difficult components about coaching in the G League is the unpredictability mixed with balancing winning and development. Whether it’s to the NBA or overseas, rostered players can literally come and go at a moment’s notice, making adaptability a central requirement for any head coach.
As also emphasized by Borrego and President of Basketball Operations and General Manager, Mitch Kupchak, there might be nights where a player on the Hornets’ roster is suddenly sent to Greensboro, needs to play a certain amount of time and throws a bit of a wrench in the original game plan. That’s just one part of a job that Wolf has prepared to take on over his last several years of coaching.
Wolf is a Wisconsin native through and through, but the state of North Carolina certainly holds special significance in his basketball career. Judging by his excitement, enthusiasm and attitude, he’s certainly ready to begin his next chapter of coaching and above all, teaching.
“I can’t believe I get to live in Greensboro,” he said. “I love the Carolinas. For me, it’s a blessing. I can’t wait to be amongst the Greensboro fans – they’re passionate. It’s a great facility here. I look forward to that.”