Postseason Stars: Salt Lake squad overcomes injuries, adversity to make G League playoffs
Martin Schiller started shootaround with a quick scouting report.
“No middle, no paint,” the Salt Lake City Stars head coach instructed, as game film projected onto a naked wall inside the gym.
Then Schiller ended with an important announcement: “Willie bought us lunch today. Make sure to get some food.”
When Schiller and the Stars took Willie Reed with the first overall pick in the G League Draft last fall, they hoped the center, with his NBA skills and experience, would be helping the Stars with their playoff push. Just not like this.
When Reed was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in January, the Stars were devastated. But they weren’t defeated.
This week, they’ll make their first ever playoff appearance, taking on the Oklahoma City Blue on Tuesday night.
“It shows that the guys really came together, and kind of competed on a different level,” Schiller said.
To get it done, it took a team effort.
After struggling early last season, Schiller and Stars vice president of basketball operations Bart Taylor began planning a roster overhaul. The end result was 27-win campaign, the team’s first winning season since moving to Utah in 2016. The Stars’ 11-win improvement was tied for the largest season-over-season in the G League this year.
“The whole group has meshed together really well,” Taylor said. “We’ve tried to replicate what [head coach Quin Snyder] and [general manager Dennis Lindsey] have done at the Jazz level. We want good, hard-working guys that can share the ball and defend. The success is starting to show.”
In 2017, NBA rosters expanded from 15 to 17 with the addition of two-way contracts—roster spots for players who will spend the bulk of a season with the G League and up to 45 days with their NBA team. The change created an influx of talent for the G League.
“You’ve got 60 guys who would probably be playing overseas who are here now,” Taylor said. “It has really helped.”
And the Stars wouldn’t be in the postseason without the contributions of two-way players Tyler Cavanaugh (17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds) and Naz Mitrou-Long (18.7 points, 5.0 assists).
Cavanaugh, a 6-foot-9 forward, knows how quickly things in the G League can change. He opened last season with the Eerie Bayhawks. The next day, he was about to board a bus in Maine when he got the call that the Atlanta Hawks wanted him in Cleveland.
“I took two more flights and the next day I was suiting up against LeBron,” he said. “It was surreal, a moment I’ll never forget. It was a dream come true for me. I’m eager and excited for more.”
Cavanaugh thinks the Stars and the Jazz can help him get there.
“My agent and I were very excited about this opportunity with the Jazz,” Cavanaugh said. “The Jazz are known for developing players, and they have such a great winning tradition. The Stars being in the same city as the Jazz is a huge bonus. Being so close and the continuity between the G League staff and the Jazz staff is great. You’re hearing the same voices.”
Mitrou-Long watched as his best friend and former college roommate Georges Niang turned a G League opportunity into a full NBA contract. Over the summer, he signed a two-way deal with the Jazz hoping to one day do the same for himself.
“He’s a great example,” Mitrou-Long said. “I use that as motivation for myself. I stuck it out here because I want to play in the NBA. I just grind every day. I’m here putting extra shots up, putting extra time in film. All I can do is continue to work.”
Mitrou-Long has tasted the NBA, too, and is working for more.
“I’m able to reap the benefit of having Coach Q and the great mentors up there, and Coach Martin and the whole staff down here,” Mitrou-Long said. “I get the best of both worlds.”
During his exit interview with the Jazz last season, he was asked to study the game, learn every detail of how to run a team. Playing 32 minutes a night with the Stars has helped him progress from a guard who felt best in transition to a more complete player.
“He’s gotten better in his decision-making with the ball,” Schiller said. “He can run pick-and-rolls so much better than before. I’m intrigued to see where his career takes him.”
Grayson Allen’s week was a whirlwind.
The rookie guard suited up for two games with the Jazz last week in New York and Atlanta, and then two more for the Stars at Salt Lake Community College.
“There’s obviously a difference in travel, flying private and staying in five-star hotels,” Allen said, comparing his timeshare between the NBA and the G League. “But when it comes down to it, I get the same level of working out and practice here. I get the same coaching. They’re watching film with me after the game. They’re on me in practice and pregame. From that perspective, it doesn’t change.”
The attention and extra reps the Jazz players Allen and Tony Bradley get with the Stars are crucial. There were three things on Schiller’s checklist when he was named the Stars head coach. Player development was No. 1, and the coach knows his ultimate job is to get those players ready for the NBA.
The second thing on Schiller’s list was to develop a culture.
“We have a great relationship with the Jazz,” Schiller said. “Coach Q took me and our staff and put his arms around us from the very beginning. He pushed us into a kick-start. He made it easy for us.”
The third thing, though, was a box Schiller felt had been unchecked.
“The last thing is winning. That’s what we want to do this year,” he said at the Stars media day in the fall. “I understand we won two games more than the year before. But that’s definitely not enough, as a competitor.”
As the Stars tip off their first G League playoff game, Schiller and his players can feel good about the work that has been done.
“It’s great to get respect around the league, and it also feels great to feel yourself getting better,” Mitrou-Long said.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done here this season,” Taylor added. “All 50 games have mattered. To get Grayson, Tony, the two-way guys all the experience of playing in games that matter late in the season is important. That’s part of their growth.”