At the beginning of the 2017-18 NBA season, nearly 40 percent of NBA players had experience in the NBA G League. But the NBA's minor league, which includes the Brooklyn Nets-affiliated Long Island Nets, is an incubator for more than just playing talent.
After an 11-year NBA career, one of Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks' first jobs was as general manager of the San Antonio Spurs' G League franchise. After a season as a basketball operations assistant, Marks was elevated to Director of Basketball Operations role that included running the minor league team in Austin.
He remembers it as his first opportunity to manage people, an invaluable experience on the road to his current job. He's an example of the league's impact.
"Where it's going and where it's come from, you can see it's going to grow exponentially," said Marks. "The opportunities that the G League has, not just for players, but for staff development too, are huge. It gives coaching staffs, front offices, performance teams, all opportunities in which to grow and cut their teeth."
Founded in 2001 with eight teams, the G League has evolved into a 26-team league increasingly featuring direct affiliations and often singular ownership between NBA and G League teams. That's the arrangement with the Brooklyn Nets, who launched the Long Island Nets for the 2016-17 season. After playing one season at Barclays Center, the team moved to NYCB LIVE, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for the 2017-18 season, following the completion of the arena's $165 million renovation.
The plans for the team were already in motion when Marks took the Brooklyn GM job in February 2016, but he would have considered it a priority to add a G League franchise if it wasn't already in place. It's an invaluable piece of the franchise's player development program.
Within a month of arriving in Brooklyn, Marks had hired Trajan Langdon to serve as assistant GM for the NBA franchise and general manager for Long Island. They brought in former Butler University star Ronald Nored as the team's first head coach.
"First of all, you're betting on the human, you're betting on the person, they have the right characteristics," said Marks. "They're passionate, they're inspired to want to be here, they want to learn, they want to grow. That's the right type of mindset we have to have there, because it's not flying private. It's still six-hour bus rides and so forth. There's some hard yards there that you've got to run. But at the end of the day, I think what Ron's done there has been great. We've seen him grow. It's been great for Trajan and (Long Island assistant GM) Matt Riccardi who have both been working that from a front office standpoint. I see they're trying to emulate the same things culture wise as we're trying to do."
After starring at Duke, playing for Cleveland and going on to a successful playing career overseas, Langdon had embarked on his post-playing career as a scout with the Cavaliers. His roles as both Brooklyn's assistant GM and Long Island's GM are intertwined. It represents the integration between Brooklyn and Long Island that the front office considers essential.
"It's all one thing, because the culture and the way we try to do things in Long Island doesn't change from the way we do things in Brooklyn," said Langdon. "We want it to mirror each other. We want whatever happens in Long Island is mirrored from Brooklyn, whether that's playing style, whether that's the way we treat our players."
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson stressed that the team considers the Long Island staff part of their staff. They're together when the G League is out of season. When everybody's got a game schedule to play, though, in-person connections become tougher.
That's part of what Langdon and Riccardi do, facilitating the flow of information between Brooklyn and Long Island, making sure there's a plan in place for player development and making sure those plans are followed.
The players signed to two-way contracts - James Webb III and Milton Doyle - are part of Brooklyn's 17-man roster and move between the two teams. So the correspondence between the two teams and the way they play has to be consistent.
"James Webb tomorrow gets called to Brooklyn, well he better know what we're doing here in Brooklyn," said Langdon. "LI better not be doing something different. Because he wouldn't want him to come here and have coverages or communication or schemes to be different, so he can pick up stuff quicker. And I think that's why he did pick up stuff quickly. He was there for four or five days. They taught him our schemes, offensively, defensively, our vocabulary, the way we communicate here, is the same way we communicate on the court there, so he was able to pick up terminology faster."
In addition to Webb and Doyle, Isaiah Whitehead is the third player currently in the organization to see action for both Long Island and Brooklyn this season. The second-year guard is part of Brooklyn's 15-man roster and plays regularly for Long Island on assignment.
Langdon, Riccardi and the rest of the Brooklyn front office built the Long Island roster with a mix of players, from young project players to local talent to experienced pros. J.J. Moore is a Long Island native who played at Rutgers.
Kamari Murphy played with Whitehead at Brooklyn's Lincoln HS before going on to Miami. Akil Mitchell teamed with Brooklyn's Joe Harris at Virginia. Shannon Scott is in his third pro season - two years in the G League and one overseas - after four years at Ohio State, teaming with Brooklyn's D'Angelo Russell in the backcourt as a senior.
"It's a two-pronged approach," said Langdon. "You want to be competitive. You want to have a good team so your young guys can develop. And for us that's the most important thing. It's a developmental league. We want a place where we can put our young guys, whether they be two-way developmental guys, or assignment players that go over to Long Island to play half the season, the majority of the season, four- to five-game stints. You want to have good players around where they can develop and they feel like, this is a place I want to come because I can compete at a level."
Atkinson, with his expertise in player development, is an unabashed fan of the G League and the benefits it provides.
"I've seen it work so many times," said Atkinson. "I told the Tim Hardaway story last time about him going to the G League - it was the D League back then - and getting in better shape and tuning his game up. I saw it with Jeremy Lin. He went to the D League and had a couple good games and boom he's back. Dennis Schroder. The Spencer Dinwiddies of the world. It's highly valuable for us. We're very close to our G League team, close with the coach, Ronald. We run the same stuff. I think it's an awesome thing what the NBA's done. I think it's going to grow and grow and get better."