It’s the G League’s turn in the bubble, with the Long Island Nets tipping off their season this week on the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort.
Starting Wednesday, they’ll be playing 15 games in 25 days, with an eight-team, single-elimination playoff tournament beginning March 8 and a championship game slated for March 11. Eighteen teams will be participating, including the new G League Ignite squad, featuring a mix of draft-eligible prospects and NBA veterans but not directly affiliated with an NBA team. So several NBA franchises opted out of sending their G League squads, but not the Nets, whose G League affiliate is in its fifth season. Long Island General Manager Matt Riccardi — also Brooklyn’s Director of Scouting Operations — cited the support of ownership and the Brooklyn front office in making the commitment to go forward with participating. Brooklyn General Manager Sean Marks is a former G League GM, during his time with the San Antonio Spurs organization, and has emphasized the importance of the G League since taking over Brooklyn’s basketball operations in 2016.
“I think the decision was easy on our part,” said Riccardi, “just because of the strong backing we have in ownership and their belief in what Long Island has done in the past and hopefully will continue to do.”
A typical G League season would cover 50 games from early November to late March, and last season’s schedule was postponed in mid-March along with the NBA, before the remainder of the season was eventually cancelled.
Guard Shannon Scott will be playing in his fourth G League season, including two seasons for Long Island in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
“Obviously this is going to be a different situation for everybody involved,” said Scott. “This is something that no one’s ever really done on our team, so we’re all looking forward just to getting the opportunity to get back on the court. We understand that we’ve got to make some adjustments. It’s not going to be the way things used to be, or as easy-flowing as it used to be, but we’re all ready for the challenge.”
For a different kind of G League season, the Long Island roster is tilted a little more heavily toward players with not just G League, but NBA experience. Of the 10 players on the roster, four have played in the NBA: BJ Johnson, Tariq Owens, and Jeremiah Martin have all been on two-way contracts, Martin with Brooklyn last season. Elie Okobo was the 31st pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and spent the last two seasons with the Phoenix Suns.
“I think our core principles are still the same,” said Riccardi. “Looking for high-quality individuals that are selfless, that want to be part of something bigger than themselves, that can buy in to what we’re doing here as a Nets organization. So we’re never going to really waver on those principles in terms of the types of players we’re looking at, but I do think we looked at this bubble as an opportunity to get some players in front of us that we have liked over the years and haven’t gotten a chance to take a closer look at internally. We’re incredibly excited about this roster and the type of people that we’ve brought in here first and foremost, both on the staff and for the players.”
The format for the season may also lend itself to a little more consistency and continuity with the roster, partly due to the shorter season, but also to COVID protocols that may slow and limit player movement between the G League and the NBA. In a typical season, two-way players move back and forth, or are waived and replaced, as Brooklyn did with both two-way spots last season. Younger players on NBA contracts can also see time in the G League on assignment. Last season, 22 players played in a game for Long Island; the season before that there were 19.
For the start of the season, the Nets have sent one of their two-way players, rookie forward Reggie Perry, to participate. The Dallas Mavericks have also transferred both of their two-way players — Tyler Bey and Nate Hinton — to Long Island as Dallas has opted against sending its G League team to Florida. That gives Long Island 13 players to start the season.
Leading the way for Long Island will be first-year head coach Bret Brielmaier, who spent the last four seasons as an assistant on Brooklyn’s NBA staff. Riccardi said it was an “easy choice” to turn to Brielmaier, who got his NBA start with the San Antonio Spurs and spent three years as an assistant in Cleveland before coming to the Nets organization.
The two worked closely in Brooklyn, with offices nearby at HSS Training Center and a close relationship on developing players. Riccardi described Brielmaier as likely having more NBA coaching experience than any head coach in the G League bubble.
“He understands what it takes not only to be an NBA player, which is important for these guys, but also how to develop young players within our Nets system,” said Riccardi. “He had such success being part of the staff the last few years in Brooklyn and helping develop those guys and make our team and lay down the foundation for our culture, and it’s an easy transition for him and he has such a high upside. I think he will be an NBA head coach sometime soon, and this was an opportunity for him to get some head coaching reps under his belt. Couldn’t feel more comfortable in someone being part of Long Island based on everything he’s done in Brooklyn and all of his experience in the NBA before.”
In addition to Brielmaier, who was on Brooklyn’s coaching staff last summer, Long Island has several players who have experience with the bubble environment and can be a resource — Johnson was with the Magic, Okobo with the Suns, and Martin with the Nets.
“We were lucky enough that a few of our players were in the bubble, some with us, some with other organizations, so they had first-hand-experience and obviously Bret was in the bubble with Brooklyn, and his experience of what he was able to share with our group, both players and staff, has been impactful in terms of helping us understand what we’re going to deal with on a day-to-day basis, how we can best prepare, and the things that will be important once we get here,” said Riccardi. “Having so many members with some experience is a huge positive for our group.”
“It’s just about adapting,” said guard CJ Massinburg, returning for this second season with Long Island. “Us as humans, we’re made to adapt to any environment that we’re put in. I like how the G League and the NBA, they were able to get us in a pretty good spot to execute this plan, and we have the Ignite team here. Everything was set up pretty good. They take care of us, so I’m excited. I’m excited. I feel like they did everything they could to make this as comfortable for us., We’re just given the opportunity to succeed, so I’m excited about everything.”