Believe it or not, the Denver Nuggets' journey to securing their G League affiliate actually started over a decade ago.
Ben Tenzer got his foot in the door with the Nuggets organization as an intern in 2006 and one of his initial assignments was to scout the then-D League for talent. There was a follow-up request: Scout the teams themselves and learn how they operate.
When Tenzer was initially brought on full-time as the Director of Basketball Operations years later, he would quickly realize that work was in part to help Denver in a potential search for a minor league affiliate.
“I was hired in 2013 by Josh [Kroenke] and Tim [Connelly] and that was one of the first things that was brought up. ‘You were doing a lot of the minor league stuff before, let’s focus on getting a team,’” Tenzer recalled to Nuggets.com. “Sure enough, eight years later, we finally have our team and it is an incredible setup.”
On Tuesday, the Nuggets and Grand Rapids minor league basketball team formally announced their affiliation. For Denver, the move was a relatively easy decision once it became available and fits along with the organizational focus on developing players. For Tenzer, it’s an almost full circle move. The 36-year-old will help oversee the team and have a hands-on role in hiring the team’s coaching staff and front office.
“This is a new opportunity for me and it will be a lot of fun,” Tenzer said before later adding. “We’ll be able to send our assignment players and two-way players to a team and totally control their development, which we were never able to do in the past.”
Being able to create a conducive environment towards that goal of development is what ultimately led the Nuggets in picking Grand Rapids. Although the Nuggets considered some other options, their new affiliate offered some unique advantages.
Grand Rapids is the second-largest city in Michigan after Detroit and was recently ranked as the No. 1 minor league sports market in America. The Grand Rapids G League team, known as the Drive during its time with the Pistons, consistently placed in the top five of attendance in the minor league. The team attracted almost 4,000 fans a night prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, by comparison, some teams see crowds in the hundreds. Lastly, the team had a track record of success since its relocation to Grand Rapids in 2014. Over its last four seasons, the team won over 50 percent of its games. This checked all the boxes for the Nuggets organization that puts a significant emphasis on culture.
“The driving force there is the atmosphere,” Tenzer explained. “[The Grand Rapids organization] has been great to work with and they’ve run a really successful model since their inception in 2014.”
He added, “The setup [in Grand Rapids] is fantastic, from housing to the weight room to the practice court, the whole situation there is ideal for a G League team and we are lucky to have the opportunity to partner with them.”
Connelly, the Nuggets President of Basketball Operations, agreed with Tenzer’s assessment.
“We also know that Grand Rapids is a great organization that operates at a high level and we are looking forward to the collaboration with them and feel it’s just a great situation all around,” Connelly wrote in an email to Nuggets.com.
Over the next few months, Tenzer will be hard at work in finding suitable staff to bring the Nuggets ethos to Grand Rapids. He revealed members of the Nuggets’ current coaching and front office staff could be involved in key positions for the Grand Rapids organization.
“We’re definitely going to be looking at all of those opportunities to utilize the development team [Grand Rapids] and better our staff,” Tenzer said. “I think we’ll look at filling some of those roles with people who are already in the Nuggets organization.”
“A huge part of this puzzle is having our own staff be there and if it’s not our current staff [i/e external hires], hiring people that fit into the Nuggets organization in terms of value, ethics, and culture. It gives us a chance to develop them into future Nuggets’ staff.”
Tenzer envisions having the potential new hires of Grand Rapids working closely with the Nuggets staff in situations like a summer league, training camp, or during various points of the season.
“We’re definitely going to take advantage of that, because why wouldn’t we,” Tenzer said. “It’s an extra opportunity to develop more staff and create more synergy.”
Jordi Fernandez, one of the Nuggets’ assistant coaches, points to his time in the G League as a critical part of his career. Fernandez spent four years at the Canton Charge, including two as head coach.
“Another benefit that I think gets overlooked is that the G League is not only for the development of players, but also for coaches, strength and conditioning and medical staffs, front office positions and so on,” Fernandez told Nuggets.com via email. “It now gives us the chance to find opportunities for people looking to grow and learn and show what they’re capable of. Speaking as a former coach and eventual head coach in the G League, I can personally say how much it helped in my growth and career.”
Having the proper foundation in place will be essential for the Nuggets to take the success they’ve had with players in the G League to another level. Since Connelly’s arrival with the Nuggets organization in 2013, the team has heavily focused on trying to find value through the draft and free agency.
The team has built a young and exciting core on players who were largely overlooked before they arrived in the NBA. Nikola Jokić, the team’s centerpiece and frontrunner for MVP, was the 41st pick of the 2014 draft. Monte Morris, one of the best backup point guards in the NBA, was selected with one of the final 10 picks of the 2017 draft. A two-way contract was initially how the Nuggets secured PJ Dozier, one of the team’s most valuable reserve players.
For players like Morris, Dozier, and former key contributors like Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig, the G League was instrumental in their current success. Before acquiring their affiliate, the Nuggets would often have to scout the teams that they were considering using to aid with development. It was an exhaustive process as the team would research coaching staffs and training facilities.
When a player got to the team that was selected for them, the coach of that team would determine how said player fits, not the Nuggets. Dozier, for example, played positions one through four during his time with the Windy City Bulls. While the experience was invaluable, Dozier was strongly considered for G League MVP during his stint there, the Nuggets’ desire to be more hands-on was another key component in acquiring a minor league affiliate.
“One really cool aspect of this hybrid partnership is that we can have an actual connection to a G League affiliate that we haven’t been able to have in the past,” Connelly explained. “We can continue to build our Nuggets culture from the ground up and really be hands-on with the players and staff which is something we’re really excited about.”
Tenzer could barely hide his excitement when considering the potential options the Nuggets will have when sending players on assignment. It is the culmination of his early efforts with the organization and a chance to provide substantial dividends in the future.
“I think it's a really exciting opportunity to be creative,” he said. “Our staff will be encouraged to experiment in the hopes of helping the team and the players grow.”
“If we believe a player has the potential to play point guard, let’s have him play that role extensively in Grand Rapids. Or if a frontcourt player is a great shooter, let’s have him shoot a lot of threes and stretch his range down there."