Building a Pipeline
Since Brett Brown's first day in Philadelphia, on through Elton Brand's transition from the front court to the front office, development has been a core principle driving the 76ers.
From the expansion of the team's coaching and player development staffs, to the construction of the 76ers Training Complex in Camden, and the build-out of 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware, the organization – led by Managing Partner Josh Harris and Co-Managing Partner David Blitzer - has never hesitated to commit resources to helping players grow and excel.
The ripple effects of this mentality can be felt across the board, which brings us to the franchise's NBA G League program, the Delaware Blue Coats, now on the cusp of its second season since being rebranded.
In some sports, the connotation of being “sent” to a developmental league like the G League can sometimes come with perceived negativity. The exact opposite is true in respect to how the Sixers conduct business in Delaware.
For many of the club's rising young players and prospects, being “sent" to Wilmington is only an acknowledgment of the city’s geographic location, just south of the 76ers' headquarters. These days, an assignment to the Blue Coats presents players with opportunities to amplify their skill sets, while further refining their expertise on the Sixers' systems, play calls, and schemes.
Looking for proof of concept? Just ask Zhaire Smith.
The 2018 no. 16 overall pick is currently training with the Coats, and recently said he's excited to be getting more reps and playing time.
"I'm feeling good, just getting ready to come out here and play some games. It's better for me."
To Elton Brand, the Blue Coats have become a valuable and vital part of the Sixers' growth plan. Smith's story represents one of many examples.
"I want 76ers fans to see what we're doing in Delaware from a development standpoint," Brand said in an interview. "We take pride in having the Blue Coats as an extension of the Sixers. And that's what the Blue Coats are, a true extension."
Here's more evidence:
Over the summer, Shake Milton, who spent most of last season in Delaware, had his two-way contract with the Sixers converted to a full-time deal, while G League All-Defensive Team selection Norvel Pelle, who was also with the Blue Coats a year ago, signed his own two-way pact.
"It's a partner in our laboratory," Brett Brown said of the Blue Coats. "It's a science project in a way that is going to be used to benefit us. It can go all over the place, from situational basketball, to offense, to defense - whatever. But it's connected."
The Sixers' use of the Blue Coats as an organizational development tool, however, goes beyond the floor. Nearly a dozen people who finished the 2018-19 season on the Coats' basketball operations staff have since moved on to higher positions, internally or elsewhere.
"It's not just the players, it's also the staff," said Brand. "Myself, I started in my first true leadership role as a GM in the G League. It afforded me an opportunity to grow and develop. We're looking to promote from within, and give our staff and employees opportunities to grow."
And with the Blue Coats' new season on the horizon, the Sixers are looking to continue reaping productive returns.
Forming the Foundation of a Pipeline
Connor Johnson's day usually starts the night before, when he begins putting plans in place for the Blue Coats' next practice.
The following morning, he rises early from his home in Graduate Hospital, picks up assistant coach Alex Teres who lives a few blocks away, hops in the passenger seat, and continues refining his practice outline with Teres behind the wheel for the rest of the 40-mile drive to Wilmington, Delaware.
"Regularly my mind is blown that I am the head coach of a professional basketball team, anywhere, let alone the G League," Johnson said earlier this month during a conversation at 76ers Fieldhouse. "It's very hard to see 10 years ago that this is a job I would have at this point, and because of that, I'm grateful."
Why couldn't Johnson envision himself being a pro head coach way back when? Maybe it's because he still couldn't drink yet.
A few months shy of his 30th birthday, Johnson has ascended swiftly to the top seat on the Blue Coats' bench. He played at Amherst College in Massachusetts, landed a gig with Jay Wright at Villanova, and was then hired by Brett Brown in 2014 for an entry level position.
In 2017, Johnson was named the Sixers' Director of Player Development and Coaching Administration. A year later, he was tapped to lead the Blue Coats.
"I've learned how many facets there are to being a head coach of a professional team, from how you approach the players, their development, the strategic and technical areas, to building a team with a strong culture and identity. I think it's been a constant learning experience for me."
The theme of learning by doing strikes at the heart of what the G League is all about. That's because the setting of the league is such that mistakes are not only expected, but embraced - as long as they lead to individual improvement.
"That's kind of why we're all here," says Matt Lilly.
Lilly is another example of how the Sixers utilize the G League as a pipeline for advancement. He was a student manager at Towson University seven years ago, broke into the G League with the Erie BayHawks, and not too long after that, he was hired as Delaware's Director of Basketball Operations and Scouting.
This time last year, Lilly was thrust into the Blue Coats' Interim General Manager role when Elton Brand took over the Sixers. He had previously been acting as Brand's right-hand man.
"I've done basically everything that can be done at the G League level - from laundry to driving the team van to expanding my role in the front office and now being the GM," said Lilly, who, like Johnson, is in his late 20s. "Not all of it was fun, but I think all of it was pretty invaluable, and helped me get to where I am."
This summer, Lilly's interim tag was removed, and he assumed the Blue Coats' general manager role full-time.
With the new G League season about to begin, Johnson and Lilly are eager to build upon several important developmental wins from last season.
On the player front, after getting off to a strong start with the Blue Coats, Haywood Highsmith was signed by the Sixers to a two-way contract.
Shake Milton finished last year second in the G League in scoring, and carved out a steady role in the 76ers' rotation during the preseason.
Norvel Pelle topped the G League in field goal percentage (70.3%) in 2018-19, and ranked second in blocks per game. He was inked to a two-way contract during the offseason.
In the basketball operations realm, almost a dozen Blue Coats coaches and front office staff members have gone on to accept prominent roles in basketball, either internally within the Sixers organization, or elsewhere.
Chase Buford left his role as an assistant under Johnson to take the head job with the Wisconsin Herd, the Milwaukee Bucks' G League squad. Jason Crafton, another Blue Coats assistant last season, is now the head coach at the University of Maryland - Eastern Shore. Kelly Peters moved up from Delaware to a coaching associate role with Sixers. Brady Graber went from Manager of Basketball Operations with the Blue Coats to Assistant General Manager for the Memphis Hustle, the Grizzlies' G League affiliate.
Across the board, development taking place.
"We have very clearly defined goals, and one of our strengths is that we know from one to three what our goals are," Johnson said. "The first is to develop players into 76ers contributors, guys who can play for the 76ers in meaningful minutes. The second is developing a culture that can withstand roster movement, that we have a strong core of the right guys who Matt has brought in who compete the right way.. And then our third goal is to develop staff so they can move on with the Sixers."
Like the 76ers themselves, the Blue Coats leadership team seeks to bring the best and brightest talent on board. Ruben Boumtje Boumtje not only managed to double major in mathematics and biology at the esteemed Georgetown University, he was pre-med too.
Oh, and by the way, the Cameroonian also played basketball while he was in school, finishing with the fourth-most blocked shots in program history. He was drafted 50th overall in 2001, spent three seasons in the NBA, then went overseas.
When his professional hoops career ended in 2011, Boumtje Boumtje went on to become a data scientist and strategy consultant for Siemens. He wanted to get back into basketball, was hired by the Sixers as a technical scout in 2018, and is now the Blue Coats' Assistant General Manager.
"I think culture is a big thing for us," said Lilly. "In my role, the biggest thing I can do is identify the characteristics we're targeting in people. We want to bring high-character people into our organization, so we do a lot of work in the scouting capacity, the intel-collection capacity to make sure we have the right people in here.
"I think Coach Johnson and his staff do a great job of taking them and getting a level of buy-in to a culture of working, growing, and coming in ready to learn and get better every day."
For as productive a pair as Johnson and Lilly have made, the Blue Coats are by no means a two-person show - and Johnson and Lilly would be the first people to tell you this.
To revisit Elton Brand's words, the Coats are an "extension" of the 76ers, and that's precisely how the Coats are treated - all hands on deck.
Three full-sized practice courts are awash in late-October natural sunlight. 76ers' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Alex Rucker, Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Marc Eversley, and Vice President of Scouting Vince Rozman are all monitoring the action, with Sixers' player development coaches Dwayne Jones and Tyler Lashbrook helping lead drills.
All five of these people, naturally, are regulars at the 76ers Training Complex in Camden. But on this particular day, they were on hand at 76ers Fieldhouse for the first practice of Delaware Blue Coats' training camp.
For Jones and Lashbrook, the turnaround was especially quick. They had just gotten back to Philadelphia earlier in the morning - like 1:00 AM early - following the 76ers' road win in Atlanta. That's barely enough time to freshen up, let alone unpack.
Nevertheless, Jones and Lashbrook were in Wilmington, eagerly lending a helping hand.
When it comes to the Blue Coats, the Sixers don't just lean in, they're all in.
"It's a commitment from the 76ers level and the resources that they've been willing to put into this program that creates an infrastructure for players and staff to come here and be in an environment that fosters growth and success," said Matt Lilly. "That's just a testament to the commitment and investment that's been made at the NBA level."
The commitment level that Lilly describes, however, goes beyond visits from executives, coaching contributions, and money. There is a heavy emphasis on collaboration and mission alignment.
The 76ers want the lines with the Blue Coats to be blurred. Everyone is seen as one and the same, pursuing a common objective.
"We don't treat it as 76ers staff and Blue Coats staff," Lilly said. "It's one organization that works together on a plan for a player's path, and what the goals and checkpoints are that we're looking to check off."
In Lilly's case, he communicates constantly - every day by phone, text, on Slack, whatever it is - with several of the Sixers' top executives, including Brand, Rucker, and Vice President of Player Development Annelie Schmittel.
Connor Johnson, meanwhile, does his own daily check-ins with the Sixers' assistant coaches and their stable of seven player development coaches, as well as with members of the Sixers' video staff. Because the Blue Coats' offensive and defensive schemes mirror those of the Sixers, Johnson wants to stay on top of any new wrinkles that Brett Brown adds to his system.
There's also regular interfacing between the Athlete Care and Strength and Conditioning staff based in Camden and Wilmington.
The point of all this communication and collaboration is to seamlessly unify the 76ers and Blue Coats experience, especially for players who move from one roster to the other.
"There's no break in what these players get - whether they're here or in Camden with the Sixers, that they're getting the same things they need and have the same resources available to help them get better," said Johnson. "Their development plan is continuous, and it's our job to implement it while they are here."
Let's localize things to Shake Milton and his on-court development plan. The Sixers not only consider him to be a player who could further grow in their system, but prosper.
In a perfect, big picture world, the hope is that the 2018 no. 54 pick will be a contributor to the 76ers with shooting and defense.
So, while Milton was with the Blue Coats last season during portions of his rookie campaign, the focus was for him to continue working on his perimeter game, and zero in on on-ball defense, especially his toughness guarding pick-and-rolls.
With Delaware, Milton also ran the point a good amount, which Johnson believes will only help the SMU product make better decisions for the Sixers in instances when he does have the ball in his hands.
"I think his year with us helped him to become a better player now," Johnson said. "As the Sixers look for who's going to be in their wing rotation, Shake, when healthy, is right there fighting for a spot. I think Shake will continue to grow, and as the Sixers progress, I hope he's a big part of it."
Then, there's Norvel Pelle, who was a ruthless, rim-protecting revelation a season ago. The 26-year old didn't play in college, was undrafted in 2014, and subsequently went overseas for a bit.
He was signed by the Sixers last August, and showed enough flashes with the Blue Coats in 2018-19 that the 76ers brought him back on a two-way contract.
"I think Norvel is someone who we're particularly proud of," said Lilly. "To me, he's a great example of how everyone's journey is not as linear as you want it to be, right? The talent has always been there. To see him kind of finally put it together and now get the two-way, we're pretty fired up for Norvel."
Heading into their second season together, Johnson and Lilly have helped establish a sturdy foundation in Delaware. With the 76ers throwing their full-fledged support behind the Blue Coats, the results yielded promise.
Lilly said, "Everyone is on board with carving out what the plan looks like for a guy, what is our vision, and how can we help him get there."
Oftentimes, Brett Brown refers to a 7-foot All-Star from Cameroon as the 76ers "crown jewel."
The Delaware Blue Coats' crown jewel? It's even more massive - way more massive. Like 161,000 square feet massive.
Opened in January 2019, 76ers Fieldhouse stands as arguably the most modern and comprehensive facility of its kind. In addition to housing three full-size NBA basketball courts with a seating capacity for 2,500 people, the building is home to seven soccer fields, and multiple turf training fields for lacrosse, field hockey, and football.
There are few recreational complexes like 76ers Fieldhouse anywhere, let alone in the G League.
“The 76ers Fieldhouse is a beautiful, one-of-a-kind facility and it is a fantastic example of the investments NBA teams have made in the development of their players through the NBA G League,” said NBA G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim. “It’s a place where players can develop their skills and the community can gather, compete, and rally behind their team - and a building I love to watch a game in!”
"We're really lucky," said Matt Lilly. "I think this is the best facility in the G League. The fact that we have even three full NBA courts at our disposal is a big help. To have a team space that is really our home base, where our players and staff have 24 / 7 access to the locker room, the weight room, training room, and on the staff side to have our office space here, we're just lucky to have a place that is our home. It is world class."
A sparkling new facility with plenty of creature features is one way to ensure that players in particular feel acclimated and well-adjusted in Delaware.
Another factor in this equation, however, cuts deeper, and isn't something you can reach out and touch.
An inherent reality of development leagues is that they could - depending on the person - be viewed as a stop along the way, a step that's the mile marker along a bigger journey. Truth be told, this is pretty commonly the case.
When the NBA regular season began two and a half weeks ago, 42% of the players on start-of-season rosters across the league had passed through the G League at some point in their careers. The league counts present Sixer Trey Burke, former Sixer Robert Covington, and All-Stars Rudy Gobert and Khris Middleton as notable alumni.
In the G League, just every player enters with lofty aspirations. Managing this dynamic requires a certain human touch.
"I think six years in this league I've developed a pretty high level of empathy for G League players," Lilly said. "I think it at times can be really hard to be so close to where you want to be. For me more than anything, whether it's a call-up or a trade or whatever, I want people who came through here and played for the Blue Coats to leave and say, 'Delaware treats us well, the people there care about us as human beings and players - I was respected, got a fair shake, and they really were invested in my success.' I think that is a fairly common theme around the league now, but we want to be the best at it."
Prioritizing player welfare goes into virtually every decision that Lilly, Connor Johnson, and other Blue Coats stakeholders make - from housing to team flights. As Elton Brand said, he wants the Sixers best-in-class" in regards to every touchpoint of the organization.
The hope is that with extra care comes greater comfort, and the creation of an environment in which all players feel they can thrive.
"There are two parts," said Johnson. "We want players to know the coaches and staff are committed to their success and will do whatever it takes for them to be successful. I think the second part is that we hope players have the most professional experience that they can have in Delaware - that they came here and every resource that they could possibly need to become the best player they can be, they had."
That goes for every player who surfaces on the Blue Coats' roster - from the diamond-in-the-rough prospect who spends his whole season with the team, to a 76er who is temporarily assigned to Delaware in order to stay fresh and fine tune his skills.
Brand remembers a conversation he had with Jonah Bolden, the Sixers' second-year big man who as a rookie logged eight games with the Blue Coats.
"He appreciated the G League a lot more in our organization and our team because he said it helped him play against a really high level of competition, and run the same exact plays that we're running," Brand said. "There's nothing like the opportunity to play in front of fans and have our great facility. You can't replicate an actual game situation by practicing on the side or scrimmaging with an NBA team, even if it's against All-Stars and All-League players.
"Between the Fieldhouse, Coach Johnson and the way he's marrying the Blue Coats' system with ours, Matt Lilly making sure the players know their roles not only to develop for the Blue Coats but if they have an opportunity with the Sixers, it really helps us as an entire organization."
In Delaware, the 76ers are doubling down, one hand washing the other. And with the Blue Coats' proving to be a valuable feeder on both the player and staff levels, the entire franchise only continues to point up.
"'Best-in-class' is our philosophy when it comes to anything we're part of, anything we touch," said Brand.
It's a mindset, with the manifestations paying major dividends.