How the Wizards utilize the Go-Go to develop young coaches: "We have the best situation in the G League."
Last week, the Capital City Go-Go, G League affiliate of the Wizards, named Mike Williams the third head coach in team history – a continuation of Washington’s emphasis on utilizing the Go-Go for its developmental opportunities not just for players, but for coaches and front office staffers as well.
Williams, whose background includes four seasons with the University of Maryland basketball team and a stint with the Trail Blazers, has worked with Monumental Basketball for the last three years in player development roles with the Wizards and Go-Go.
His hiring marks a return to normal after the Go-Go players and staff competed as flex-affiliates with the Erie BayHawks in the G League bubble in Orlando last season. In 2019-20, Ryan Richman was named head coach of the Go-Go after six seasons with the Wizards in basketball operations and player development roles. Richman has since rejoined the Wizards staff and will serve as an assistant coach on Wes Unseld Jr.’s staff. Richman was preceded by Jarell Christian, who coached Capital City during its inaugural 2018-19 season. Christian was an outside hire, joining the organization after four seasons with the G League’s Oklahoma City Blue, but remained with the Wizards’ organization afterward as an assistant coach.
“With the player development and coaching staff we have with the Wizards, we have a lot of talent that has a lot of coaching potential,” Go-Go general manager Amber Nichols said. “What better way to grow that potential than to utilize them as head coaches for the Go-Go? I think that speaks to Monumental Basketball and this idea that they grow internally.”
Nichols assumed her current role in a similar fashion, becoming the second female general manager in G League history when she was promoted to the role earlier this year. She worked as director of basketball operations during the Go-Go’s inaugural season and assistant general manager of operations before taking over as general manager.
“We have the best situation in the G League,” Nichols said. “Just the cohesiveness that’s built. I can walk down the hall and talk to Tommy Sheppard. Mike can walk down the hall and talk to Wes Unseld Jr. It’s something that a lot of teams don’t have and it’s invaluable for us to have that type of access.”
Williams, too, calls the Go-Go infrastructure the best in the G League, highlighting how helpful that cohesiveness is on the player development side.
“The access that our players and staff will have to the Wizards is unparalleled,” he said. “For our guys to see how NBA players work, how they approach the day-to-day grind I think will be very beneficial. A lot of times, your G League team is so far away that you never see the NBA personnel. Just having opportunities every day to be seen by somebody from the NBA team, whether it’s a coach or a player or somebody in the front office, it’s very valuable.”
Williams and Richman have developed a rapport dating back years. Each worked with the University of Maryland basketball team before joining the NBA ranks and have shared a dialogue about coaching ever since. That relationship has persisted as each climbed their respective career ladders, most notably in the 2019-20 season during which Williams ran player development for the Go-Go team led by Richman. Since the hire was announced, Williams says he’s leaned on Richman for advice and insight about the job.
“Ryan has been a tremendous resource for me,” Williams said. “He’s walked me through different ways to approach running practice. He’s talked about different ways to make your voice heard, but without being overwhelming to the players to where your people tune you out. He’s been open to any questions that I’ve had. He’s an open book.”
“I’m so excited for Mike,” Richman said. “I think he’s going to do such a great job. He’s going to take from all the experiences he’s had and make it his own. Take what you like, take what you don’t like and make it something that you can be proud of at the end of your tenure.”
Both said the most important piece of advice is simple: no amount of practice or film study can ready a coach for the real thing.
“You can prepare for it all you want, but the reality is that once you’re in the job, nothing can prepare you for it like doing it,” Richman said. “That’s something that is hard to describe. Calling a timeout in an end-of-game situation and you have 30 seconds to tell them the action and where they need to be.”
Luckily for Williams, he gained valuable experience in that department last season, serving as head coach of the Erie BayHawks, the Go-Go’s flex-affiliate in the G League bubble, for two games – including a win over the Lakeland Magic on February 18.
“We kind of threw him in the fire,” Nichols said. “Being able to see how he dealt with adversity coaching against two very veteran, seasoned G League coaches. He didn’t waver. The guys respected him, his voice and that was something we thought was a good sign that would carry over to him being full coach full time.”
“Coaching those two games in the bubble, the thing that sticks with me the most is that regardless of how much you prepare, you’ve got to be ready to make adjustments because you just don’t know what’s going to happen during the game,” Williams said. “And you have to understand that your team is going to take after your own demeanor.”
The Wizards’ coaching staff is loaded with G League experience, including three of the team’s new assistant coaching hires. Mike Miller spent the 2015-2019 seasons as head coach of the Westchester Knicks, winning G League Coach of the Year in 2018 and leading the team to the playoffs in three of his four seasons. Joseph Blair coached with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers from 2015-19, spending the first three seasons as an assistant and the fourth as head coach. During his one season as head coach, he led the Vipers to a 34-16 record and a championship. Pat Delany, also joining Unseld Jr.’s staff this season, spent the 2013-14 season as head coach of the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
The G League has proven to be a training ground for coaches and executives as much as it has for players – and while the most practical lessons will come on the sidelines, those with G League coaching experience say the lessons you learn about coaching off the court can be just as important.
“The little things like making the schedule – when are you going to practice, when are your days off, when are you going to travel, are you going to take a bus or fly?” Richman said. “It’s great preparation for all that and making decisions as a leader. It’s hard to put into words how valuable the experience is.”
“One thing to think about with the G League is that you are around the players all the time,” Richman continued. “You’re traveling together, you’re on an 18-person bus everywhere. You’re seeing everyone all the time. That builds a lot of camaraderie, but it also builds up your ability to connect with players.”
Richman shared one particularly resonant example from his time as Go-Go head coach.
“I remember we had a tough loss in Fort Wayne. It stung. It was an inflection point in our season. We were traveling back to D.C. early the next morning, sitting around, talking at the airport. It can’t always be about basketball. You can’t be there at the Fort Wayne airport at 5 a.m. talking about a pick-and-roll coverage from the night before. That’s not going to work.”
Williams is eager to embrace those challenges that come with the job. Armed with experience on the college and pro level, in both player development and traditional coaching roles, he’s proven himself ready despite being the youngest head coach in the league at just 25 years old. Williams says his coaching approach is evolving and that he won’t pin himself into a corner with any labels or over-arching declarations about his style, but that an emphasis on player development will be prevalent in everything his Go-Go team does.
“Player development is something that is involved in everything,” Williams said. “It’s not just its own entity. It’s ingrained in everything we do, whether that’s in film or on the court – there is always something that we can get better at as individuals that can help our team become more successful.”