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Nets want more out of G-League ... and are starting to get it

Long Island Nets

The G-League on the verge of its final expansion, This season, there are 26 NBA teams with affiliates. Next year, the Wizards will the join the mix, fielding a team who’ll play their new training facility in the nation’s capital. The Pelicans are committed to a team and looking at locations along the Gulf Coast. That will leave the Trail Blazers and Nuggets without teams ... and under increasing pressure to field them.

What’s next? The NBA sees the G-League as part of a feeder system much in the same way European soccer and basketball teams have established junior leagues across the continent. If that puts them in conflict with the NCAA in some ways, the league is prepared to deal with that.

As Sean Marks told us two weeks ago, the G-League is likely to be “completely different in a few years.” Whatever that G-League looks like, the Nets are in a good place, literally and figuratively, to take advantage of things.

They play in what is easily the G-League’s biggest, most modern venue, at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, and have a financial commitment from the team’s owners to use Long Island as a development tool, a launching pad and scouting base. While not quite equating the G-League with the Draft, Marks noted it’s a big part of the team’s culture.

“It’s never done. We’ve got to continue to drive it. It’s also about finding those pieces, whether it’s in the draft, whether it’s finding guys through the G-league and developing our own,” he told us.

Indeed, in interviews with NetsDaily, the Nets official website and Newsday, Marks has talked about the potential.

Under Marks, the Nets have had G-League success, but so far more through the scouting base than through the launching pad, from watching teams that play the Long Island Nets. Sean Kilpatrick, Spencer Dinwiddie, Quincy Acy, even Joe Harris, were players whose D- (now G-) League exploits the Nets knew about in part from watching Long Island. The Nets signed Dinwiddie a week after he dropped 25 points and handed out 12 assists for the Windy City Bulls against Long Island last season.

Now, in their second year, they’re starting to develop their own, happy with the progress their two-way players, Milton Doyle and James Webb III, are making this season. And at the same time, getting solid minutes and experiences for their own end-of-benchers, like Isaiah Whitehead, who hit for 52 points in a G-League game last week.

It’s taken a while, some fits and starts, for the Nets to get there. After becoming one of the first NBA teams to fully embrace the D-League during Mikhail Prokhorov’s early days as owner, the Nets didn’t do much to develop their club, the Springfield Armor. Billy King never attended a single Armor game in Springfield.

Then, in 2014, they decided to opt out of the D-League altogether when they couldn’t reach an agreement with the owner of the Springfield affiliate. He sold the team, lock, stock and draft picks, to a group of Michigan businessmen and the Nets went without a minor league team for two years until deciding to create their own just before King exited. Prokhorov agreed to spend $6 million for the expansion rights to the Long Island Nets.

Marks inherited the team, which played last year at Barclays Center and is now a permanent fixture at NYCB Live, the official name for the Coliseum. And while King had planned to install long-time associates of his —”cronies,” as one insider then called them— to run the club, Marks went in a different direction. He had been the GM of the Spurs’ Austin team as a neophyte basketball operations manager and realized the value of giving young staff bigger roles so they, like the players they’re charged with, could develop.

“It’s important that you’re bringing in players that are basketball fits, but they’re also culture fits, too,” Marks told Greg Logan this week. “The piece that’s often left out is the staff development in the G League. If they’re micromanaged all the time, then you’re probably not helping them as much as you should. I do believe the staff there enjoys having a certain level of autonomy.”

So Marks installed Trajan Langdon, who he hired away from Cleveland as his assistant GM, to run Long Island and promoted long-time basketball operations staffer Matt Riccardi as the No. 2. He stole his head coach, Ronald Nored, from Brad Stephens who had coached him at Butler then hired him in Boston. Langdon is 41, Riccardi 32, Nored 28 (on Thursday).

And most important of all, he installed all of the Nets systems in Long Island. That’s not rare. In fact, it’s the G-League norm to ease players’ transitions ... both ways. The Nets, not surprisingly, take it very seriously.

“James Webb tomorrow gets called to Brooklyn, well he better know what we’re doing here in Brooklyn,” Langdon told Tom Dowd of the Nets website. “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.”

There are indications that the Nets two-way players are developing faster than they had before joining the Brooklyn organization. Doyle, 24, has been as much a revelation at the G-League level as Dinwiddie has been at the NBA. He was not a serious NBA Draft candidate at Loyola Chicago, averaging 15.2 points a game last season and shooting 35.3 percent from deep. He was a four year senior and had sat out a year after transferring from Kansas.

In Long Island, he’s been top five in G-League scoring (21.8 points) and 3-pointers made (3.5). He had a high game of 42 points last month and made the All G-League Mid-Season Team.

Webb, too, has shown dramatic improvement and not just from his days at Boise State, but from his days in the Philadelphia organization, not particularly known for its development. Webb, a 6’9” stretch 4 with defensive potential, was signed by the Nets on January 15 as a two-way contract, replacing Jacob Wiley who didn’t work out as well as the Nets had hoped.

Another late bloomer like like Doyle, the 24-year-old had twice been among the last cuts out of 76ers training camp, two years ago getting minutes in each of their preseason games. Playing for Delaware in the G-League last season, he had a monster, 40-point, 16-rebound game, but when the Nets made their move to sign him, he was averaging only 11.6 points and 6.7 rebounds, shooting 36.6 percent from three.

Since joining the Nets organization, he’s improved ALL his numbers, up to 16.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 39.3 percent from deep. And over the last five games, he’s hit another gear, 21 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and shooting a mean 42.2 percent from deep. He’s also gone to the line an average of 17 times per game.

Both Doyle and Webb have played some fill-in minutes for the big club. Nothing spectacular, but they played, nine games for Webb, six for Doyle.

“It’s great — you get to experience a little bit of everything,” Doyle told the G-League’s Jeff Wong last month. “Playing [in the G League], you get a lot of minutes and playing [in the NBA] — you get to experience what it’s like to be around those guys and that talent.”

Doyle has not been alone in his journey. He’s received help along the way from his Brooklyn teammates.

“All the guards: D’Angelo [Russell], Spencer [Dinwiddie], DeMarre Carroll,” he listed. “They’re the ones that look out for me and make sure I’m doing the right things.”

Marks, the culture maven, said this is what he’s looking for.

“What we’re trying to do is to have every player that comes through our G League system cared for from physical tools to mental tools to development tools that are all put in place so they would have the same experience were they to be playing in Brooklyn,” Marks told Logan.

Kenny Atkinson says he’s seen what a minor league operation can do for players, including those who are already in the NBA but need work or playing time.

“I’ve seen it work so many times,” Atkinson told Dowd. “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.”

It won’t be easy. As Marks noted, it’s not the NBA and it’s not for everybody. He likes what his young staff have done so far.

“First of all, you’re betting on the human, you’re betting on the person, they have the right characteristics,” Marks told the Nets official site. “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 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.”

The profit picture will take some time to develop, too, as Long Island’s vice president for business operations, Alton Byrd, told Newsday. No one is saying how much the Nets are losing on Long Island. They’re certainly not yet drawing big crowds, about 2,000 to 2,500 on good nights in an arena that seats 13,500 for basketball.

“It’s about building the franchise steadily over a period of time,” Byrd said. “We’re starting with a new generation of basketball fans and a new opportunity. The quality of basketball in the G League continues to improve significantly. I look at other teams that have started here and how long it has taken them, and I think we’ve made some significant strides in selling basketball, which is the No. 1 participant sport on Long Island.”

Langdon likes the Nets chances overall.

“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.”