When the Long Island Nets step on the court in Washington, D.C. Wednesday night, they will have one of the G League’s best records at 8-3, currently fourth best in the East and only two games behind the conference-leading Cleveland Charge.
And they’re doing it with a rookie head coach, one who before this season had never been the top guy before ... anywhere. Ronnie Burrell, who grew up in Montclair, N.J., was hired as head coach back in September, his previous experience being limited to being a G League assistant with Long Island and the College Park Skyhawks, the Hawks affiliate and as a player development coordinator with the Chicago Bulls.
The transition from being a player all of your life — 11 years in France, Germany and Poland following a four-year collegiate playing career (2001-05) at UNC Greensboro — to head gig and helping young athletes on their individual journeys is no easy thing to do.
And he admits he didn’t have an encouraging start.
“We started the season 0-4, but we did not overreact,” Burrell said of the Nets start in the Showcase portion of the G League season. “The key that kept my guys and I focused was that we addressed the weaknesses so we can forward as a team and fix those deficiencies. Never getting too high or too low really helps, especially when there is a moment of facing adversity,”
That coaching strategy is even more important in a development setting where coaches have to fill the role veterans normally play. And after that 0-4 start, Long Island ripped off five straight wins, all on the road.
As a player, Burrell had a solid career, earning a All-Southern Conference Team selection in 2004 and 2005. From there, Burrell spent over a decade as a professional career in Europe, where he would play numerous games in the Euroleague and also win three Polish League championships.
But over the course of his career, coaching was something far from Burrell’s mind. He even got an M.B.A. from Florida Atlantic University. But after a certain amount of time, he realized it was an avenue he wanted to take, to stick around the game.
“I never thought of coaching in the past,” Burrell said. “When you play for so long, it becomes all you know. But after I retired, I realized sticking to the game in some sort of fashion is what I wanted to do. This is what led to me getting my masters degree in sports management, and then getting the player development position for the Nets and the Chicago Bulls, and ultimately the blessing of being the head coach for Long Island.”
With the G League season in full force, Burrell consistently makes sure his team continues their approach of taking one game at a time.
“I have had several good coaches during my playing days, all the way from my college career to my professional career,” Burrell expressed. “One thing that they all shared in common was their approach to the game, which was forgetting whatever the past was and focusing on what the could control.”
Burrell has been dealing with an ever-changing roster, one that currently includes the Nets two two-ways, David Duke Jr. and newly signed Dru Smith, two Brooklyn Nets second year players Kessler Edwards and Day’Ron Sharpe and a slew of G League veterans.
In the end, while the record is a big positive, development is Burrell’s main job.
“I want to do that with my guys. If we take a day to day approach and control what we can control, we will have a successful team and players will develop their skills further into the season.”
So far, so good. Duke is currently on a tear. Over six games this month, the 6’5” guard has averaged 21.9 points while shooting 52.6% overall and 39.0% from deep, an improvement the Nets wanted to see. He’s also recorded 6.2 rebounds and a steal per game over that stretch.
Both Edwards and Sharpe, who weren’t getting minutes sitting on the bench in Brooklyn, have flourished at Nassau Coliseum and other G League arenas. Edwards is averaging 18.9 points in January, shooting 37.5% from deep while grabbing 8.0 rebounds and registering 1.5 blocks and 1.6 steals. Sharpe, meanwhile, is putting up 18.0 points on 67.2%, 12.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in that same stretch.
And the organization is happy that Donovan Williams, who Long Island developed as a qualify 3-and-D candidate, signed a two-year, two-way deal with the Hawks after going from undrafted to a top G League contributor. It’s an advertisement for the Nets development regime.
Burrell’s next challenge will be integrating Smith into the Nets organization. In talking with our Alec Sturm over the weekend, Burrell described how that will work ... slowly.
“He seems like a high IQ guy who will be able to pick up our stuff easily,” the coach says of Smith, but the guard will get his feet wet to begin with low-expectations. How much will he play? “Whatever he gives me,” Burrell says. “No pressure on him, I just want him to feel comfortable today and see what he can do.”
That’s what development is about. The Nets - Capital City Go-Go game Wednesday will be telecast on ESPN+ and the G League website starting at 7:00 p.m. ET.