Q&A: USA Basketball Coach Jeff Van Gundy on the NBA G League

While the NBA’s best soak in the All-Star atmosphere in Los Angeles, some of the NBA G League’s best are being put through the ringer while preparing to represent their country. The first-ever NBA G League International Challenge will put NBA G League USA vs. the Mexico National Team, a continuation of the minor league’s newly formed partnership with USA Basketball.

USAB has dug into the NBA G League talent pool for players in both the AmeriCup over the summer and now FIBA World Cup Qualifying games, with longtime NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy at the helm. NBAGLeague.com caught up with Van Gundy after practice in Los Angeles:

You’re at All-Star, but you guys just went hard through a three-hour-plus practice. What does this event mean and how are you approaching the game?

We’re the JV and have to try and get the varsity qualified [for the World Cup]. It’s not certain that it will happen yet. What they’re doing should be well documented, appreciated. These are some really good players. I feel like after college some of these guys don’t always get appreciated for their grit and perseverance, and just how good they are. It’s not lost on me that we’re going hard, but we’ve got to be. We’re going to go through many challenges during this window. 

What do you hope that these guys get out of this experience?

We wanted it to be good for them, which means fun. We wanted it to be good for their career, which means beneficial. As I told them, eight of the 18 guys that played for us in both the AmeriCup and the first window have gone on to play in at least an NBA game. We hope it betters their career, we hope we win both games, and we hope that they’d want to do it again if given the opportunity.

With this new relationship between the NBA G League and USA Basketball, what do you think the league can gain from this?

I think the G League player is exposed to more NBA people. I think they’re exposed to a different level of competition, and FIBA ball is a different game and different rules. So I think there’s a lot that these guys can gain from it. It also shows the G League brand from the sense of, “This isn’t the D-League from 10 years ago or the CBA from 20 years ago; it’s a much better, more organized and highly structured league that has specific things that they are trying to do, which is help better the game for the NBA level.” They’re doing a very good job of it.

What has this experience made you appreciate about NBA G League players and the grind that they go through?

It’s the grit, that perseverance, and that mental strength. I went to a G League game to see a couple guys that we’ve had in the past, and there’s all this distraction from everything but the game, but the game was great. I wondered, do they feel that what they’re doing is important? It requires mental strength to continue to strive to get to your ultimate goal while you’re playing in smaller venues in front of smaller crowds. You can actually ask yourself, “Does anybody know or does anybody care?” When I was an NBA coach, I didn’t have an appreciation for what the G League player went through, but now I have a better appreciation and I have so much respect for who they are and how they go about their business.

How has the G League changed from when you were coaching in the NBA to now?

It used to be a punishment, like, “If you didn’t do this, we’ll send you to the G League.” Now there’s this togetherness between the minor league team and the parent club, which is terrific. I don’t think it’s viewed the same way or coached the same way. The quality of play is different, too. I think the G League itself has given an incredible boost to the NBA.