The top dogs of the 2018-19 NBA G League season — the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Long Island Nets (No. 1 seeds out of the Western and Eastern Conference, respectively) — will enter the battle that is the 2019 Finals on Sunday.
With identical regular season records of 34-16, each squad will propel toward the campaign’s most crucial time with momentum in its favor. The Nets celebrated after defeating the Magic, 108-106, in the Eastern Conference Finals, thanks to an electric buzzer-beating long ball from Two-Way Player Theo Pinson. Out west, Rio Grande Valley punched its ticket to the franchise’s fifth Finals appearance with a 144-125 win over the Santa Cruz Warriors. Gary Payton II’s near quadruple-double led the way.
Pinson and Payton II played big roles in providing the most recent boosts that catapulted their squads to the promise land, inching closer to the coveted prize of an NBA G League championship. Both Rio Grande Valley and Long Island’s memorable runs to this point featured many highlights and accomplishments along the way. Here’s a closer look at some of the things that mattered most and how these two two teams match up.
Brooklyn’s Dzanan Musa was a fixture for Long Island through much of this season, both at home and on the road. Appearing in 36 regular season games, he averaged 19.5 points on a 44/36/79 shooting clip to go along with 6.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists. At 6’9″ and 210 pounds, the 19-year-old used his time in the NBA G League to capitalize on extra on-the-court reps, as well as acclimate himself to playing in the post more and using his frame to back down defenders and draw additional fouls, as a means of complementing his budding perimeter game.
For RGV, another international youngster stole the show on more than one evening. 20 year-old Isaiah Hartenstein averaged 19.4 points, 14.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and a shade under 2 blocks through 26 games. He grabbed 20+ rebounds on five different occasions, including a 42 point, 21 rebound outing in the Vipers’ Jan. 26 victory. Aggressive around the rim, there’s no question he can crash the boards with ease. The Rockets big man has used his time in the NBA G League to develop fluidity on offense, instinctively going back up with the ball to translate solid rebounds into high-percentage scoring looks. Gary Clark, who saw his Two-Way Contract converted earlier in the season, averaged 12 points through seven games and appeared in the team’s playoff win over the Hustle. He could be Finals-bound as well, should the Rockets look to send additional resources.
Speaking of Hartenstein’s impressive campaign, his dominant prowess on both ends was enough to help him finish third in Most Valuable Player voting. While Raptors assignee Chris Boucher won the award, there was another special talent between them finishing second. Hartenstein will match up with such a talent in the coming days as Nets Two-Way Player Alan Williams will lead the charge for a Long Island team hoping for their first minor league title.
After averaging 19.8 points and 12.3 rebounds (the third best mark in the league) through 40 contests, Williams earned All-NBA G League First-Team honors. Hartenstein (whose 14.9 boards were second-best) graced the All-NBA G League Second Team. Williams’ Two-Way mate Pinson was rewarded with a nod on the All-NBA G League Rookie Team after averaging a versatile stat-line of 20.9 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.9 rebounds through 34 appearances. After grabbing 10 steals in the Conference Finals, it should come as no surprise that Payton II (who swiped 2.96 steals per game during the season) helped headline the All-NBA G League Defensive Team.
But the honors don’t end there. After logging 16.9 points and displaying the most improvement over the course of the year, RGV Michael Frazier was named Most Improved Player. The Nets’ Will Weaver won Coach of the Year (his Finals counterpart Vipers head coach Joseph Blair won Coach of the Month twice this season) and Trajan Langdon won Basketball Executive of the Year.
Credit should go to Weaver and Blair (and their respective staffs) for helping Long Island and RGV persevere and continue to find success amid the always eventful twists and turns of a basketball season. With NBA assignees and Two-Way Players (among others) splitting time between the NBA and NBA G League, it takes quite the conductor in a coach to help their squad maintain a collective rhythm no matter what.
The more successful a team is, the more likely it is to see their players earn NBA call-ups as well. What’s more, after impressing under an organizational umbrella, it would make sense for NBA teams to call up players from their minor league affiliate because there’s less of a learning curve. Both Long Island and RGV watched that happen this season.
Currently with the Timberwolves, Mitch Creek earned two promotions, including one previously to Brooklyn. Tahjere McCall also played out a 10-day contract with the parent club. Payton II spent time with the Wizards, and former NBA G League Player of the Week award winner Bruno Caboclo went on to sign a multi-year deal with the Memphis Grizzlies. Just over a month into the campaign, Danuel House Jr. (Houston) and Brandon Sampson (Chicago) earned NBA call-ups, too.
Such moves are indicative of each organization’s positive culture and winning ways. It also shows the teams’ other prospects that they could follow, all while embracing that ‘who’s next’ mentality and taking advantage of meaningful minutes and filling newly created voids.
As two of the league’s leading rebounders, the battle between Williams and Hartenstein on the boards should be a rather fierce and physical one that sets the tone for the series. Pinson and Payton II have both proven themselves as clutch performers before, so shining in the most glaring of spotlights shouldn’t be an issue for either one. How will assignees like Musa and Clark impact the series? That remains to be seen, as they serve as potential X-Factors.
Both teams are rather prevalent among the league-leaders in various key categories. The Nets (117.7) ranked first in points per game, whereas the Vipers were fourth (114.5). Long Island (53.8) and RGV (49.5) were first and second in rebounding, and second (26.6) and third (26.5) in assists. While relatively evenly-matched there, Hartenstein and Co. also graced the top 10 in blocks and steals per game, as well as three-point field goals made per game.
With Long Island standing tall as the top scoring squad in the NBA G League, their offense should be firing on all cylinders and it’ll be up to the Vipers (as one of the league’s top performing defensive teams) to see if they can slow them down.
The action tips off on Sunday at 7 PM ET on ESPNU.