Each and every year, NBA G League teams boast promising prospects, at least a handful of whom become household names in the NBA. But what if someone told you that one NBA G League team featured over a dozen players (from the same season’s squad) who had played, or would go on to play in the NBA?
Such a fact would be true about the 2010-11 Reno Bighorns, who at 34-16, were the Western Conference’s top dog.
“That’s probably the best minor league team as there’s ever been in minor league basketball. You had Hassan Whiteside, Jeremy Lin, backed up by Donald Sloan, and Danny Green and Steve Novak too,” then Bighorns head coach Eric Musselman — now the head coach at Arkansas — said. “Marcus Landry was a heck of a player who didn’t get called up but was maybe our best player. Aaron Miles was on that team. Bobby Simmons got called up!”
Of course, that’s 2005 NBA Most Improved Player Bobby Simmons. Hassan Whiteside has evolved into one of the next level’s premier double-double machines. Jeremy Lin splashed onto the NBA scene as a national phenomenon, reuniting with Steve Novak (who later competed in an NBA Three-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend) on the Knicks in 2011, and later with Danny Green — a two-time NBA champion — to win an NBA title together on the Raptors in 2019. Aaron Miles rose up the coaching ranks as the head coach in Santa Cruz and is now a Golden State Warriors assistant. Donald Sloan appeared in 218 NBA games. The list goes on. The team is a collective ‘who’s who’ of NBA notables.
The name recognition for all of these aforementioned players came later. First and foremost, they had to be successful and they did so as a team, allowing their winning ways to do the talking up front. Ironically enough, each of those athletes had a specialty skill or two that helped them stand out in the NBA. They filled a role or need. Such specialties meant that coming together and playing as a team to complement one another was necessary for each one to shine.
Coach Musselman was arguably ahead of his time with that philosophy, as finding one’s niche role is how many NBA G League prospects stand out these days. It’s often not about scoring the most points.
“Having been a head coach at the NBA level, I could really help guys understand what their role was. Your role in college isn’t necessarily going to be your role in the NBA. Your role in the G League is not what it’s going to be. When you get called up, you’re going to have to be a two-way player who can defend. It’s not just about your offense. A lot of times, those who score a lot of points aren’t the ones who get called up,” he said. “NBA people identify a skill that they might need — rebounding, the guys who grab the loose balls, or guards who distribute the ball and keep things moving — all those things become extremely important. It was stuff that we talked about every day, not just once and a while. Pregame, postgame, training camp. The biggest key to that team was the camp we had. We found guys that were willing to be good teammates.”
Such a mentality is an ‘easier said than done’ one to buy into, but the coach said instilling a strong team culture from the get-go went a long way.
“We did team bonding experiences even before training camp. I remember we went to the Reno Aces’ baseball stadium and had a home run derby, which Mo Charlo (one of the top NBA G League rebounders in the record books) won. Because I had prior minor league experience, we felt like team culture and winning was a way for guys to move up,” Coach Musselman said. “NBA organizations respected a team that played the right way. We were concerned about winning and not piling up stats. Whether it was luck or good fortune, we had a lot of guys who were just good people. Bobby Simmons came to us after he been in the league and had the right attitude. We had high character guys who put team culture above individuality and everyone ended up reaping the benefits.”
Coincidentally enough, the players weren’t the only ones who reached for the stars and soon grabbed a hold of their coveted future accomplishments.
“We had great culture and chemistry. It started in training camp and we had an incredible staff. Aubrey McCreary ended up going to the Cavaliers as an assistant the following season. Clay Moser had spent 17 years in the NBA. Phil Handy was on that staff, won an NBA title with the Raptors in 2019, and is now a guy interviewing for head coaching positions. Phil Hubbard played in the NBA for 10 years. Sammy Gelfand, who is now with the Pistons, was our stats guy. Ryan Atkinson, who is the GM of the Santa Cruz Warriors, was like our equipment manager,” he said.
Such connections live on. Handy won his NBA title alongside Lin and Green and is now an assistant with the Lakers, still with Green. Atkinson was a Santa Cruz executive when Miles served as head coach. Especially close are Musselman and Moser (an assistant at Arkansas), who have seemingly been tied to one another ever since.
“It’s really important. Clay worked with me in Reno and the D-Fenders. Clay got called up to the Lakers. I never had a coach get called up to the NBA midseason. He brings value from a statistical standpoint, he knows my system inside and out. He’s in player development and is developing relationships overseas on the recruiting path.”
Now experiencing success at Arkansas, Musselman’s NBA G League ties are always close behind. He’s developed a relationship with gym rat turned Memphis Hustle sharpshooter Dusty Hannahs, who often works out alongside a certain former Reno Bighorn.
“There’s nothing better than looking down the court and seeing Dusty Hannahs go head to head with Courtney Fortson — who was also on that Reno team and saw time in the NBA — he’s an Arkansas alum too, so it’s very cool. Dusty’s a very determined player,” he said. “He squeezes the most out of his talent with hard work and determination.”
While in the NBA G League, Musselman later went on to win Coach of the Year with the D-Fenders in 2012, but perhaps his biggest NBA G League legacy of all is how he steered many known NBA players and personnel toward winning ways, while allowing them to showcase the same skills that have helped them all find success.