Many know Shareef Abdur-Rahim, NBA All-Star. But starting today, the basketball world will be introduced to Shareef Abdur-Rahim, NBA G League President.
The former Grizzlies and Hawks star takes over for Malcolm Turner, who stepped down to become the Athletics Director at Vanderbilt University.
Abdur-Rahim is no stranger to the NBA G League, having served as general manager of the then-Reno Bighorns (now the Stockton Kings) during his years in the Sacramento Kings’ front office. That was just one step in his post-playing career development however: Abdur-Rahim also returned to Cal for a Bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2012 and received an MBA from USC in 2016. A former NBA summer intern, he’s held a full-time position in NBA Basketball Operations since 2016.
NBAGLeague.com sat down with Abdur-Rahim before his first day on the job to discuss the state of the league, his short- and long-term focuses and his own professional development.
What are your initial goals as you take the helm as NBA G League President?
I think we are in a really good place. Malcolm [Turner] has done a great job of leading and positioning us. The focus has to be getting to 30 teams, hopefully in the really near future.
There are a handful of initiatives on the way. We’re in a place where we are committed to making the Professional Path really special and successful. We changed our Winter Showcase a bit this year and that was amazing. There’s work to continue growing and make it a really special event.
Do you have an exact timeline in mind for reaching 30 NBA G League teams?
As soon as possible. Within the next season and a half, we can be at 30 teams and committed that way. It’s grown to the point where NBA teams with G League affiliates are creating an advantage for themselves. They can develop players and have a place to send players for rehab assignments. Coaches and front office people are getting experience. It creates a competitive advantage and I’m sure the teams that aren’t included right now see that and are conscious of it.
What will reaching that 30-for-30 goal mean for the league?
It balances out the league. There’s something about being incomplete that kind of knocks us off center a bit. It will balance the league and show the direct correlation between NBA and G League. It continues to cement the idea of the G League and the emphasis on improvement and innovation. It shows everyone’s commitment to improving basketball.
How will you define success in the meantime?
Every story we hear about a guy being called up is success. We’ll look at Quinn Cook and Alfonzo McKinnie, guys like that who have signed with NBA teams and have found success.
Teams are finding creative ways to use their G League teams. We have head coaches who have come from the G League and are now head coaches in the NBA. Our business continues to grow. There are many touch-points. There are so many opportunities for success and different ways to measure it. It’s difficult to nail down one.
We have initiatives like the Showcase. It’s something different: We had the entire basketball community in Las Vegas. I think that’s really cool. There aren’t many times when the G League holds court with the basketball community. This was one of those times. That’s a huge success.
To someone who hasn’t experienced the G League, what would you tell them to get them interested and watching?
The cool thing about the G League is the overall level of competition has grown so much. I was watching the Showcase and there were five McDonald’s All-Americans and a few NCAA national champions on the court at one time. It’s a level of basketball second only to the NBA.
There are also stories in the G League that you can’t find anywhere else. You are watching guys who are starting their journey to stardom. In the NBA, you’re already watching stars. To be able to see a guy a few months before or even a few years before he hits the big scene, that’s a cool story.
How do you think the professional path could transform the league moving forward?
It will be huge. It will show our ability to develop people on and off the court. They’ll take a chance with us and we’ll provide another alternative. This isn’t about competing with colleges. It gives young folks a different opportunity, if they choose. That’s a big focus and success there would be huge. It starts a different conversation. Within the larger basketball community, we can start, or continue, some nice dialogue around amateurism and young folks and their professional choices.
You played a year at Cal before heading to the NBA. Have you thought about what the professional path would have meant for you, if it were available when you started your playing career?
I had some really good opportunities and ended up going to Cal. If someone had approached me with an opportunity to come to the NBA and train and learn, while still starting my education — the G League has its NBA G League Education Program in partnership with Arizona State — if you presented all that and I was going to be around the best coaches in the world and the best basketball and prepare myself for pro basketball completely, I would have absolutely had to have considered it. I think it’s really cool to have that option.
In order to present something that a truly elite player would consider, what do you think the G League has to do with this professional path?
A lot of it comes down to education. I don’t think folks are fully aware of what the G League has to offer and what it has done for careers. We’ve had so many success stories of guys with a college diploma now giving themselves the opportunity to work here, develop here and be seen by NBA teams and scouts so they can grow into NBA players.
You take a guy like Quinn Cook: Five or six years ago, he would have made money overseas coming from a place like Duke and probably never would’ve looked back. Whereas now, he spent two years in the G League putting in work and developing and now he’s a bonafide NBA player.
You’ve been in a lot of locker rooms; do you have concerns about players on Select Contracts joining the G League environment?
There are always concerns. You see them on the NBA side, though, where we’ve had success. We’ve had a few cases in the G League where a guy like Derrick Jones Jr. essentially doesn’t get a college experience, and this was his entry point. The maturity aspect is something you have to plan for and be thoughtful about and conscience of. That’s a part of our conversation, absolutely.
Shifting the focus to your journey… You are now the first Muslim-American to lead a professional sports league in North America. What does that mean to you?
It’s cool from the standpoint of, I was a kid growing and there were guys like Hakeem [Olajuwon] that inspired me. I could say to myself, ‘He’s doing that so that means so can I.’ I know that I can inspire other young professionals or athletes. However, the thing that made Hakeem really special was his greatness. So the G League has to be great, and I have to be good at my job.
A lot of people know you for your playing career, but don’t know that you went back and got your Bachelor’s degree, an MBA, in addition to your work within the Kings organization. How has that educational experience and your professional experience since you retired prepared you for a role like this?
It’s been my professional development. In some ways it’s fitting that the nine or 10 years I’ve been off the floor I’ve had these different experiences. They’ve helped prepare me for the role I’m stepping into. So it’s been my progression, from continuing my undergrad to my MBA, to all the experiences I had with the Kings to coming here in the summer and interning in between business school to the time I’ve spent here in basketball operations. And also the experiences I had as a player are extremely valuable.
That’s a natural connection I have with the G League because all of the coaches/front office/players are all on this same journey of developing and growing and working toward improving themselves. The path I’ve taken is meaningful to me, and it doesn’t stop. I still have a lot of growth to do.
Based on your story, what message would you deliver to G League players about preparing for life after basketball?
It’s a journey. When I was playing, I was 100 percent committed to that. At the same time, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it forever. And I wanted to have options. The thing you have as a professional athlete is time. You do have free time, so take advantage of it. Start getting things done and preparing yourself. That would be my message to them.
Hopefully the G League is a comprehensive development resource. I found the NBA to be that way. A lot of the opportunities and things I did personally were initiated through programs the NBA offered. So hopefully we are able to have those same initiatives to offer.
What specifically has been your role these past three years at the NBA?
In general, I’ve been part of the basketball administration focused on the on-court product — from rules interpretation and compliance with team activity to analyzing and evaluating how our game is being played. Rules and different points of emphasis have started with basketball operations and I’ve been a part of all of those processes: the competition committee, the Respect for the Game initiative, the 24-second shot clock reset, all of the experimental rules that are in the G League.
Our connections to and relationships with our teams have also been a huge part of my role. Each year I’ve gone out and met with all of our teams and spoken to them about what’s going on in the game and what they see.
Could you forecast what the G League could be used for from an R&D perspective for the NBA and potentially other leagues moving forward?
Part of our focus from a G League perspective should be thinking of ways to improve the game — to be innovative and creative, to be a part of the conversation of what’s going on in the game and to take chances. I think the one thing about the G League is that we’re nimble and we can try things that maybe we wouldn’t want to try at the NBA level. That’s a huge opportunity I think to improve the game and improve the business.