This season, the Lakers have undeniably already had to deal with a bevy of injuries to key players throughout the campaign. Losing stars like Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash can certainly force a team to re-think its strategy in hopes of being able to cope with things until they return.
Exploring all options, Los Angeles has looked to the NBA D-League this season on more than one occasion while aiming to fill existent voids along the way. Whether it's been assigning rookie Ryan Kelly to the D-Fenders for an extended training camp of sorts, and or calling up a young gun like Kendall Marshall (87ers) or Manny Harris (D-Fenders), the Lakers have taken to the minor league in search of solutions. In the interim, it's safe to say the "Michigan Mamba" and company are playing steady roles in important minutes thus far.
Part of the Lakers' trust and faith in the D-League comes from their sound relationship with the affiliated D-Fenders. The two teams are arguably working closer together this season than any other before, and it shows. The synergy between them trickles down from the front offices, to the coaching staffs, and of course, the players, too.
RidiculousUpside.com recently spoke with D-Fenders' General Manager to Nick Mazzella to discuss the role the D-Fenders play in helping the Lakers along, some recent success stories, and how his first year in such a role has been. For more, continue reading below.
Q: Lakers' forward Ryan Kelly had a really positive experience with the D-Fenders, and now he's playing well for the Lakers back in the NBA. As a D-League executive, how do you ensure that players on assignment get the most out of it, while not viewing it as negative thing?
A: It's an opportunity. Every NBA player in the league was, at some point, the best player on a their team, regardless of whatever level that was. The players that get sent down to the D-League are ones that just aren't getting the minutes necessary to develop. But that's what the league is about. It's about getting better every year. An assignment isn't a demotion. Players shouldn't view it as that. If a team sends you down, it's so that you can get 40 minutes a night and they can watch you play. They want to see what you've got and allow you to get into a rhythm.
Sometimes if you're in NBA, you'll just be getting five minutes per game. Other times you won't get to practice as much during a full week due to travel. The D-League provides these guys an opportunity to hone their skills, develop, and gain some confidence.
Our coaching staff has done a great job, not only developing our players, but also immersing them into the same system Mike D'Antoni runs with the Lakers. It's worked out extremely well. Obviously Ryan came down to the D-Fenders, was able to play 40 minutes a night, and now he's playing well for the Lakers. More recently, the transition of Manny Harris to the Lakers has been almost seamless. The team was shorthanded and called him up. He knows the system and the terminology, so he's been able to play big minutes for the Lakers right away.
Q: Most D-League players seem to hit the hardwood hoping to prove they can do things like rebound the ball, play solid defense, etc. But Manny still seemed to garner NBA consideration for being a top notch scorer. In need of a scoring punch of their own, do you think that's still what intrigued the Lakers most about him?
A: I think another thing that people don't realize is the fact that when Manny came to us, he was very focused on working on his defensive game. Obviously at the time at which he was called up, he had just taken over the D-League scoring lead, and that's his strength. He has an ability to get to the basket and finish at the rim. But he also does the little things, and that often gets overlooked.
Manny will have a game where he'll score 35 points, but also pitch in 7 rebounds. If you take into account the number of deflections he has in games as well, I think his defense is something that gets overlooked. It's great that Manny can score, but I think playing in the D-League is an opportunity for prospects to show scouts their defensive intensity and the little things you can do.
NBA teams are often looking to the D-League, not necessarily for scorers, but guys who they can bring in to provide a defensive stop. I think it's important to realize that you're not going to get a call-up and be the number one scoring option for an NBA team. You'll be their twelfth or thirteenth man. You have to be able to find that niche where you can contribute, because a lot of teams already have scorers. It's important to focus on playing defense, being a good teammate, and showing that you're a mature player who can be a leader. They like to see guys talking, too.
Q: Obviously it's great when a D-League player receives a call-up to any one of the thirty NBA teams, but based on the synergy between the D-Fenders and Lakers, it seems as though your players quickly become best suited for Los Angeles, right?
A: Sure. The fact that Mitch Kupchak's office window overlooks our practice court is motivation for our guys. Mike D'Antoni will come watch our games. You get the sense that we're being watched right now. So being in the same building is motivation, especially when we have a D-Fender getting called up to the Lakers like Manny. Everyone wants to keep driving and working hard.
Our coaching staff has done a great job of getting players who are great examples. We had Malcolm Thomas called up previously when he was on our squad. This year we had Manny Harris. Jamario Moon ended up buying out this season and went to Greece, but he got a really good job with Olympiacos. But he was working hard, and a goal of his was to be the best defensive player out there. And he was doing that.
Q: How do you look at an international call-up of sorts? We keep talking about that ultimate goal being an opportunity in the NBA, but do you still look at a gig overseas as a positive? How does the team deal with that?
A: Obviously, we prefer for these guys to get call-ups. Sure, you have to tinker your roster and it may arguably be your best player when a call-up happens, but that's what this league is all about. We have a sense of pride, and are so happy when it happens. Similarly, with a buyout, you'd love for these guys to go through the D-League and earn that call-up. But everyone has to do what's best for them, and you understand it. To go to a team like Olympiocus, that was an opportunity Jamario felt as though he couldn't pass up.
Would we have preferred for him stay with us and earn a call-up? Sure, but he did what was best for him. He was great about it, and we're happy for him. You can still see him on Twitter saying he's tuning in to the D-Fenders and watching our games. He's over in Greece and still tuning in, so it shows you how great of a guy and teammate he is. It shows you how much he cares about the game.
Q: It's always exciting when a player gets called-up, but the fact of the matter is that the D-League has become about so much more --- it's become an NBA springboard for for everyone from coaches to front office executives, and even officials, too. To close things out, what can you tell me about your own journey? I know you've worked in pubic relations for the Lakers in the past, and now you're G.M. of the D-Fenders. What went into that decision, and how's this whole experience been?
A: I couldn't be happier with the decision. I was very happy in the role I was serving for the Lakers, and I had been there for a while. You know, when I started with the organization, I was still in school. I was a PR intern. But when I came back for a second season during my senior year in college, I started working for Glen [Carraro] as a basketball operations assistant. Both were dream jobs of mine, but Glen has always been a bit of a mentor of mine since my college days. He's always given me great advice and looked out for me.
Years later, while I was doing PR stuff for the team, assistant coaches would ask me for scouting reports, to help fill in information, or for unique stats. The way this organization works, it really is like a family business. Just because someone is in the public relations department, they're still working with coaches everyday and talking to basketball operations people. It's a good place to be, in that regard.
When this job opened up, I was approached about it, and didn't hesitate. I understood how good of an opportunity it was, and I have been learning everyday still. I have great people around me who are always there. We have a great coaching staff, so that makes it easier, too. This has been great so far. I'm really fortunate for this opportunity.