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Former Longtime NBA Veterans Finding Success As Assistant Coaches In The NBA D-League

Scott Williams and Vitaly Potapenko played in 1,356 NBA games combined, both former big men managed to stretch out long careers in the Association, and are now sharing their knowledge and experience with players in the NBA D-League.

Santa Cruz Warriors assistant coach, and former NBA player, Vitaly Potapenko talking X's and O's with players
Santa Cruz Warriors assistant coach, and former NBA player, Vitaly Potapenko talking X's and O's with players
Santa Cruz Warriors

This past weekend in Boise, Idaho, the Stampede played host to the Santa Cruz Warriors. Both teams provided an entertaining set of games, while also pitting two former NBA longtime veterans against one another as assistant coaches.

Scott Williams and Vitaly Potapenko are using their immense amount of NBA experience, and knowledge obtained from their playing days, as integral tools in their coaching approach. The NBA D-League has provided both big men with an opportunity to develop as coaches, and despite opposite starts to their respective teams' seasons, both are now finding success.

Often in life, it's more about who you know rather, than what you know. Both Williams and Potapenko used their relationships with previous coaches and connections that they made during their playing career to help land them coaching jobs now in the NBADL.

For Williams, it was his prior relationship with now Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, that helped him find a role with the Idaho Stampede. Williams played for Stotts in Milwaukee, and asked the coach after he was hired by the Trail Blazers, if there was an opportunity for him in Boise. Stotts thought that it was a fantastic idea for Williams to start his coaching career in the NBADL with the Idaho Stampede, and granted him with a position. Williams is apart of head coach Mike Peck's staff along with Barry Rohrssen.

In Potapenko's case, his connection with former Indiana Pacers head coach Jim O'Brien ultimately helped Potapenko get his foot in the proverbial coaching door, when the big man started volunteering with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants for a season.

Potapenko spoke with and explained his start, saying, "Jim O'Brien (who at the time was the head coach of the Indiana Pacers) called Fort Wayne and I came down to the local tryout, after that I volunteered for my first year, I traveled with the team but I was not on their contract system. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed coaching."

Now, Potapenko is in his second year as an assistant coach with the Santa Cruz Warriors, and also spent time as an assistant in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers. Potapenko joins Casey Hill as apart of second year head coach Nate Bjorkgren's staff.

Williams and Potapenko started this season opposite of each other, as the Stampede struggled to a 1-11 start while the Warriors came out firing and posted a 9-3 record in their first 12 games. The Stampede's lone win through their first 12 games came against Santa Cruz, but have since played better basketball and look to be on the rise in the standings. The Warriors have maintained a consistent winning brand of basketball as they remain one of the top teams in the D-League and closing in on their 19th win of the year.

Williams learning on the fly

When Scott Williams began the year with the Stampede, he embarked on a season as a member of an inexperienced coaching staff, with regard to the NBA D-League. However, Williams believes that the mix of backgrounds between Peck, Rohrssen, and himself has been key to their team developing along with the staff. Williams commented to, "I've been able to teach them about the pro-game a little since they're coming from the high school and college levels, respectively. It's been a nice way for us all to learn and grow as coaches."

As Williams continues to grow as a coach at this level, he has been able to use his ability to teach guys about professionalism, a skill that he once learned from his teammates. Williams believed his real coaching start began while he was a player, as he assumed a player/coach role in the twilight years of the his career. Williams said, "I was kind of a player/coach towards the latter part of my career, because after playing so many years all of sudden, I was playing with guys where I was older than their mothers."

Williams' greatest strength as a coach seems to be his ability to preach professionalism, Williams discussed "I'm teaching them how to be a pro the way Paxson, Cartwright, and Jordan taught me how to be a professional. I kind of have that relationship because it was what I felt most comfortable doing. Some of these guys, they feel like the young guys I last played with in 2005, like Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavolic in Cleveland."

Williams, who spent the last 7 seasons working in television as a broadcaster in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Phoenix, is starting to find comfort in his new role. As a guy who played for legendary coaches such as Dean Smith and Phil Jackson, Williams certainly has the proper and invaluable experiences to draw from, as he continues his coaching journey.

Potapenko embracing new surroundings in Santa Cruz

The Santa Cruz Warriors have had a tremendous start under their new identity in the NBA D-League, as the franchise relocated from Bismarck, North Dakota to Santa Cruz, California this season. The move was likely difficult for fans in Bismarck, as the franchise won a championship while calling North Dakota its home. But as the Golden State Warriors looked to strengthen their relationship with their D-League affiliate, the move to nearby Santa Cruz was essential.

Potapenko was apart of the formerly known Dakota Wizards staff, and commented on the new transition, "In Bismarck, North Dakota, the fans were very loyal, dedicated and helped win a championship. But it happens, and the team relocated to Santa Cruz. Honestly, I didn't expect such a turnout, our home crowd is unbelievable. I would say that it's the best home supporting crowd in the entire D-League."

The transition to Santa Cruz has proven to be beneficial in terms of winning as well. The successful tradition created in Dakota has relocated with the franchise as the Warriors with the help of Potapenko, have created a product in which the area is evidently proud to support. Potapenko specifically mentioned that the reason for the team's success is due to their ability to play as a single unit.

"We are at our best when we play together, there are guys that put up big numbers, but I think it's a collaborated effort and we win because of that" said Potapenko. Despite dropping their two games against the Stampede, the Warriors finished their 7-game road trip with a 4-3 record and still remain in the NBADL's top tier of teams. For their remaining 21 games, Santa Cruz and Potapenko will only hit the road for 6 remaining contests. That leaves them plenty of time to enjoy their friendly confines in Santa Cruz, where they are 8-2.

Based from their experiences as players, Williams and Potapenko agree that time in NBADL for youngsters is beneficial

The heavy amount of assignments this season in the D-League has mainly involved first round draft picks and young prospects of NBA teams who have opted for real live game time via the D-League, as opposed to practices and time on the bench. Williams and Potapenko had points in their careers where they were held out of games and spent more time sitting rather than playing. The D-League was never really an option for either player, so they had to find other alternatives to simulate game situations.

Williams reflected, "I remember sitting for 5 games in a row wishing I had more of an opportunity to play in game situations. So I had to push guys like Bill Cartwright, Will Purdue, and Stacey King in practice. Whether it was with a cheap shot elbow, or talking a little trash, I did anything to get them a little more motivated to get me some game-type action. Guys who come to the D-League are getting that."

Potapenko didn't employ tactics similar to Williams in practice, but was in agreement with Williams on the topic. "My rookie year, there were a lot of games where I did not play at all. I think for players to get playing time in the D-League is beneficial and good for their game conditioning, and confidence" he added.

The first hand experiences that both Williams and Potapenko can share with young players either on assignment, or as fixtures on their respective team's roster, is a valuable asset for both the Stampede and Warriors. In fact, both guys can often be seen participating in drills and providing their large frames as simulated defenders in pregame warmups and practice. Former players turned coaches such as Williams and Potapenko bring undeniable leadership and a sense of uniqueness to the bench, their importance is even greater in a league where player development is the prime goal.