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Q&A With Greensboro Swarm Head Coach Jay Hernandez Part 2: Observations On Grant Riller, Jalen McDaniels, Vernon Carey, and more

In the second part of a two-part series, Greensboro Swarm head coach Jay Hernandez gives his observations on how various players have been performing in the bubble.

2021 Greensboro Swarm Content Day Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

Note: This is the second part in a two-part interview series with Greensboro Swarm head coach Jay Hernandez. Click this link to read the 1st part, which covers his transition into being the Swarm’s head coach, conversations with James Borrego, and more.

Dakota Schmidt: How does the Jalen McDaniels that you see right now in training camp with the Swarm compare to the one that was with Charlotte as a rookie?

Jay Hernandez: He’s gotten better. I feel like his catch-and-shoot has improved, his decision making when he gets to the rim has gotten better. He’s a guy that can see over defenses, so when he gets in there, he’s doing a great job of either finishing or kicking out and giving us an opportunity for our drive-and-kick swings. The one thing I’ve asked of Jalen while we’re here is to continue developing as a leader.

Being a young guy only in his second year, but he has experience in the G League, experience being in a rotation with the Hornets. Talking to guys and being a positive influence while he’s here. It’s something that we’ve talked about at length, and he’s been really receptive to everything that we’ve been doing and has been great with the guys. He’s there for anyone that has questions for him. In practice, he’s there early and always ready to go.

I love what he’s bringing to the table since he has a mindset of just trying to get better. We keep saying that the most dangerous person over the course of time is someone who’s constantly improving. If you have someone that has that mindset, and they keep improving, that’s somebody that you don’t want to see a year from now, especially when they have Jalen’s talent and overall stature with length and the things that he possesses that are god-given.

DS: When you talk about someone with that competitive desire, one name that popped out to me was Grant Riller. How excited are you to be able to work with a guard that possesses the tools that he has during this unique environment?

JH: Grant has been really great to work with. He’s a sponge and a guy that I’ve followed for a number of years because he played in the Colonial Athletic Association, Hofstra’s conference, which is where I played. Obviously, he and Nate Darling both played in that conference, so I was already familiar with them. I actually ended up hitting up my college teammate who is an assistant at Hofstra, Speedy Claxton, about Grant, and he was like, “Wow, he can score in a variety of ways, really quick with the ball in his hands, and you’re going to have a lot of fun working with him.”

Having a guy like him that can get into the teeth of the defense and do the things he does naturally scoring the ball; now it’s going to be about how he does running a team. How vocal he can be on the court, and command a court, and get guys in the right spots when he gets in there. Again, it’s making the right decision and playing the type of basketball that you see with the Hornets in terms of overall assist percentage.

I think he’s a guy that can get us a lot of open looks because he’s such a threat with getting into the paint. I’ve enjoyed being around him, and he’s looking forward to this experience as well. We’ve talked about for a few months now that this is a possibility, and now that it’s here, you can see that he’s taken full advantage of it in his workouts and practices.

DS: When you talk about how you want Grant to develop when it comes to running a team, how important is it for the Swarm to have a player with experience doing that at the NBA level in Ray McCallum?

JH: Unbelievable. The fact that Ray is here makes me happy because he’s a true pro and a guy that I feel like could be on an NBA roster right now and give quality minutes. I’ve had an opportunity to work with some of the top guards in the NBA, and I feel very, very confident about that. I can tell you from a leadership standpoint, the way that he runs a team, the way that he talks to Grant, and even the way that he talks to our 5 men (centers).

There was a time yesterday where we had Vernon and Ray in a film session together so that we can talk about what Ray is seeing and how he can help Vern with the different reads—just having a guy like that, especially when he was with Sacramento at the beginning of his career playing with DeMarcus Cousins when he was hooping at an All-Star level. That means he’s been around bigs that know how to play, have a variety of skill sets. Again, I can’t say enough good things about having Ray around.

DS: You mentioned that Ray and Vernon Carey are in film sessions working together. Vernon is an assignee and was a one-and-done player with Duke. In the limited amount of time that you two have been together, how he’s grown in terms of his skill set, developing his basketball IQ, and knowing where to be on the court?

JH: I think he’s come a very long way in terms of knowing the system, knowing the timing of things is really important. We’re going to put the ball in his hands a lot on the perimeter and in the post to be a playmaker. I think he’s a naturally skilled scorer, and so we’re also going to try to find ways to also utilize him as a passer, whether it’s out of the post, him flashing to the ball, or him being able to handle the ball like Cody Zeller with working the ball on top, dribble hand-offs and keepers, and things of that nature.

Also, when he’s in the pocket and the ball comes to him, what are his reads and decisions. A lot of that stuff sounds easier than it is. When it’s live speed, and you have talented players out there, it’s a split-second decision, so I think his reads and his mind is working a lot faster.

In terms of style, he’s a guy that can really shoot the ball, so we’re trying to find balance for him where he’s rolling hard to the rim and putting pressure on the rim. We also want him to get to the line a lot more, so it’s a style thing as well with Vern. I think he’s starting to pick that up. He’s so strong. Has great touch.

So we’re trying to find that balance for him where he’s using that physicality, really sealing guys, running the floor, putting pressure on the rim. If he does that, that would open up driving lanes for our guys, it’s going to open up three-point shots. I think he’s starting to understand that concept, and when he fully gets immersed in games and he’s doing it consistently, then that’s where you can really see him make that big leap.

DS: One of the things that you talked about with Vernon is his ability to go out and make reads. Honestly, I feel like there’s not a lot of players in the G League that are better to receive those passes than Hornets two-way player Nate Darling. How has Nate grown as a player in training camp, and how important is to have someone with his skill set on this team?

JH: I’ve been around a lot of great shooters, and he’s right up there with the best of them in terms of his pure shot. We’ve been working on him getting his shot off quicker, trying to maintain separation, where his shot is going to come on the court. We’re also working shooting with distance and range, stepping out to where you’re almost to the logo like a Dame Lillard type of shot.

We just want him spacing the floor because I don’t feel anyone is going to feel comfortable when he’s out there with getting to the middle of the paint to block off drives. They’re going to stay closer to him, knowing that he can step into it and shoot that ball from 30 feet pretty comfortably.

With a guy like him, it’s about finding his rhythm and timing of where the shots are going to come from and how he’s going to get those shots. Also, for him, it’s shooting them and not being afraid to shoot 10 to 12 threes in a game because we want him consistently finding those attempts to put pressure on defenses. If you have a team where you have guys that can create for themselves all the time, then that’s a great thing.

The next most dangerous thing, and it may be even more dangerous, is a guy like JJ Redick, where I remember him with Philly where he was coming back and setting rip screens before popping. It would force you to try to figure out whether you want to stay with Ben Simmons or do I pop out. Now he’s shooting threes or pump faking and getting in the lane and dumping it off to Embiid.

I think Darling has playmaking ability because at times they had him run the point with Delaware. I think the same can happen in this type of offense that we have where everyone has to read, react, and be comfortable with the ball in their hands. I think you’re going to see some variety in him and also an emphasis from us on how we can get him shots because every time he shoots it I feel like it’s going in.

DS: You two have only been together for a few weeks now, but how are you feeling about the growth of Kahlil Whitney? How important is it for Kahlil’s continued progression to have a player on this team like KJ McDaniels that plays the same position and has experience in the NBA?

JH: It was great that you asked me about Kahlil because I felt like yesterday was his best day when we competed. With Kahlil, he’s a natural competitor, he brings the energy every day, and he has this real sense of excitement and joy about him when he’s playing the game. At 19, he’s already got an NBA frame as he’s long, got strength, has size, and we obviously know he’s athletic. Now it’s only a matter of if he can put that together in the games.

Right now, we’re trying to help him with whiteboard sessions and watching film with him to get him ready for the NBA game. I don’t care who you are, there’s always an adjustment period when it comes to the pro level and understanding and identifying what’s about to happen. What set they’re going to run based on their alignment, and if you’re not familiar with the pro game, then you might get lost in the shuffle.

But the experienced guys can see the alignment and be like, “I can see that a wedge is coming, I know HORNS is coming,” and then know how to guard it. Those are going to be the areas where, not just in a one-on-one scenario, but in a five-on-five setting with identifying some of the sets and how he’s going to guard it and what his responsibilities are. As of lately, he’s spending so much time with our staff and me trying to get familiar with NBA sets and the stuff that we’re running. As I said, I thought that yesterday was his best day just figuring it, and a lightbulb went out. I spent time with him in training camp in Charlotte, and the progression from Day 1 with understanding what we’re talking about with all those concepts to now is so much better.

With KJ, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win, and that’s the biggest thing. I think in this bubble, we’re talking about the type of improvement both collectively and individually where you’re going to see some wins as a byproduct of all of that. That’s what KJ is all about because he’s been like, “I’ll play any position that you need me to play from the 3 to the 5”.

I think when you have a guy that played quality minutes in the NBA, produced, and has that mindset, then it resonates with everyone else on the team, especially with a guy that is just making it in this league and trying to make their mark. They see that and realize why certain guys have been able to stick around for so long because it’s always a mindset thing more so than anything.

With KJ being here, it’s been tremendous for me because he’s a guy that asks questions and is engaged in the whole process. He’s also willing to stand up and talk to different guys if he sees something that they may be struggling with.

DS: What do you think that fans should know about Xavier Sneed and Keandre Cook when it comes to their work as players. Also, how do you hope that both of those guys will be able to produce on the court and progress their games during the season?

JH: Xavier has been super solid, and I say that in the best way possible. Since he’s joined training camp, I haven’t seen him make too many mistakes on the court. I think he understands the system well, he’s shooting the ball super confidently, has length, is defending, and is doing everything that it takes to make a roster at some point in time. Also, I think he’s a student of the game and is just a great guy to be around by having great energy.

I’ve been impressed with X since the time that he’s been in training camp with the Hornets, we’ve stayed in contact, and it’s definitely carried over here. I’m looking forward to seeing him out there playing multiple positions for us and be a guy that can easily guard 1 through 4. So I’m really looking forward to seeing him get out there.

As for Keandre, he’s made a lot of strides. I put Kenadre in many situations as he’s a big guard but has a really good skill package in regards to how he handles the ball, has pretty good touch, got mid-range, and definitely knows how to get into the teeth of the defense. We’re trying to mix it up with him, and at times, we can see him anywhere from the 1 to the 3 because he can do a little bit of everything.

When Grant was out for a few days during training camp, I threw him in there, and he knew the system. For us, we’re kind of a multi-positional offense as we’re four out and one in, so it’s whoever can bring the ball up with the rest getting in their spots, and we play. He fits that mold for us in regards to playing multiple positions and being in any of those spots on the four out and one in. Keandre is just someone that has a great attitude.

Also, I can’t express from 1-to-14 the personalities that we have and how they’re meshing together. I keep telling them that I want to make sure that we have that killer mentality and that we’re super tough. We talk about the fighter mentality all the time, that’s our mantra, and show that every single time that we’re on the floor. We want to compete at a high level, and we’re not satisfied with being at the bottom in regards to any of our defensive or offensive rankings.

I just want to work on figuring out collectively how we can get better, and I think that all of the guest speakers that we had in quarantine were phenomenal. They all talked about the mindset and how they utilized the fighter mentality to advance in their careers. We’re talking everyone from a rapper, an ex-NBA player, an NFL player, sports psychologist, ex-pro Muay Thai fighter, and coach Borrego. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in because if you have the right mindset, then over time, you’re going to find success.