Zeroing in on the G League’s Birmingham Squadron and four of its players—Jared Harper, Joe Young, Zylan Cheatham, and Malcolm Hill—during the historic 2021-22 season, ‘Life in the G’ by Alex Squadron details the relentless pursuit of the NBA dream. This excerpt focuses on Birmingham’s first team meeting and the beginning of training camp.
By Alex Squadron
Squadron head coach Ryan Pannone recognized that an integral part of his job was teaching his players how to be professionals. Those who came from top college programs were used to a comfortable lifestyle. Big staffs catered to their every need. Facilities were top notch. Teams flew private, stayed in five-star hotels, ate gourmet food, had police escorts. Any young adult entering the real world has a lot to learn, but the transition from a powerhouse university like Kentucky or Duke to the G League can be especially jarring.
In 2010, Grizzlies seven-footer Hasheem Thabeet was assigned to the D-League’s Dakota Wizards. As the former number two overall pick out of the University of Connecticut (UConn), he was the highest draft pick ever sent to the minors by an NBA team. During one road trip, the Wizards were getting ready to play a game when the twenty-three-year-old Thabeet realized he didn’t have his shoes—they had been left at the previous stop on their trip. At UConn, as with the Grizzlies, someone on staff packed up all the shoes, usually bringing multiple options for each player. With the Dakota Wizards, players were responsible for their own belongings. It would have been easy enough for Thabeet to borrow shoes or hustle to a local mall, except that he wore a whopping size 18. There was no way, under the time constraints, that the team was going to be able to find a pair that big. So Thabeet had to miss the Wizards’ next game. Reason: no shoes. Since the D-League attracted so little media attention, his absence was able to fly under the radar.
That type of stuff just happened in the minors—players forgot things, showed up late, missed buses, acted immaturely, made foolish mistakes on the court. In 2015, Iowa Energy teammates Jarnell Stokes and Kalin Lucas were both ejected from a game for fighting . . . each other. Lucas was, according to announcers on the broadcast, “bloodied up a little bit” by Stokes. A year later, Houston Rockets forward Montrezl Harrell was on assignment with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers when he pushed a referee to the ground during an altercation. He was subsequently suspended for five games. The G League was where such behavior was corralled. Like any first job, it was where a bunch of twentysomethings learned to grow up. And those who didn’t, didn’t make it.
Longtime D-Leaguer Mo Charlo remembered when big man Hassan Whiteside got assigned to his team—the Reno Bighorns—from the Sacramento Kings during the 2010–11 season. Whiteside thought he was above it, not buying in or listening to Reno’s head coach Eric Musselman (now the head coach at the University of Arkansas). After practice ended, Musselman put a single chair in the middle of the locker room and told everyone to leave except Whiteside. Charlo stayed close to the door and listened as Musselman ripped into his seven-foot center. “He just went crazy,” Charlo recalled with a laugh. “I was in there cracking up, like, Oh, shit! That was kind of the wake-up call that I think Hassan needed.” Whiteside would learn to mature, eventually earning a four-year, $98 million max contract from the Miami Heat.
To ensure accountability as Musselman did, the Squadron imposed fines for various slip-ups. Pannone ran through the catalog of infractions. Being late to a team function would cost a player $50; failing to promptly report an injury, illness, or condition—$100; missing player programs—$250; displaying improper bench conduct or team insubordination—up to $500; suspension—2 percent of a player’s salary. Considering standard G League contracts were valued at just $37,000 for the 2021–22 season, those penalties weren’t as trivial as they sound. When NBA superstars doled out $25,000 or $50,000 for an offense, they were actually relinquishing a smaller percentage of their paychecks than a G Leaguer coughing up a fifty-dollar bill.
With those particulars out of the way, Pannone detailed his offense. More than anything, it was a system predicated on unselfishness. In Pannone’s mind, being unselfish was the best way to win basketball games and to impress scouts. There were other key elements to his system, many of which were based on analytics (pushing the pace, not settling for midrange shots, attacking the rim, making the extra pass). Selfishness, though, would cause the entire machine to break down. And besides, NBA coaches weren’t looking for ball-dominant, one-on-one players, Pannone assured his team. They already had those guys.
The numbers backed Pannone’s argument. He compared tracking data from NBA stars to former G Leaguers. While reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic averaged 101 touches per game, guard Gary Payton II, who was called up from the Raptors 905 to the Golden State Warriors in 2020, averaged just 6.3 touches. While Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic possessed the ball for an average of 6.02 seconds per touch, Miami Heat sharpshooter Duncan Robinson averaged just 1.56 seconds. While three-time scoring champion James Harden averaged 4.96 dribbles per touch, Oklahoma City Thunder wing Lu Dort averaged just 1.36. And so on. NBA front offices weren’t combing the G League for the next Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, or James Harden. They didn’t covet isolation players with score-first mentalities. And neither did Pannone.
In 2020, assistant coach Perry Huang had done an independent study of NBA call-ups. He found that very few of the top G League scorers were making it to the NBA. During the 2016–17 season, only three of the thirty-eight total call-ups ranked in the top fifteen in scoring; in 2017–18, five of the fifty-one; in 2018–19, three of the forty-eight; and in 2019–20, four of the thirty-nine. Huang’s research confirmed what he and Pannone already knew—there was no scoring one’s way out of the G League. As Huang wrote in a presentation sharing his findings, NBA teams were searching more for consummate professionals and mistake-free role players than flashy bucket-getters.
In theory, that was a good thing; it made life simpler. Jobs were whittled down, responsibilities were fewer, burdens were lighter. A player once asked to fill every role was now instructed to focus on just one or two things. Dominate the boards and protect the rim; facilitate the offense and knock down threes. Much easier, right?
The main obstacle was ego. Players wanted bigger roles, more responsibilities, heavier burdens. One of the toughest challenges facing any G League staff was to convince a bunch of former stars to become something less, to sacrifice more, to accept that if they sought to move up the ladder instead of down, they would never be stars again.
“A big reason guys get stuck in the G League is because they don’t realize the position they’re trying out for,” Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso, who played 106 games in the G League from 2016 to 2019, said on The Old Man and the Three podcast. “It’s like going to a job interview thinking you’re going to be the CFO of the company, and they’re looking for someone to clean the bathrooms.”
“One thing I realized is that so many guys get in their own way and can’t get out of the way of whatever it is, whether it be their egos or a lack of willingness to accept a role,” said Duncan Robinson, who spent part of the 2018–19 season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce. “I think the examples of guys who have played in the G League and gone on to have success in the NBA, more often than not, it’s people who are level-headed around This is where I fit in and this is how I’m going to have an impact at the NBA level. Alex Caruso is a great example.”
The blueprint to reach the NBA, as Pannone told his team during that first meeting, was to do a specific job exceptionally well. Pannone even shared his definition of the phrase “do your job,” which he would repeat many times in the months to come: “It means complete your assignments, execute to the best of your ability, and trust that your teammates will do the same. To become a championship team, everyone must be bought into their role and do their job.”
Training camp for the Squadron was held at Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), a private university three miles west of the city’s downtown. For a team of this caliber, the conditions were laughable. It was like placing a bunch of PhD candidates in eighth grade biology. The Bill Burch Gymnasium wasn’t even the main gym at BSC, which, for reasons described by coaches as a “sensitive subject,” was not regularly made available. This gym was on the second floor of a weathered, red-brick building, indistinguishable from any of the other buildings on the school’s campus. It was dimly lit, and stained gray paint was peeling from the walls. Thick layers of dust had gathered in the corners and crevices. Light streaked in through the tall windows behind each basket, making the rims barely visible from certain angles. A busted scoreboard hung over one sideline, stuck on the same score, with the same time remaining.
Coaches had moved some equipment in—a stationary bike, training tables, water coolers—to give the space a slightly more professional feel, but in reality, this was a below-average high school gym packed with former and future NBA players. Nothing fit, both literally and figuratively. Their bodies seemed too big for the space, their talent too advanced for such an amateurish environment. When someone dunked, especially forward Zylan Cheatham, the basket shook so violently that it appeared on the verge of collapsing.
The first practice was at 6:30 p.m. on the evening of October 25. Coaches had little control over the scheduling. This wasn’t the Squadron’s facility; it was one of forty-five buildings on the 192-acre Birmingham-Southern campus. A new team facility was in the works for the 2022–23 season, but for now, a lot just depended on the school. Pannone was presented with available time slots and simply took advantage of what he could get. “That’s the G League,” he said, when asked about the arrangement. It was a common refrain used throughout the minors.
Can’t choose your gym time? That’s the G League. Filming practice on an iPhone to save $100? That’s the G League. Stuck in a middle seat on a flight to South Dakota? That’s the G League. Chick-fil-A breakfasts and Chipotle dinners? That’s the G League. Four games in six nights? That’s the G League.
“Be prepared for the unpreparable,” Pannone said about life in the G. “The reality is that for most of these guys, everything is worse. If you’re coming from a Division I school, how we travel is worse; what we eat is worse; our facilities are worse; our gear is worse. But being in the G League is about guys who love to hoop. You have to be easygoing. You have to be able to go with the flow.”
This was an excerpt from the book ‘Life in the G’ by Alex Squadron. If you are interested in purchasing the book, visit this link.
(Top photo: Mercedes Oliver/NBAE via Getty Images)