Life in the G-League is anything but a bastion of stability and continuity both for players and coaches. Roster call-ups, overseas contracts, and 10 day contracts make creating cohesion a constant challenge for Blue Coats head coach Connor Johnson.
“I think we are on the more extreme end, even at the beginning of the year with the 2-ways being up with the Sixers and with Cam’s injury,” Coach Johnson said prior to Wednesday night’s game.
And yet, the Coats, maybe more than any other team in the league have a multipronged mission that prioritizes player development and scheme implementation against the immediate results of wins and losses.
“We’ve tried to stay true and play to the Sixers playbook and how they want to play, but within that, lots of tweaks,” said Johnson before the final game heading into the All-Star break.
The Coats are loaded with talent at the center position suddenly, just two weeks after losing Cam Oliver to an ankle dislocation that required season ending surgery. Justin Patton returned February 7th. Norvel Pelle also returned after a five game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The team is pleased with what Norvel brings to the game at the most crucial skill required.
“Getting Norvel back, a big roller at the rim, is going to be one of the key parts of our offense.” – Conner Johnson
For a team that plays pick-and-roll, they try to get their guards downhill. With good shooters on the outside, having a rolling threat is crucial to balanced, modern offense.
As for Justin Patton, when bringing his name up, Johnson said, “Justin, his size is kind of a rolling threat…”
Roster churn is just one part of the challenge for the Coats. Winning games cannot completely take a back seat to scheme and development. It is hard to develop talent if the scheme isn’t a great fit, and a G-League General Manager still has to field a competitive team among the pool of available players. This means adjustments are often needed.
“We have been changing a decent amount but all within the same umbrella, which has been a challenge, but it’s what we gotta do.” Connor Johnson
But then there are the individual day-to-day challenges of motivating and keeping players focused. A G-League player’s life is unglamorous and grueling. The Fieldhouse construction schedule resulted in a road heavy schedule to begin the season. Pelle, who has played in multiple summer leagues and overseas, has suffered from some of the focus issues that can keep a very talented player from the NBA.
“When Norvel is locked in and focused, he’s the best rim protector in the G-League and can very clearly be one of the better rim protectors in the NBA. Both being on the court and when he’s on the court being locked in. It’s as much of a mental and emotional thing that we work on with him than it is on the floor,” said Johnson.
“He’s extremely talented and extremely good at the most important thing for a 5-man, which is protecting the rim.”
Coach Johnson talked about the difference between a G-League player and an NBA player. They are both really talented, but an NBA player does it every time and a G league player does it 40% of the time.
“For him, if he gets from the 40% of the time to every time, then the sky is the limit.”
Earlier this week, Coach Johnson even went so far as to call Pelle’s shot-blocking elite on an NBA level. “I think he is elite. I don’t think that’s kind of hyperbole. I think that even at the NBA level, he’s an elite rim protector and an elite shot blocker.”
Speaking with Justin Patton before the game courtside, he asked, “What’s up with Norvel?” Patton was confused at how someone so talented wasn’t in the NBA already.
Johnson talked about Patton, the 21 year old 7 footer who was acquired along with Jimmy Butler for Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
“He’s kind of the opposite of Norvel in one sense,” said Johnson “Norvel is really good at protecting the rim which is the most important thing you can do as a five.”
“Justin is more well rounded, he’s got more game in terms of showing more he can hit some shots from outside. He can make some plays, but he needs to get his rim protection. So what he can learn from Norvel is very clear to me, the way he dominates inside, with his timing with his reads, with his ability to go vertical without fouling.”
Justin seemed to be taking these lessons to heart.
Justin Patton @JustinPatton17 is a perfect 3-3 from the floor with 4 blocks as the Coats end the first quarter with a 12 point lead.— Blue Route – TPL (@BlueRouteTPL) February 14, 2019
Patton is a +10 so far.
“We tell Justin, to be a 5 in the NBA, you gotta protect the rim and you gotta be a great roller. Anything you do outside of that is extra, but you gotta do those first two.” – Connor Johnson
For his part, Patton acknowledged the challenge and said his instruction in Minnesota was different with more man defense and less help.
“I think the Batman thing here is more extreme, but every team protects the rim. It’s the most important thing you can do.” – Connor Johnson on the rim protecting responsibility that the Sixers organization preaches.
Path to the NBA
A former first round pick, Patton has been very eager to get on the court and show his abilities on tape in hopes of an NBA opportunity for next season. Wednesday evening, he finished his final game with a 20 minute restriction. After the NBA All-Star break, the limit will increase to 30.
In all likelihood, the Sixers will give him some opportunity late in the season as his minutes restriction is lifted. He, along with Zhaire Smith, will bolster a Blue Coats lineup that is hoping to make a late season playoff push. When asked if it was more important to play or to be on an NBA roster, Patton deferred to the Sixers talent. “They are so stacked,” he said. He also mentioned that he wanted to get as much burn as possible and put his play on film for next season.
Both Patton and Pelle unquestionably offer NBA level capabilities. The key for both is to display those talents consistently. This will prove they can translate from the grind to the show.