All 6-foot-11 of Joe Wolf gracefully strolls up, towering over a waist-high podium at the Hayes-Taylor Memorial YMCA. He gives the media a soft smile and begins reminiscing on his childhood memories with the YMCA. Growing up in Kohler, Wisconsin, Wolf would travel over to the YMCA Tuesday and Thursday nights during the summer to compete against the area’s best talent.
The Swarm announced today that they have agreed to a multi-year partnership with the Hayes-Taylor Memorial YMCA in Greensboro. The organization is looking to make just as much of an impact off the court as they do between the painted lines.
Wolf has come a far way from a young kid in Kohler, playing pickup at the local YMCA. Now in his second season as head of the Greensboro Swarm, Wolf is much more comfortable heading into year two.
Previous to his job with the Swarm, he played a four-year career at UNC under legendary coach Dean Smith. His teams reached the NCAA Tournament all four years, and he earned first-team All-ACC honors. Drafted 13th overall by the Clippers in the 1987 NBA Draft, Wolf went on to have a 13-year NBA career, including two stints with the Hornets. Wolf started his coaching career in 2003 with William and Mary, and has since been an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and UNC-Wilmington before taking the Swarm job in 2018.
“I feel a lot more situated on what I do on a daily basis” said Wolf. “Last year I was trying to set up a culture with the Swarm and this year will be advancing on that culture.”
Another aspect of the culture Coach Wolf is trying to implement into Greensboro is winning habits, just as James Borrego is for the Hornets. “We are trying to teach winning habits. If we teach the right habits and are consistent with our habits, not only individually but as a team, hopefully, we have enough talent to win games.”
Greensboro is the bridge to the NBA for the 15 players at the Swarm’s training camp. Many aspiring NBA players have made their money going through the G-League on their way to being on an NBA roster full-time. Forty two percent of players going into NBA training camps this season had experience playing in the G-League. That’s over 200 NBA players. Those numbers show the importance of grinding away, developing your game, and progressing on a daily basis en route to the big leagues.
Winning Habits and Player Development
The roster turnover year-to-year in the G-League is immense. The Swarm open their season in just 11 days when they face the Erie BayHawks. Coach Wolf has just three returning players this season in Joe Chealey, John Dawson, and Tyler Nelson. When asked about how to prepare so quickly to bring the team together for a regular-season game, the former UNC Tar Heel had a very simple answer. “You just do. That’s the fun part about the G-League. It’s fast. You try to set habits early, and build from those habits.”
He spoke about the importance of having those familiar faces on the roster. “That will be very important in terms of establishing competitiveness, which those three all exemplify.” Joe Chealey was one of the leaders for the Swarm last year, averaging 16.3 points per game. Wolf said Joe was a “shining example” of the competitive spirit he is trying to instill in his players.
The Swarm coach grasps the daily grind of player development. He wants his players to improve holistically as basketball players, but also as men. “We’ve always been about player development. That’s who we are and what we are for the Hornets. We expect our guys to develop on every level, on the court and off the court. Their games should mature as should their personalities and who they are as people.”
Wolf mentioned the tremendous amount of learning he experienced in his first season with the Swarm and the importance of development. Now he has a better grasp on how to cement a winning culture into this team. Wolf wants to see holistic improvement in every Swarm player this year, and “understand possession by possession how great basketball is achieved. On the court is possession by possession, how do we win that (possession) as a team.”
Coach Wolf applies that same concept off the court as well. “How you apply yourself and react to each possession in life, practice, or wherever you are and try to win and learn from that.” He is trying to instill that one step at a time, building block mentality in all of his players. Wolf does not want his players to just become better as basketball players. In order to improve in that facet of your life, you need to improve as a man as well, becoming more mentally and emotionally mature.
Wolf Loves the Day-to-Day Player Progression and Transformation
The Swarm’s coach loves the opportunity to coach players through positional changes to adapt their game to fit in the NBA level. “It’s awesome. That’s why you coach. To instill a kind of habit and skill development, some kind of strength, or repeated habit they haven’t had. To help their game get to the next level.”
He explained that the process of doing so is not the same with every player. Some adaptations take longer than others and it takes patience. “It’s not a one-time fix where I talk to you for five seconds and you’re fixed. It’s over the course of 50 games sometimes. Sometimes it’s five games. We have to figure that out and maintain valuable members of the Swarm. Make sure they’re productive while out there on the court.”
Many players come into the G-League having dominated at a position collegiately that won’t transfer to the NBA. A player could have been a dominant center at a power five school in college, but at 6’8″ they lack the height to be an NBA center. So coach Wolf has to instill new skills, habits, and traits to that player’s game in the process of their transformation.
The skill development takes an enormous amount of hard work, focus, and patience to achieve but that is why you are in the G-League, to adapt in hopes of making it to the NBA. Coach Wolf is a grinder and loves the process.
The Swarm Will Emulate the Hornets Style of Play
Coach Wolf spoke on the style and brand of basketball that he will imprint into his team’s DNA this season. He wants to play at a high pace like Borrego has echoed numerous times since September. Wolf wants the team attacking the rim, pushing the pace in transition, utilizaing rapid ball movement, shooting the three, layups, and free throws at a high frequency.
“Defensively we are going to get after people” he explained. There will be a focus on putting pressure on the ball, and defending all over the court with physicality. Just like the Hornets, the Swarm are going to “get out and run”.
The Swarm’s roster illustrates that exact belief. The team has seven players on their training camp roster listed under 6’3″ and just five above 6’7″. The size differential is eye-popping when looking at the roster on paper.
When asked about the number of guards on the roster compared to bigs, with just one guy listed above 6-foot-10, Wolf joked and said, “We’re thinking about having me as a player-coach. I’m thinking about a comeback. Took a while for someone to ask.”
In all seriousness, Wolf said that the height distinction speaks for the style of play the Swarm will play. “Our 1-3, sometimes 1-4 are going to be positionless basketball. And sometimes maybe 1-5. It’s going to be fun to teach that kind of game.”
Greensboro is Swarmed with Guards
We have seen through the Hornets’ preseason and through their first four regular-season games that James Borrego will run three guards on the floor at once through large sequences of the game. The Swarm will do just that and they are loaded at the guard position.
Kobi Simmons who is on a two-way contract for the Hornets. Wolf loves his style of game and the pace he plays with. “He defends all ninety four feet, and is one of the fastest guys out there. I love the speed he plays with.” Simmons is a 6-foot-5 guard that could run the point on offense and potentially defend a forward on defense in a smaller lineup.
Simmons was a standout at Hornets training camp. He says is ready to meet this opportunity head-on and is fully prepared to grind in Greensboro.
“I’m looking to strengthen and improve everything I’m hearing from up top and most importantly leading this team to wins,” said Simmons. “That’s always a good look. And the main thing I want to improve on is just being more vocal and a better leader for this team.”
Josh Perkins was an attendee of Hornets training camp. A five-year guy at Gonzaga, Perkins will be a key member of the Swarm in his first year. Josh said his time at Gonzaga has helped him make this transition to the G-League.
“I’m a mature point guard. I’ve been through every situation thrown at me in my five years; learning the ins-and-outs of the game. I had a big-time coach prepare me for the future, teaching me how to win playing every style of basketball.”
Perkins is equipped to play the Swarm’s new style of play which he experienced at Hornets training camp. “I’m labeled a point guard, but I’m a basketball player. I don’t get caught up in positions. It’s all about winning and doing what I can to help the team.”
Joel Berry II, the former UNC standout and national champion, was acquired by the Swarm last month from the South Bay Lakers. He is excited to be an immediate fan favorite back in North Carolina in Greensboro. “Being back in North Carolina and they have supported me so much. That’s why I give it my all every time I step out on the court. It feels great being back on this side and having the fans behind you.”
His head coach is also a former Tar Heel, so that connection is something that can help bring the new point guard and coach together. Berry had a challenging rookie season, both tearing his meniscus and fracturing his tibia. He still managed to average over 11 points per game, but stated that his leg injury affected his shooting. He shot just 27 percent from three last season, and played through the injuries until he could not manage any longer. Expect a breakout year for a 100 percent healthy Berry back in the state where he is a basketball legend.
The Swarm will play small, fast, and positionless basketball this year at the Fieldhouse in front of its fans. They will look to embark on a new journey in their own developments and progression, led by their head coach Joe Wolf.