GREENSBORO, NC – Player development happens behind closed doors and is a crucial part for any team hoping to have a successful rebuild and have long-term stability. Charlotte Hornets’ head coach James Borrego has continually echoed that player development is the lifeblood of the organization. Saying that their primary focus is building from the bottom up in hopes of planting a winning culture in the Hornets’ DNA.

There is such a monumental focus on the talent pipeline in today’s NBA, as we constantly see teams heavily invest in establishing a viable program and environment that transforms raw, young talent into full-time contributors in the NBA. Organizations such as the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics – just to name a few – have put a significant amount of attention and time into creating an organization that can transform late first-round picks, mid-second-round picks, and even undrafted players into every-night contributors in the NBA. Teams around the league (i.e. Charlotte) have taken note of that.

Look at All-Star weekend. Pascal Siakam, Rudy Gobert, and Khris Middleton all made their ascensions via the G-League. The G-League is the future and the Hornets are well aware of that. After seeing what successful rebuilds look like, they have chosen to start at the bottom to ensure they have the right pieces in place to properly develop talent both efficiently and effectively. A prime example of that was the hiring of Two-Way player development coach, Nick Friedman. 

Nick Friedman: the Charlotte Hornets’ Two-Way Player Development Coach

Nick has a solid resume and quality experience with player development, starting as a grad assistant at the University of Miami during their Sweet 16 run in 2016. He then rose up through the G-League, starting with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Houston Rockets affiliate) in 2016 where he was the Director of Player Development and their Head Video Coordinator. He moved on to be the Assistant Coach/Offensive Coordinator with the Northern Arizona Suns (Phoenix Suns G-League affiliate). The previous two years before arriving in Charlotte, he worked as the Associate Head Coach for the Maine Red Claws (Boston Celtics G-League affiliate).

Friedman is just one of a handful of Two-Way player development coaches in the NBA – a new wave in player development systems throughout the league. Charlotte has benefitted tremendously from the skills that Friedman brings to the table, especially now that they are in the opening stages of a rebuild. Friedman has several years of experience coaching in the G-League along with preparing top NBA prospects for the NBA draft. Additionally, he has trained a number of NBA players during the offseason, including Charlotte’s own Terry Rozier prior to his breakout season in 2018 with the Celtics. 

Nick Friedman is the right man for the job and his role in the Hornets’ player development equation is essential for the future of this team. 

I got to sit down with Nick Friedman last week and discuss a variety of topics, mainly centered around the four players he is focused on developing. Here’s a look into some of the conversations between Nick Friedman and myself last week.

Can you specifically describe what your role is and what makes you different from a standard NBA coach?

I’m an extension of the Hornets’ coaching staff, and I’m on [James] Borrego’s staff and responsible for overseeing the development of Caleb, Jalen, Kobi, and Ray. So I act as the liaison between Jay Hernandez (Hornets’ head of player development) and Coach Borrego. When I’m in Charlotte, I’m on the offensive side of the ball. But mainly my job is to be a liaison between what’s going on up top offensively and defensively. Then provide updates and make sure my guys are up to date on terminology and concepts, so when they do get their shot, they’re ready to go. When I’m here in Greensboro, I help with some coaching insight but most importantly just making sure my guys are in tip-top shape from a mental and physical standpoint.

How many two-way player development coaches are there in the NBA? 

Charlotte, Golden State, Brooklyn, Boston, and a few more. So it’s a new thing. The G-League is a valuable farm system. I’ve been around and know how to truly cherish this and help players really wrap their minds around the importance of being here [in the G-League]. A lot of people think it’s a demotion, and they get hurt when they don’t get their call up. So this experience is big. It really challenges you.

Some guys get humbled when they come down to the G-League (first time not being on top in basketball), so I feel like it’s good to have a coach fully devoted to them and helping keep their confidence up because that’s one thing that I know is vital to any player’s success in the league. 

That’s the thing. The best treatment from an organization and this league is what we call complete 1:1. We are in unison in communication. Just the whole idea that you are a member of the Charlotte Hornets, and that’s what we are trying to establish. 

All four of these guys, Ray, Kobi, Jalen, Caleb, regardless of the situation, wins or losses, their positivity has been great. It’s allowed them to keep progressing and getting better. That’s what this is all about. It’s been a great learning experience for me and the guys. Learning how to live in the moment. Always staying ready, you never know when your opportunity is going to come knocking. Don’t get concerned about what-ifs. Just stay ready and stay prepared.

Caleb Martin

Since my conversation with Nick, Caleb has been recalled by the Hornets, where he has appeared in both games, playing north of 20 minutes per contest. I have to say it was pretty good timing. 

We have seen Caleb dominate in the G-League this year. Obviously it’s hard to get from point A to point B, so what areas have you been constantly working on with him since October?

For Caleb, his biggest piece of development, besides skill, is what we call those snap decisions. When he’s going up to shoot, when he catches, not holding the ball. That’s one thing Caleb was struggling with early on, which is a big adjustment from college when he was in such a high usage role, is being a ball stopper (referring to interrupting ball movement). In the first half tonight against Toronto, he was tremendous in that regard. That’s just a tribute to who he is as a person. Adjusting and understanding what he needs to do down here. I couldn’t be more proud of the kid, to see how much he has progressed over the past couple of months. 

I was talking to Omar Khanani, Caleb and Cody’s skills coach for the past six years, and they put in a lot of work in changing that jump shot. OK said it was fixing his leg kick and not leaning back along with shot selection. His three-point percentage has jumped over 8% in the last month and a half. What do you attribute to the jump in efficiency?

I think it’s a combination of him being comfortable, not leaning back and kicking that leg out. But also just getting into what we call “one release,” like not having that crazy hitch. That’s gotten significantly better, and he’s gotten more relaxed shooting the ball. But the most important thing is just a matter of shot selection. Right now all of his stuff is coming off the catch for the most part. He’ll take a couple of dribble pull-up threes. He’s become more efficient because of the better shots he’s been taking. 

One thing Omar Khanani was telling me was Caleb is at his best when he is only attempting catch-and-shoot threes, one or two dribble pull-ups, or driving to the rim. That’s his bread and butter.

That’s what his role is going to be [with the Hornets]. When you’re hot and see somebody go under [a screen], you’re going to let it fly off the bounce, but more so let the game flow to him. And when he lets it flow, he is excellent.

Coach [Borrego] has said he thinks Caleb [Martin] is one of the best finishers at the rim on the team. He thinks Caleb can play now; he just doesn’t want Caleb to come up to Charlotte and sit on the bench and not play. His magic number is 30 minutes – 30 minutes in Charlotte or Greensboro, I know you know that. There’s no point in keeping him down in Greensboro all season.

And that’s what’s been so crucial into Caleb’s development is that exact point right there – he has to play. He has to keep those habits. Caleb has to keep those habits and understand the importance of keeping them, and he’s doing that right now. Regardless of wins and losses, he’s competing. Caleb’s playing the right way. His defense needs to be a little more consistent, but I do think he’s on the right track. The kid is ready to go. He’s ready to play for the Hornets right now.

Caleb Martin has a chance to be a legitimate rotation player in this league. I was with Daniel House (Houston Rockets) for a full season in Northern Arizona, and I see the same things I saw in Daniel in Caleb. If Caleb continues with the mentality of playing the right way, he will get there. He just has to keep this up. 

From my interactions with Caleb and from what I’ve heard from others, it’s obvious that he has a great head on his shoulders. 

What I will say is that I can not thank Caleb Martin enough for how immensely receptive he has been. We have been through our growing pains, but it’s one of those things that he is kind of battling those battles with you, and he has been so receptive to me. I can not thank him enough for putting the time and effort into being able to change, because it’s not easy. He’s always doing that. It just speaks to what a valuable piece he is for the Charlotte Hornets’ organization.

Jalen McDaniels

Jalen got recalled by the Hornets last week as well and Monday night against the Detroit Pistons where he posted 8 points and 3 rebounds, including shooting 2-3 from three-point land. He has made significant strides this year grinding in Greensboro without a single complaint, keeping a smile on his face.

Jalen gained 10-15 pounds of muscle since the summer, which I know is a big part in his development. He’s also shooting over 40 percent from three this year. What’s stuck out to you most about his progression, and what exact aspects of his game is he trying to polish?

He’s been working the hardest this year on his shooting. Just showing that it can be consistent. Like you said, he’s shooting above 40 percent from three. He’s been excellent from the corners (where he will need to be when he plays for the Hornets). Just showing the ability that he can space the floor and be a threat. And this is what he does best – play off the catch or attack closeouts.

Another big emphasis of his player development has been his playmaking. Is he a guy who can make guys better? Can he make the right decisions at the rim, in the paint, and show he can play some 3 (small forward)? That’s been a huge emphasis for us [coaches].

Jalen’s size can allow him to play multiple and defend multiple positions. He’s already shown flashes that he could impact an NBA team as a weak side defender. From what you guys have said, it’s obvious that he will shift between the 3 and 4. But on the ball on the defensive end, what are you looking to improve with him exactly and drill into his head?

Defensively, he has to show that no matter if he is in the G-League or in the NBA, that he’s the most consistent, hard-nosed motorman on the floor, specifically on the defensive end. Jalen’s going through his growing pains there, all young guys do it is a part of the process. It’s just consistent focus and defending without fouling. He’s capable of it. Jalen is going to get stronger, I mean it’s his rookie year. Guys will go through their ups and downs. But he has made significant jumps with that and his overall game. Jalen couldn’t receive the criticism better; he does everything with a smile on his face. He’s been a pleasure to work with.

Kobi Simmons

Kobi Simmons flies under the radar. He doesn’t go on social media and draw attention to himself or is loud and obnoxious in-game. He lets his game speak for itself. Kobi consistently puts up solid numbers, 16.5 PTS, 4.5 REB, 5.4 AST, and 1.5 STL. 

Kobi just seems like a guy that’s always consistent; you know what you’re going to get from him every night.

He is a very important part. I don’t think he gets talked about enough as a guy in this program who has a lot of potential. He’s improved tremendously as a playmaker. His assist:turnover ratio is the best of his career. Kobi is showing he can create and make shots and attack the rim. On defense, his ball pressure defensively when he’s locked in is elite. We really like what he has contributed this year.

What I’ve seen from Kobi [Simmons] this year on offense has been that he doesn’t make a high percentage of his jump shots in traffic or off the dribble. He’s more prone to just shooting off the catch, driving, and kicking.

But that’s what he has to be. He doesn’t have to be a Devonte’ Graham, high-volume three-point shooter off the bounce. If guys are going to go over him on the pick-and-roll, then he should get downhill and touch the paint every single time. Kobi has done a good job at understanding how to not settle (for low-quality shots). I’m very pleased for where he’s at right now. 

Ray Spalding

Spalding is the Hornets’ most recent two-way player. He is the size of a modern NBA big with the skill set to impact the game in a variety of ways on both ends. Ray is a valuable piece for the Hornets in the future.

Ray is a great dude. High energy, good attitude, quality guy. You must be thrilled to have him.

Ray’s interesting. He’s one of the most high-character people I’ve ever worked with. One of the best guys I’ve been around. I mean, he’s already had a 20-10 game in the NBA (April 5, 2019). Ray can pass; he knows who he is. He’s an elite roller to the rim. I think he has a legit shot [in the NBA], and I really like his versatility on both ends of the floor.

Bismack Biyombo and Billy [Hernangomez] are off the books after this season. Is the plan when y’all signed him was for him to play the 5?

Positionally, yeah that’s the plan. But he has shown that he could play the 4 because he’s so skilled. He can pass, he has a high IQ. His shooting is a work in progress, but he’s talented. You don’t find a lot of guys like that, especially in a two-way role.