MILWAUKEE – After a season playing alongside NBA draft picks Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., former Duke guard Trevon Duval will begin his first season with the Milwaukee Bucks’ G League affiliate, the Wisconsin Herd.
The 20-year-old one-and-done player is a two-way player for the Bucks and Herd.
Jaylen Morris, 22, made his NBA debut last season, signing a 10-day contract with the Atlanta Hawks. The Division II guard from Molloy College will become the second two-way player on the Bucks and Herd rosters.
In its inaugural season, the Wisconsin Herd finished with a mediocre 21-29 record, fifth in the Central Division, but the Herd’s developmental success was among the highest of the 27 G League teams.
“Last year, we led the league in two-ways for a couple reasons,” said Dave Dean, Wisconsin Herd general manager and Milwaukee Bucks vice president of basketball operations. “We identified talent, guys that we liked, and we had injuries. We had to run through these guys quickly.”
Two-way players are able to spend a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team before returning to the G League. Teams are allowed to have two two-way contracted players at one time. Last season, the Wisconsin Herd and Milwaukee Bucks cycled through seven two-way players, something Dean thought would be impossible before the season.
Along with the rotation of two-way player contracts, the Herd has thrived in growing new players and improving their roster.
“The G League office would tell you we probably are the standard bearer for player development in the G League,” Dean said. “We took the bull by the horns last year and really got after it.”
Player development is a huge emphasis in the G League, especially with the possibility for changing NBA draft rules in the next few years. The G League will have to take an added responsibility for educating young players.
“The most difficult thing for guys that are close is to actually make that jump and break the ice to get back into the NBA or get into the NBA,” Herd coach Jordan Brady said.
Brady was proud that in the inaugural season, most of the players on his roster had better seasons with the Herd than with previous G League teams. Six of those first-year Herd players signed overseas contracts.
Developing players for the Milwaukee Bucks roster or for the Herd is a process between both teams. Brady works closely with the Bucks to develop the proper player development strategy.
“We give them vitamins, like extra work sessions on what they need to work on in particular, and we try to bring it together,” Dean said.
The term “vitamins” is a something new Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer brought into the team culture.
Player development can vary from ball handling and shooting drills to application in game setting. Brady looks at the process as twofold — first skill acquisition and then application.
“The development aspect is a lot of fun for me to be able to see these guys grow and to help them progress in their careers,” Brady said.
Extension of the Milwaukee Bucks
Like the current of electricity pulsing through a copper wire, Duval and Morris will feel the current pulsing between Fiserv Forum and the Menominee Nation Arena.
Brady, 35, understands the close relationship between an NBA team and the G League. He played for three G League teams and was an assistant coach at four G League teams before joining the Herd.
“I feel like I’m a true extension of the Milwaukee Bucks coaching staff,” Brady said.
Brady, who coached on the Bucks’ summer league team, is involved in all the Bucks meetings and practice planning.
“I think all of those things really have just helped me to be prepared to take the culture that Mike Budenholzer and his staff are building here in Milwaukee and use it in Oshkosh, so that when players get assigned or called up, it’s a seamless transition.”
While the grandeur of the new Fiserv Forum attracted basketball fans’ attention, right next door at the corner of Sixth Street and Juneau Avenue in downtown Milwaukee lies the 77,500-square-foot Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center.
On a Friday afternoon with about a month before the start of the Wisconsin Herd training camp, Dean and Brady are in the offices preparing for the month ahead. One of the conference rooms overlooks the two full-sized basketball courts, complete with the Milwaukee Bucks logo and “Fear the Deer” slogan along the back wall.
“We try to make it one organization. Part of that is allowing the Herd to practice here,” Dean said of the facilities.
“I think the more people really feel like they’re part of the NBA organization, the better it’s going to be,” Brady said. “It just makes sense that the two organizations are in lock step and that we’re doing the same things.”
Without conflicting with the teams’ differing schedules, the Herd holds practices in Milwaukee when they fly out of Mitchell Airport. Herd players have the opportunity to go to Bucks games, and some players, who are called Exhibit 10 guys, are invited to participate in the Bucks rookie camp and work with current NBA players.
“It lets our players know that we are serious, and we are all in,” Dean said.
Making a home in the Fox Valley
The Menominee Nation Arena, which opened in late 2017, is the nicest G League arena in the league, according to Dean. The arena seats 3,500 people and last season sold out 12 times.
“It could be 20 below and a Tuesday night and snowing, and we would have 2,500, 3,000 people supporting us,” Dean said. “It’s unbelievable.”
In exit interviews last year, players said the fan support played a large impact in player satisfaction at the end of the season.
“It’s tremendous. We really have one of the best home courts in the league. The fan support is really great. They have a tradition of professional basketball in Oshkosh,” Brady said.
From 1937 to 1949, Oshkosh had a professional basketball team, the Oshkosh All-Stars, a member of the National Basketball League. The National Basketball League preceded the NBA, with five teams (Lakers, Kings, Pistons, Hawks and 76ers) dating to the NBL.
“I think Oshkosh is an excellent decision with the appetite for sports in the area,” Dean said.
Dean is challenging his staff and coach this year to improve on the team’s home record. Of the team’s 25 home games, the Herd won only eight.
“We owe it to them this year to have a much better home record,” Dean said.
Growth in the second season
After winning less than half of the season, the Herd has a tangible baseline for improvement.
“We always want to win. You want to win at every level,” Dean said.
Part of Dean’s and Brady’s responsibilities, however, is managing and balancing the on-court success with developing Bucks players and identifying players for the NBA team. The fluidity of the G League, with players frequently moving between the NBA and the G League, can sometimes hinder on-court success.
“You have one team one day, and a week later you could have a completely different team,” Dean said.
Halfway through the 2017-18 season, the Herd had the best record in the G League, which Dean said was a huge accomplishment for a first-year expansion team. But the team also was a leader in call-ups, which caused a decline in the team’s second half success.
When two-way players Xavier Munford and James Young were called up last season, the team lost about 50 points a night in just a week’s time, according to Dean. A struggle for the coaching staff was finding a way to replace those key players. Dean said the front office is working on identifying the next group of players to be brought into the roster to replace key players.
“I know that I’m going to lose some of these players at some point during the season, and I know I need to understand how to keep momentum going as a coach,” Brady said.
Brady said the team starts the roster with 10 G League contract players, but by the time the season ends, the team usually cycles between 20 players, many of whom are nonassignment players.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. If you do a really good job with the development piece and you’re able to have guys get called up or move on, it does sting a little bit with the team culture and with the roster balance,” Brady said. “But it’s something that you just learn to deal with.”
Avoiding a sophomore slump
Though the 2017-18 season ended in late March, Dean and his staff weren’t able to take a break until August. Following the season, Dean and his team began the search for next year’s roster and planning game strategy for next season.
Dean and Brady talk three or four times a day about the 2018-19 season, Dean said. The Herd recently hosted local player tryouts in Oshkosh, which were followed by invite-only tryouts in Milwaukee. The draft will take place Oct. 20, followed by the start of training camp Oct. 22.
“I’m excited to get started again,” Dean said. “It’s almost a completely new team, which is exciting and terrifying at the exact same time.”
The new roster is the “nature of the beast,” as Dean calls it.
Dean said this year his team is looking for more tough athletes, something he thought the team lacked last season.
“You can always add shooting, which is something we have been very (cognizant) of finding, and athleticism. Tough athletes that can shoot would be unbelievable,” Dean said.
In the team’s second season, the Herd is looking to avoid the sophomore slump, which is a tangible problem in the basketball world, according to Dean.
“To have the support even going up in the second year is such a testament to our fans and what our business side is doing,” Dean said.
Dean said the team is on pace to surpass last year’s season ticket totals of 1,297. As of late September, the Herd was only 80 tickets short of that number.
Continue the player development. Win more games. Bring in more fans. These are the goals of Dean and his team. The opening tip at Menominee Nation Arena on Nov. 2 will begin the quest for a successful sophomore season.
“We want to win,” Brady said. “We want to build on what we did last year. We would love to make the playoffs and see what happens.”