OSHKOSH – The drive along Interstate 41 from Milwaukee to Oshkosh has become familiar for Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Vin Baker.
The four-time NBA All-Star and former Olympian makes the 90-minute journey north frequently — traveling with young players to their assignments with the Wisconsin Herd and back to the Milwaukee Bucks.
“He’s kind of like my right-hand guy,” Milwaukee Bucks power forward Christian Wood said. “He’s been great for me. He helps me out when I mess up certain times in the games. He tells me what’s wrong and right. He’s a good guy to have on my side.”
Baker is just one of many on the Milwaukee Bucks and Wisconsin Herd coaching staffs assisting young players in the transition to the highest level of basketball. Wood is just one of many young players who has taken advantage of the Wisconsin G League team, in its second year of existence, to achieve success in the NBA.
While the Herd has struggled in its sophomore season with the worst record in the Eastern Conference, the team has allowed for Wood, D.J. Wilson, Donte DiVincenzo, Sterling Brown and others to hone their skills and get solid minutes with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe in the NBA.
Herd to the Bucks to the Herd and back
Traveling can be the hardest part.
On a Friday in late December, DiVincenzo was assigned to the Herd for the team’s night game against the Long Island Nets.
Seventeen points, six rebounds and three assists later, the 21-year-old was recalled to Milwaukee the next day.
“I left this afternoon. I just got up here, and then I’m going back tonight, so it’s real quick for me,” DiVincenzo said before the Dec. 28 game.
DiVincenzo has four assignments with the Herd this season.
An NBA player with less than three years of time with a G League team can serve an unlimited amount of assignments in a season. Currently, Wood has the most G League assignments on the Bucks with nine.
But that isn’t hindering his performance. If anything, it is improving it.
If Wood would have to give himself a grade this season, it would have to be an A, maybe an A-minus, he said. The 23-year-old has the third highest points per game average in the G League. In the 16 games he’s played with the Herd, Wood averages 27.4 points per game.
“I’ve gotten so much better over the years — not just me, everybody in general,” Wood said. “It’s a good league, good opportunity for guys to show what they’ve got to do.”
Then there are players like Wilson and Brown, who have made three appearances with the G League and are now seeing solid minutes with the Bucks.
“Whether it’s injury-based, like recovery, or you’re just trying to get some minutes here and there, I think it’s a great opportunity to get your feet underneath you, gain confidence, so when your number is called up here, you’re ready,” Wilson said after a Bucks shootaround.
Easing the transition
The movement of players is complicated, Herd general manager Dave Dean said. While fans see a player only in Oshkosh or in Milwaukee, the discussion starts long before that assignment or call-up.
Schedules are mapped out as far in advance as possible to combat overlapping dates, games and practices. There are obvious exceptions when injuries or other circumstances require adjustments. It’s a constant line of communication between Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, Bucks general manager Jon Horst and Dean, and sometimes it’s the little things that require the most organization.
“It’s funny, but you don’t think about it. If a guy is at one place and a moment later, he’s got to be in a different place, he needs a uniform there, right?” Dean said.
What does he need? Where will he stay? Who will get him to Oshkosh or Milwaukee? Dean and his staff continuously have to answer these questions.
“The player really doesn’t need to do much except be ready to roll at a moment’s notice and be ready to play,” Dean said.
Easing the transition between G League and the NBA doesn’t stop with scheduling. The Herd runs a similar playbook to the Bucks with help from Bucks assistant coach and G League liaison Josh Longstaff.
“Because the organization cares so much about the program there and wants it to mirror ours as closely as possible, it stars with Jon (Horst) and Coach Bud and basically their vision of what they want the team to look like,” Longstaff said.
If the Bucks are putting in new plays or concepts, Longstaff communicates directly with Herd head coach Jordan Brady to incorporate them into the Herd playbook.
It’s a seamless transition, and one that won’t try to trick players, Wood said. You’re not missing a beat, DiVincenzo added.
“There’s no confusion,” Wood said. “There’s no difficulty in learning the play of anything like that. When you go up there, you get right into it, and you already know the feel for it.”
Room for development, minutes to play
Before power forward Wilson served his last assignment with the Herd on Dec. 5, he had just 5½ minutes against the Detroit Pistons.
After about a week-and-a-half assignment with the Herd, Wilson’s first game back was again against the Pistons. This time, he had almost 26 minutes of play.
Through 16 Bucks games, the 22-year-old is averaging almost 19 minutes a game.
Baker had a conversation with Wilson as soon as he returned to the Bucks from his last Herd assignment, offering encouragement and advice.
“It’s great for me because within 24 hours of me having this conversation with D.J., he’s right in the fire with the Milwaukee Bucks, playing 25 minutes against Blake Griffin, and he had a heck of a game,” Baker said. “That’s what the importance of being in Oshkosh and being with the Wisconsin Herd is that these guys are going to improve, and the turnover is quick.”
Minutes in the G League is the most important way to develop, Longstaff said. No practice or individual workout is going to replace actual game time.
Baker has a saying he tells his young players.
“It’s one thing to do it in practice, and it’s another thing to do it when the popcorn is popping,” Baker said.
An assignment player will always have a set one or two things that he will be focusing on, according to Longstaff.
Wilson and DiVincenzo said recovery was crucial in their time with the Herd. Both worked on maintaining strength and condition to get healthy enough for NBA play.
“It was great to get my feet underneath me, get in shape, game-like shape because it’s totally different playing a game in practice and coming up here and just doing what I was doing in terms of running the floor, playing with contact,” Wilson said.
After playing 15 to 20 minutes a game in October and November, injury limited DiVincenzo’s time on the court.
“I’ve been trying to fight my way back. It’s been good for me,” DiVincenzo said.
With the Herd, DiVincenzo can take on a more active role. In four games with the Herd, he averages 15.3 points per game and starts.
“For Donte, an opportunity for him to have the ball in his hands, to be a playmaker, to feel the difference in athleticism and size and length that you’re going to experience at the pro level,” Brady said.
It’s certainly an ego hit at first when a player is assigned to the G League, DiVincenzo said, but once a player sees the level of talent and sheds the stereotype, growth is possible.
“Once you get past that, it’s basketball at the end of the day. They want you to get better. They want you to get reps. As long as you’re doing that, everything will work out,” DiVincenzo said.
Longstaff said the entire Bucks and Herd staffs care for these assignment players.
“We’re not just sending them to Oshkosh and forgetting about them,” Longstaff said.
But one Bucks coach really is embodying the spirit of compassion and mentorship within the Bucks and G League.
It’s the perfect role for Baker — a player development coach — he said. He travels with the players to their assignments. He has been with DiVincenzo since the combine. He is the bridge between the Herd and the Bucks, reminding assignment players of where to improve and where to grow.
The players get mad when Baker refers to them as kids, he said. But with a quarter of a century separating the assistant coach and Wilson, Baker continues to use it.
“The guys that have gone from the Bucks to the Herd, back and forth, are tremendous kids. They are high character kids,” Baker said.
Through his constant contact with the young players, he’s become a mentor and role model.
“He’s one of the best in his position, so for a guy like that to be in your ear every day, you can’t do nothing but take his advice and learn from it,” Wilson said.
Overcoming adversity has shaped Baker’s life. His story is widely known and shared —growing up in a small town in Florida, attending the University of Hartford, becoming an All-Star, an Olympian and dealing with personal struggles.
“It’s great for me, taking this trip with the guys, because I like to pump hope and light and be optimistic and be positive as I’m working as their payer development coach,” Baker said. “I think all of us as human beings can use a positive person around in their life.”
Whether it’s the minutes when the popcorn is popping on the mentorship of an NBA All-Star, development with the Wisconsin Herd translates to success with the Milwaukee Bucks.
“The Bucks and the Herd, the coaching staff, we’re all on the same page,” Baker said. “We all want the same goal for our cities, for our team and certainly for the players.”