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Jason Terry Explains How He Got Hired By Grand Rapids And Emotions Felt When His Players Get Called Up
In part two of the interview series, Grand Rapids Gold head coach Jason Terry talks to The Call-Up about how he got hired , the progression of Petr Cornelie, and more
Note: This is the last part of a two-part interview with former NBA veteran and current Grand Rapids Gold head coach Jason Terry. If you haven’t read it already, go below to read part one. For the sake of clarity, this interview took place on March 18th.
Dakota Schmidt: After spending a year as an assistant with Arizona, how did the opportunity to be the head coach of Grand Rapids come about?
Jason Terry: It’s amazing in life how many people you come in contact with, and who you network with over the years, and you just never know who is going to be that next opportunity for you or which relationships you can foster and harvest to get that opportunity. For me, I was in Vegas for Summer League shadowing the Dallas Mavericks, watching their new coaches conduct their business and I was in a hotel when I ran into an ex-teammate whose name is Calvin Booth, who just so happens to be the General Manager of the Denver Nuggets.
And so I’m walking past him in the hotel and it was like:
Booth: “Hey I’m going to breakfast, how have you been?”
Terry: “ Hey I’m going to breakfast too, I’ve been good, what’s going on?!”
Booth: “Man, I’m trying to figure out this G League thing. We got a new team that we’re putting out there and we’re hosting interviews for coaches. What do you have going on?”
Terry: “Man, I’m here shadowing because I’m thinking about coaching at the NBA level after being at Arizona”
Booth: “Man why don’t you come to dinner tonight and meet Scott Howard, our G League GM, and let’s have a conversation.” And I was like “Hey hey, why not?”
So we went to a two-hour dinner at a nice steakhouse and by the end of it, they were like “You’re our guy. You’re our next coach. Would you do it?” It was kind of on the spot but after a good meal and some wine, we met with the president of basketball ops of the Nuggets, Tim Connelly, and by 1 or 2 AM, I was the next coach of the Grand Rapids Gold.
Again in life, it’s about relationships, treating people right, and sometimes you never know when that opportunity is going to come or who it’s going to come from so that’s how I ended up the coach.
DS: What say did you have on the players that the team would sign with exhibit 10’s or two-ways that would eventually make their way over to Grand Rapids?
JT: Because I had been an assistant GM in the G League with the Legends, it was seamless for me because I knew what the draft process was, knew we had to identify talent, and put a roster together. I also knew that the Nuggets had two two-ways and three guys that they had at that particular time on exhibit 10’s. Now, because I’m not too far removed from playing in the NBA, one of our draft picks was Lance Stephenson, whom I competed against. Trevon Duval was a rookie in my last year in Milwaukee, so we drafted him. Then we had Tarik Black who was on that E10 is someone that I played with when he was a rookie with Houston.
The familiarity with these guys made it easy for me to not only identify the talent but understand who they were and within my system. The Nuggets also do a great job of allowing the G League coaches to come and be a part of training camp. That allows you to watch your guys work, lets you chime in from time to time, and be able to work with them at night or before practice. Being around that environment assists you with formulating your plan and how you want to run your team. That was a great process for me in the preseason.
DS: Throughout the season, the Gold has had more than a handful of NBA veterans (Nik Stauskas, Lance Stephenson, Isaiah Thomas, Kenneth Faried, Tarik Black, Terrence Jones) on the roster. Was that a plan at the start of the season or just opportunities that have come over the year?
JT: Well for me being in management and now in coaching, my big motto is to play for the win. How do you play for the win when you’re building a championship team? You have to have a good mix of veterans and young guys. We were able to formulate with Scott Howard, who is a great GM that put together a roster of good NBA veterans and young guys. All you have to do is look at my roster and see that I have four rookies with two of them starting and three coming from an open tryout that we had.
I think the ability to identify talent was huge and then understanding how that talent would work within our system. I run a system similar to the one that we had in Dallas where the ball is going to find the best players. When it finds them, we’ve been able to empower our guys to shoot or make plays. When you give a guy that type of freedom and confidence offensively, that’s when the magic happens and the reason why you’ve seen our guys be able to put up the big numbers that they have. We’re a selfless team that understands that the ball has to move and has to touch everybody for us to have energy. Also, we hold our guys to accountability on the defensive end.
Also, we have a very diverse staff with experience at various levels of the game. We have a coach named Tamisha Augustin, who has been a college assistant on the women’s side for almost 12 years. We have Nate Babcock, whose uncle Pete Babcock drafted me in Atlanta, so he’s been around the NBA for a long time. Travess Armenta has been a video coordinator for Sacramento and Denver for almost eight years. We also have H. Lynam Jr, we know the history of his father Jimmy Lynam, and his family tree in coaching. I got a great staff, man. It’s not just me but a team effort.
Just empowering our guys to do what they do best. They enjoy it and have fun doing it.
DS: When you talk about creating a great team environment and empowerment, how do you feel like the presence of those veterans has helped out both on and off the court?
JT: It’s been a huge presence because when you have young guys that haven’t taken this journey like I can tell you everything I did and how it’s going to be but you have to have players that are on the court in the fight with you. When you have those veterans on the court, they serve as the calming presence when adversity hits. They’re not just hearing their coach, they’re hearing from those guys that are out there in the action. I think that’s just a huge advantage to have and have paid dividends because all of our veteran guys have been called up and are either on guaranteed deals for the rest of the season or are currently serving on a 10-day capacity.
Because of their presence and what they’ve been able to infuse into our guys, we’ve been able to have success through adversity because they’ve been molded and taught. Those skills have been embedded in them and have become a habit even with those veterans gone. That’s why I really enjoyed having those veteran guys here.
DS: What are the lessons that you learned when it comes to running a team that has had the type of immense roster turnover that Grand Rapids has?
JT: Again, I go back to my motto which is to play for the win. When you talk about playing for the win, one of the key characteristics is to adapt and adjust through adversity. For us, sometimes that adversity may be that we have to implement another guy into our system. Well, how do you do that? You have to have a positive, competitive, and productive culture. I think that’s what we’ve created here with Grand Rapids that has allowed our guys to come in and feel welcome, comfortable, confident that when they get into a game, they’ll be able to contribute.
For us, it’s been a great process because I have that experience of being a player in the league for 19 years in which I’ve seen a lot of scenarios where there has to be that “next man up” type mentality. One thing about it though is that your role can change from night to night, game-to-game, or even possession by possession in this G League. I always have my guys prepare for that moment because it’s something that we preach because when you know what you’re dealing with and understand the circumstances, it’s easier to adapt and adjust.
DS: Recently, you’ve added Devonte Bandoo, Terrence Jones, and Bryce Willis to the team. With games every few days, what’s the process like of both getting adjusted to the culture and on-court style of the Gold?
JT: Man, it’s just been a blessing to be able to have as many experiences that I have had throughout my career as both a player and coach. Because I’ve played with Terrence Jones when he was with Houston so I know him. When you talk about Bryce Wills, I coached against him when he was at Stanford. And I watched Baylor play so I understood Bandoo. I don’t just coach the game, I watch everything. I watch college and the NBA. I think those experiences help you when you get those guys to your roster because if you know these people, you know their strengths, can communicate with them, and they respect you, it makes it easier for you to implement them into your system and allow them to do their job.
It’s just been a blessing for me to be able to do so. I can’t say that for all the coaches because some may think it’s a tough challenge but for me, it is what it is. Like I said before, it’s not just X’s and O’s, it’s about being able to connect with your players, get their respect, and empower them to get out there and allow them to do what they do best.
DS: What type of emotions did you feel when you saw Matt Ryan, who developed as an overlooked player with the Gold, get called up by Boston?
JT: First off, Matt Ryan is the prime example of what NBA teams look for when they’re looking to acquire talent. What is your elite skill set? What is the skillset that you bring that nobody else does that is transferable that you can do consistently on a night-in-night-out basis? And Matt Ryan is an elite shooter. No matter if he misses ten in a row or makes 10, he’s going to continue to shoot the next shot. That’s a very valuable asset in our league given how the game is played today. I think he has a high amount of confidence in himself and it shows in his performance.
I was very excited for a guy like him who wasn’t a 5-star recruit, wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. He was a guy who had to grind to improve on his game and master his skill. He still has a way to go but this was the first step for him. Being part of his journey this early in his career knowing what he’s come from and how much work he’s put in has been a tremendous joy for me and my staff.
DS: I love how you mention that when NBA teams look down at the G League, they look more for players that can fit a certain role rather than whomever the highest scorer is. With your guys, do you push them to improve and become great at a certain trait to follow in the footsteps of Alex Caruso, Gary Payton II, or Duncan Robinson?
JT: No doubt. I go back to my experience of starting out in Dallas where I was brought there to replace Steve Nash. For me and my mentality at the time it was that I had to go out there and get 15 assists, score 12 points, and just be very efficient. Well, that’s not why the Mavericks acquired me. They acquired me because I was a deadly scorer, brought great energy to the team, and could run the point guard position. I was struggling in the first month or two and turning the ball a lot because I was trying to make passes that were just not in my skill level or who I was as a player.
So Avery Johnson brought me to the locker room, he pulled me aside, and said “Hey man listen, we brought you over to be “The Jet” and not to be someone that you’re not. Just go out there and do what you normally do”.
I say that to say with these guys in the G League, I can show you Dorian Finney Smith, Luka Doncic for instance, or James Harden but is that really your game? Because if you go up to the Mavericks, Luka is going to have the ball so you scoring 50 points in the G League is not going to be your role in the NBA. But what you can do is what you do well. Like if you’re a shooter and they call you up, run to those corners, space the floor, and be ready to shoot when that ball swings around to you.
If you’re a defender, whenever you’re out there in practice you’re guarding Luka. When you’re out there in games, you’re going to be guarding their best player and be that great defender. Again, it goes back to your strength. What is it? What is your elite skill set and what you can do consistently every single night? You do that well here at a high level then you’ll get your shot at the next level because there’s a role for everybody.
This is something that I got from Rick Carlisle; be a star in your role. If you do that then you’re valuable to any team that you go to.
DS: When it comes to structuring an offensive game plan, how beneficial has it been to have a big like Petr Cornelie that is a really great perimeter passer that can also do damage inside the paint as a rebounder and roll threat?
JT: Petr Cornelie has a tremendous upside. The thing about him is because he’s multi-talented, his ability as a 7-footer to stretch the floor and shoot the perimeter shot along with protecting the rim, rebound, and switch on defenders makes him very valuable for any team that gives him an opportunity. He’s proven it. He’s proven it time and time again, especially in the G League with his consistency as someone that’s leading the league in rebounding and the 2nd leading scorer on our team. His presence is huge because he covers a lot of ground and makes up for mistakes that we make on defense because of his length, athleticism, and ability to move his feet.
I think that’s a very skilled gift that he can bring to any team and I’m happy with his development. If you look at his background, he played for the French National Team last year. I know some of the guys that I competed against that run that team like Tony Parker and Boris Diaw. They teach the game the proper way by having their players be fundamentally sound. He has a great background and a great foundation from which he’s come from and is only going to continue to get better.
DS: How do you feel like the younger guards like Trevon Duval and Quade Green have developed throughout the season?
JT: Those guys have been in the process of trying to figure out what their elite skill set is. For Trevon, it's his speed and athleticism because he can change the game for us when he plays with great pace and is under control. He can make any pass or read out there on the floor but it's his speed and athleticism that is off the charts. He does some things out there that make you go wow because he’s such a blur. And then there are other times when you need him to slow down, read the game and situation, and don’t simply rely on your athleticism.
The part of the growth and development with him comes with managing the game from the game. I think he’s done a heck of a job because we would not be in the playoff race had we not acquired Trevon with the way he’s played this season.
Quade Green is another one, man. He’s special to my heart because I’m from Seattle and he played for the University of Washington. I was able to watch his career for two years and then coached against him last year in the PAC 12 so I understood what his game was. Though he’s small in stature, he has a high basketball IQ and an ability to score. His ability for me is his ability to make plays, and make great reads for our big guys in pick-and-roll or when they’re running the floor. It’s been a joy to coach him as well.
DS: Speaking of joy, how has it been to see two of your tryout players (Marcus Burk and Manny Camper) both become consistent starters and shine in that role to lead your team to wins after having so many call-ups?
JT: That’s just a credit to our staff and Scott Howard for identifying those guys in those tryouts. But then, you have to give a lot of credit to those guys like they wanted something. They said, “Let me bet on myself, let me put myself in position, and I’m going to put the work in”.
Marcus Burk is a tireless worker. His elite skill is his ability to shoot but he also has the potential to be one of those two-way players in an NBA rotation because he has the body, size, and toughness. But man, I just love his ability to shoot and how much of a worker he is. It’s crazy because you watch somebody in a tryout and it's just one day so you have to know what you’re looking for. And that guy on the floor has to know that this is my one shot and that’s how he (Marcus) approached it in his tryout.
We also have a guy by the name of DJ Johnson who made the team initially but we had too many bigs on the roster. He was one of those guys in the tryout where his energy and motor was infectious. He was doing things like diving on the floor and grabbing rebounds that allowed him to stand out in a tryout environment.
Manny Camper was another guy where despite him not being at the tryout, we were able to identify him off Scott Howard’s word. He’s been able to come in and just be a high-impact player. Out of all my guys, I’ve been very proud of him because he’s been able to play multiple positions. Also, we don’t run any plays for him but he still comes out and produces every single night. If he comes onto a Summer League team this year and show what he can do, I think a lot of people are going to fall in love with his ability to be a two-way star.
Also, Manny has this great mentality where when you ask him to do something, he just does it. I go back to our first team meeting where I’m in there with my veterans, rookies, and then we had Manny. As I was going through the slides, he had a pen and a pad and he was taking notes. And right away I was like “Yep, I like that kid. He gets it.”. Those types of things will always translate through just being a student of the game.
DS: Speaking of those veterans, how do you feel emotionally as a first-year head coach when you see guys like Isaiah and Nik just absolutely go off in games?
Well, you have to understand that Isaiah is personal for me. I mean you’re talking about a kid that was shooting jumpers in my backyard when he was in 6th grade. Also, my dad coached him in AAU when he was playing on the same team as my brother. As he was preparing for the draft, I walked him through every step so he’s family. To see what he went through in his career to be an All-Star, be injured, be thrown away, and for them to have given up on him in our league, to see him humble himself and take the opportunity that we presented him to come in and play some games on a “let’s see what happens” kind of deal.
After both trusting us and himself, he came in and performed. Right now, he’s healthy and I can see him playing in the league for five or six more years as a vital part of a playoff-contending team or being that savvy veteran leading that point guard group. I’m very happy for him because again that was personal for me and sometimes I get emotional thinking about what that kid has gone through because he’s family.
With Nik, I played against him when he got in the league after watching his career at Michigan. But getting to coach him and know who he is as a person, I was able to tell that he was once at that point in his career where he was like “I’ve been doing this for so long, this might be it, I don’t know if it’s going to happen but I’m going to give it my all. And if you trust me and if you push me, it just might happen”.
Us being there for him at that particular time and seeing what his goal was with him being able to make it. As for me, Nik should’ve been the first guy called up from our team because he was the guy that was the most consistent whose skill set transferred to all 30 teams in the league. But nobody called and he was the last guy to get called up but man he stuck with it though. He didn’t deter from his goal which was to get back in the NBA. This was going to be his last shot at it and it worked out for him. I’m happy for him.
Also, Lance Stephenson is a guy that everybody gave up on. They didn’t know how serious he was about the game or if he was going to be in shape. When he got here though, he went to work,and was a serious player that provided leadership. I’m just happy that he got an opportunity because he had a lot of good basketball left in him. Those are just a couple of the stories of the guys that I’m attached to where I’m proud as a coach. We’re proud when we win because that’s what we play for but sometimes in the G League a win is that your guy gets called up and gets an opportunity to live out his wildest dreams in the NBA.
DS: Do you feel more pride in a winning streak or seeing a guy get called up?
JT: I’m partial because as a coach you want to win with whatever guys that you have on your team. We don’t just want to win games but we want to win a championship and we’re in a position to do so so I’m excited. But man, that call-up is huge. If I had 10 more minutes or 10 more 3’s in me and I had the opportunity to get called up. But I know that day has passed on so I’m trying to live through these guys.
DS: How do you think that both yourself and the team can continue to grow as we near the playoffs?
JT: For us, we’re going to continue to learn the game and try to see it before it happens. Also, try to understand what we’ve done in the past that hasn’t worked out for us and not doing that in the game. For us it’s about rebounding, being disciplined in our defensive gameplan. Offensively, it’s about not settling for bad shots and passing up a good shot to get a great shot. If we do that with great effort, energy, and execution then we’ll put ourselves in a position to win a lot of games and be the last team standing at the end of the G League season.
DS: What do you feel like you’ve learned about yourself as a person during your first year of being a head coach of a team?
JT: One thing about me as a player that I take as a coach is that I always have confidence in what I was doing because of the work that I put in during the preparation. That’s what gave me that confidence. It’s been no different as a coach because for seven years now I’ve prepared to hold this seat as a head coach in whatever league no matter if it's college, pros, or what I did in high school.
That championship experience, that drive to be great, the drive to connect with people, and help them become the best versions of themselves is where I get the ultimate joy and where I’ve had the most success. I can’t say it's because I didn’t foresee it but it’s because I can say that God has given me that gift and I can never take that gift for granted.