My Love Affair with Rez Ball and the System

Rez Ball, much like the System, is about the fast break, pressing and player freedom…a philosophy I have grown to appreciate as a basketball writer and coach

I lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for  three years, and one aspect of “Rez” life I became very fascinated with over that time span was “Rez Ball.” While Rez Ball encompasses different kinds of basketball over all levels (from youth to adult leagues), where it shines brightly is at the high school level. I know people talk about how Indiana is a mecca for high school basketball, but Indian Reservation High School basketball can’t be far behind. Gyms are packed end-to-end for high school games and the reservation’s focus every Winter sports season becomes on which reservation team is going to make a run at the state championship. Whether it’s in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Oklahoma or whatever state, Native American High School basketball is a way of life in the winter and early spring months that is not only a positive focus for the student athletes participating, but also for the general reservation community involved.

But in addition to the passion the Native American community has for the sport, one of the other aspects that separates Native American high school basketball from a lot of other high-school basketball-playing areas is the distinct style teams are known to play, which is Rez Ball. What is Rez Ball? This story from 2008 by ESPN’s Cameron Renee Thompson does a good job describing the history and stories (both positive and negative) of Rez Ball on reservations, and the style is eloquently summarized in this paragraph below:

Rezball is a smashmouth game of speed, aggression and stamina. Full-court presses and man D are applied relentlessly, but the transition game is the game. Guards often start a break after receiving the inbounds pass; set plays are rare. Rezball makes the 2007 Suns look like the 1995 Knicks. Squads with three guys taller than 6’3″ are rare, so even the short guys know how to play big, and all five positions boast guardlike handles and shooting skills. Watching the best teams will rivet you to your seat—from the way players improvise at warp speed to their sheer endurance and the dialed-in-but-carefree way they ball.

Yep, I couldn’t describe “Rez Ball” better myself. And for three years, I really had an up-close and intimate view of Rez Ball on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as a fan and part-time coach (I was mostly in charge of keeping statistics). Through those years on the Reservation, my obsession with fast break basketball grew. I marveled at the different kinds of presses teams encompassed from the Diamond (1-2-1-1) to the 2-2-1 to match-up hybrids. I grew fascinated by the up-tempo play, the smothering traps on defense that gave opposing teams fits, the reliance on the 3-point shot and the freedom coaches gave their players on the offensive end. My dad always loved the fast break game and shared that upon me somewhat, as evidenced by him acquainting me earlier with videotaped games from Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams that garnered national attention and NCAA Tournament success. However, my experience as a player was always more on the “traditional” end, closer to Hickory High than Red Cloud High. Make four passes before a shot. Don’t take a bad shot. Be patient on the offensive end. If you don’t, you’ll be on the bench.

Rez Ball obliterated a lot of those preconceptions for me, because despite the chaos that ensued at times, despite the initial “lack of control” coaches appeared to have over players, I realized that the freedom and style Natives were allowed to play was an ideal way to play. It represented who they were: fast, passionate, and tough. The game became less about coaching “strategy” and more about the players “talents” “skills” and “competitiveness”. Rez Ball and its up-tempo style wasn’t bastardizing the games of basketball for high school kids: it empowered them. It put the responsibility on them. If they failed, it wasn’t a coaching strategy, but rather they weren’t effective enough. They didn’t play fast enough. They didn’t trap enough. They didn’t shoot well enough. All those things were things the players controlled, not the coaches, and it put the responsibility back on them to improve their skills in practice and in their free time if they wanted to be successful.

But if they succeeded, it was more because they demonstrated that they could play their style more effective than the other team and less because the coach was a “genius”. It wasn’t the coaches’ adjustment, but the players’. It wasn’t the coaches’ brilliant defensive strategy, but the hustle and heart the team put into the traps and press. In Rez Ball the coach serves as more of a mentor and a teacher rather than the CEO/Celebrity so many coaches wish to personify. And because of that backward focus, the sport concentrates on who it should: about the youth, not the adult. In an area of the country (Reservations) where hope is bleak for a lot of youth, the empowerment Rez Ball gives has more benefits for the players than just on-the-court success. No wonder players and fans say they cannot play “any other way.”

Safe to say, I love Rez Ball. I nearly moved back to Pine Ridge to take a teaching job because my fascination with the game is incredibly deep. The Lakota Nation Invitational in Rapid City, SD is appointment watching for me on stream (I haven’t had the opportunity to go back since being in KC due to my job responsibilities), and I hope for a day where I can go back and watch the tournament in person with regularity again. As a coach, I have to say Rez Ball has influenced not only the way I want my players to play, but how I coach and how I want to give my players the freedom to play the natural way basketball ought to be played: fast.

And speaking of fast, my fascination and love for Rez Ball led me to the “System”. Looking up all kinds of offenses and styles of play early in my coaching career, both on and off the reservation, I stumbled upon David Arsenault’s “System” a couple of years ago. I had heard about the system and Jack Taylor’s 138 point game years back and my initial thought was akin to the crotchety Tony Kornheiser-mold: that’s a joke, that style of play is ridiculous, they are doing it to manufacture records and attention and little else. I pointed to the argument that they “didn’t win” and “their style didn’t work against better opponents” as discredit to what Arsenault was doing at Grinnell College. And many people agreed with me, even those on the rez and in my social circle who loved the up-tempo basketball as much as I did.

But then I did my research. I found out about how Grinnell had a streak of 29 straight losing seasons before Arsenault switched to the system. I learned how he mainly created the system to help his players and himself be happier and more engaged in practice (he initially thought they wouldn’t win with the style, but at least would have fun). I read about the five-man subs and everybody getting playing time. I discovered about the formula for success and his heavy usage of statistics to serve as benchmarks of success.

My opinion swooned. The system wasn’t the enemy of basketball. Rather it was a proponent of basketball, “player-centered” basketball, much like Rez Ball. The reliance on three’s, the non-stop full court pressing and trapping, the deep bench, everything Grinnell and Arsenault ran was what I had seen from Rez Ball at the high school level in Pine Ridge, but they personified it in a more streamlined and numbers-based philosophy. And instead of being against the “System”, I became an advocate. I defended the system to everyone and will continue to do so, especially in our first year installing it at the school where I coach (And I will continue to advocated it regardless of our record). Rez Ball introduced me to run and gun basketball. But the “System” honed my desires into a philosophy and style of play that truly would accomplish would I want as a coach: a fun style of play, maximum effort, and total participation.

Rez Ball is not completely like the “System”. Rez Ball coaches don’t consistently utilize the bench as often as “System” coaches, and they do not rely on the press as much. Often time, you will see some Rez Ball teams sink into zones, especially after missed baskets. But Rez Ball and “System” basketball are closely linked, related like long-lost cousins who were on opposite ends of the country and didn’t know one another existed. Their philosophies at the core are the same: play fast, play for the players.

The System and Rez Ball are a part of me, and such a fervent part of me that I hope to share with my players this season. I want my team to play with the style of the “System” but the spirit of Rez Ball. I want them to know that they can be empowered in the way they play and that they can transition that empowerment to other areas of life beyond the basketball court.

And I want them to feel like I do when I watch basketball: it is meant to be played fast, it is meant to be fun and with freedom, and when it isn’t, it needs to be either changed or ignored. Basketball isn’t a game of 40-30 slug fests. Basketball isn’t a game where you’re trying to hold teams to the fewest amount of points. We have football for that. We have soccer for that. Basketball doesn’t need to follow the mold that “macho” tough guys have tried to impart on it because they need something to distract them in between football season and spring football.

Run, shoot, press, sub. That is the philosophy of the “System” and Rez Ball follows the same principles closely (or at least the run, shoot, press portion). That is my philosophy as a coach and journalist of the game.

I am forever scarred by the beauty of the “System” and Rez Ball. Watching non-system games, especially at the collegiate level where coaches need to control everything, is something I cannot do anymore. In a college-loving area of the country, I sound like a hedon when I share my disdain of people who advocate 3-2 zone defenses and the four-corners as a primary offense.

But I am fine with the disdain. My love for the game of basketball has been shaped by Rez Ball and the “System”. I am forever grateful that I will never go back to any other way or philosophy again.

An Analysis of the D-League Call Ups from 2014-2015

The Reno Bighorns saw the most call-ups of any D-League team with 7 a year ago; what are the trends with D-League affiliates who have a lot of call-ups and those who do not?

The D-League continues to grow in both numbers (the Raptors 905, the affiliate of the Toronto Raptors, makes the number 19 for the year) as well as relevancy and last season, one could argue was one of the most successful years for the D-League yet. Once seen as a last resort for players, and simply a re-incarnation of the old Continental Basketball Association (CBA), the D-League has become somewhat of a R&D department for players as well as organizations. A couple of years ago, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers got nationwide attention for their “3’s or Layups” approach that was chronicled in a Grantland Short, and the Reno Bighorns also gained notoriety by hiring David Arsenault Jr., the son of the coach who created the “System” at Grinnell College (Arsenault was an assistant at Grinnell since graduating). The result? D-League scoring records obliterated, and some national publicity that steered basketball enthusiasts’ attention to Reno and its players, the Kings organization and the System (beyond the Jack Taylor 138 point game, which has garnered mostly negative attention, though somewhat inaccurate).

So, the D-League, the NBA’s de-facto minor league, has come a long way since it was first established in 2001-2002 (where it was mostly established to lower the bargaining power of the CBA, which was the NBA’s main minor-league pipeline; Isiah Thomas, who was running the CBA, was a main cog in this happening and is widely credited for destroying the CBA due to him misjudging the leverage the NBA had with the CBA at the time; though to be fair, his vision of every NBA team having an affiliate and being closer in structure to minor league baseball is starting to be realized). 18 of the D-League teams are single affiliates, and the only one that isn’t serves as a “general affiliate” to all the remaining organizations. The NBA isn’t quite to the point of having the kind of Minor League system that Major League Baseball or even the NHL has, but it’s obvious that the NBA wants that and is slowly building the foundation to create a robust developmental league that will benefit players and organizations in the long run.

(If you haven’t already, read this excellent piece by Arn Tellem about his solution to fix a lot of the current issues facing the D-League and make it a true “Minor League” to the NBA. He hits a lot of great points, but my favorite is the fact that the NBA outsources their player development to organizations (NCAA and Foreign Leagues) that they have no control over. With organizations relying more on analytics than ever when it comes to contract and drafting decisions, it is ludicrous that NBA organizations are relying on college interns and people halfway across the world to supply them this data.)

NBA’s reliance on the D-League is more crucial than ever and becomes more and more crucial every year as more teams gain affiliates. Last year, there were a total of 63 call ups and 47 players called up in total, both records in the history of the D-League (the previous high was 60 call ups and 43 players called up in 2011-2012). With success stories such as Jeremy Lin, Gerald Green, Danny Green, and Hassan Whiteside, just to name a few, it makes sense why teams are utilizing the D-League more for talent. They’re classic low-risk, high-reward transactions. If they perform, teams have a talented, cheap assets for at least a season or two. If they do not, it’s easy to cut ties (thanks to the 10-day contracts), and there is no harm, no foul both on the court or on their cap. Teams are starting to realize that the D-League is like a thrift store for talent: sure there may be some less-than-stellar items (i.e. players) in the store, but every once in a while there are gems on the cheap lurking that have been overlooked or mishandled by their previous owners. Maybe Macklemore knew more about the NBA than we think.

But what teams utilize the D-League the most? You can look at the complete list here on the D-League Site, or this Spreadsheet where you can organize it by D-League team or NBA team. Let’s take a look at the D-League teams who produced the most call-ups in this graph below:

As you can see, Reno led the league with 7, with Santa Cruz and Iowa coming up tied for second with 6, and Sioux Falls in third with 5. All four teams are single affiliates, with Reno affiliated with the Kings, Santa Cruz with the Warriors, Iowa with the Grizzlies, and Sioux Falls with the Heat. (Though it must be stated that not all their call ups came from their affiliates, as other teams can call up someone even if they are not affiliated as long as they have permission to do so from the team and with some kind of compensation; for example, though Jordan Hamilton was called up from Reno, he was not called up by the Kings, but the Clippers). The average call ups per team was 3.5, and other teams that were above that average were Austin (Spurs), Canton (Cavs), Delaware (76ers), Maine (Celtics) and Rio Grande (Rockets).

Some interesting trends occurred in D-League teams who got players called up. Surprisingly, the one with no affiliate (Fort Wayne) did not experience many call ups, as they only had 1 (Dahntay Jones, who is more or a journeyman and less a prospect). Also, the teams that had the most call ups tended to be affiliates of the most successful organizations last year, which is surprising because you would think bad teams would have utilized their affiliates more (a trend you see more in baseball, where losing teams tend to call up their prospects when a playoff berth seems out of reach). The Spurs, Cavs, Celtics, Rockets, Warriors, and Grizzlies were all playoff teams last year, but their D-League affiliates produced more call-ups than the average. The only ones that bucked that trend were the Heat, Kings and 76ers. The Heat probably called up more players due to the injury issues they faced throughout the year (especially when Bosh went out for the year shortly after the Dragic trade), while the Kings and 76ers utilized the D-League due to a combo of them being out of the playoff race early, as well as injuries.

Teams below the 3.5 average were Bakersfield (Suns) with 3, Erie (Magic) with 2, Fort Wayne (No Affiliate) with 1, Grand Rapids (Pistons) with 2, Idaho (Jazz) with 3, Los Angeles (Lakers) with 3, Oklahoma City (Thunder) with 2, Texas (Mavs) with 2 and Westchester (Knicks) with 1. Westchester had the fewest call ups of any team with an affiliate with only 1 call up (Langston Galloway on January 7th), a surprise considering the Knicks were the second-worst team in the league record-wise last season and probably could have afforded to take a risk on some of the prospects in their system, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the brother of Milwaukee’s Giannis, being the biggest example (though they did sign him to a two-year deal this off-season to prevent him from signing overseas in Europe).

Texas also had a low call up number (2), but the Mavs were an established roster with a mix of veterans and younger role players, so there wasn’t really much opportunity for a D-League prospect in Dallas throughout the year. Erie’s affiliate, the Magic, was a young-laden bunch, led by Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Tobias Harris, and there wasn’t much opportunity or need to utilize their affiliate for prospects when there were already so many on the Magic active roster.

Los Angeles wasn’t extremely active (3), but they were successful, as Jordan Clarkson, proved to be a callup who could have a good future with the Lakers as a role wing player, as he played 59 games and averaged 11.3 ppg and a 16.9 PER his rookie season after being drafted in the second round out Missouri a year ago (and he wasn’t even drafted by LA, but Washington). And lastly, Bakersfield and Idaho also had fewer call ups than average because their rosters (Suns and Jazz, respectively) are mostly compiled of younger players, thus, the organizations were a lot more patient and didn’t need reinforcements from the D-League often.

So what is the final analysis of the call ups from a year ago? Injuries plays a big part of it, especially when teams need to fill a guy temporarily. The NBA doesn’t have the clear-cut “Disabled Lists” like Major League Baseball, so a lot of call ups tend to be short term things to help a guy recover from injury. But, another trend seems to be that the more analytical the organization, the more call ups their affiliates get. Reno, Santa Cruz, Austin and Rio Grande Valley are affiliates of heavy analytics-based organizations (Sacramento, Golden State, San Antonio and Houston) and saw more call ups than average, while Westchester, Los Angeles and Grand Rapids (New York, Lakers and Detroit) are affiliates of more “traditional” organizations and thus, didn’t see many of their players called up by their parent organization or other NBA teams.

Whatever the main reasons are that fuel D-League call ups, it is obvious that the D-League is a valued resource among NBA organizations throughout the league. It’ll be interesting to see how more organizations will utilize it next season, especially with some talent going undrafted in the 2015 draft that could improve after a year or two in the D-League, similarly to Whiteside after being released by the Kings early in his carer (Cliff Alexander and Aaron Harrison being the biggest examples, as they also participated in Summer League and most likely will be taking a roster spot on a D-League team to start off the season).

The D-League is here to stay and worth following if you’re a die hard NBA fan in 2015-2016. It won’t be surprising to see the upward trend of call ups (2014-2015 was an improvement from 49 call ups in 2013-2014 which was an improvement from 36 in 2012-2013) continue next year, and with many D-League alums making noise in Summer League (Seth Curry and Kyle Anderson for example), organizations will be hard-pressed to ignore the D-League when it comes to filling out or improving their rosters throughout the season.