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Ability to adapt essential for NBA D-League players, coaches

Denver Nuggets guard Julyan Stone goes through first workout with Iowa Energy

Nuggets guard Julyan Stone listens to Iowa Energy coach Bruce Wilson before his first practice with the NBA Development League team.
Aaron J. Lopez/Nuggets.com

DES MOINES, Iowa – While a fine automobile in many respects, the Chevy Impala is not designed to hold a starting five.

I know this because I’m sitting in the back seat between 6-foot-11 center Ben Strong and 6-0 guard Vance Cooksey of the Iowa Energy.

Strong and Cooksey themselves are confined by the front seats occupied by 6-10 Quincy Miller and his 6-6 teammate Julyan Stone.

We are commuting to practice through the Iowa snow.

As the driver, Miller sings along to a J. Cole track while being heckled by Cooksey for missing the turn to Grand View University.

The Energy normally practice at Wells Fargo Arena at the Iowa Events Center, but the basketball court is unavailable due to the Iowa Power Farming Show. With large tractors and sprawling irrigation systems dominating the scene, the Iowa players will get their work in at the fieldhouse inside Grand View’s Charles S. Johnson Wellness Center.

The ability to adapt comes with the territory in the NBA Development League.

For Stone, this will be his first practice with the Energy. The Nuggets assigned him to Iowa so he could get some playing time while recovering from offseason hip surgery.


VIDEO: Stone's Denver departure


Because he’s the new guy on a team that is constantly welcoming new guys, Stone starts by going through offensive sets with coach Bruce Wilson and his assistants Jordan Brady and George Brosky.

Constant roster changes are another fact of life in the D-League, which is in the eighth year of its NBA partnership. With 30 NBA teams and 16 D-League affiliates, new faces regularly come and go. Through Jan. 30, 51 NBA players had been assigned a total of 119 times to their NBA D-League affiliates.

Consider this: In a 10-day span from Jan. 21-30, the Energy parted ways with coach Kevin Young; announced that center Josh Boone would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury; signed Gus Gilchrist and Robert Hite to new contracts; traded for big man Jarrid Famous; and welcomed Stone for his two-game assignment from the Nuggets.

To his credit, Wilson gets everyone’s name right as he brings his team together at center court. He goes over the points of emphasis for the team’s back-to-back games against the Springfield Armor and then turns things over to Brady for stretching and warmups.

Having watched roughly 852 NBA practices, I can accurately state that there’s not a lot of difference in how the Energy operate compared to the Nuggets. Five-on-five play consumes the bulk of the practice time, and some guys stick around afterward to do individualdrills. The settings, however, are worlds apart – at least on this day at Grand View.

Athletic trainer Jeremy MacVarish tapes ankles and treats players at his table set up just 10 feet from the court. If they need to change into their practice gear, players must use storage rooms adjacent to collapsible bleachers.

After practice, a reporter from the Des Moines Register drops in with a photographer to catch up with Energy guard Chris Wright, but that’s the only media coverage for now. Anyone here for the spotlight is in the wrong place.

“It’s a grind,” Iowa guard Paul Harris said. “But it’s the best place to be if you’re trying to get to the NBA. Overseas you’re far away and (NBA scouts) don’t get to look at you that much. Here, they can watch you live every night. It has its good and bad. I thinkthere’s more good to it.”

When he and his teammatescircle up again after practice, Harris commends them for having an intensity level not seen previously this season. He attributes it, in part, to a new coach and the addition of new players looking to make a good first impression.

“With the new bodies, they bring fresh legs, but also a heightened awareness,” said Brady, who joined the Energy coaching staff after four years in the D-League himself. “The reality of the D-League is you’re not guaranteed a job, and when you see new bodies come in, guys automatically want to play harder.”

Having completed a two-hour practice, various players filter out of the gym and into the cold. Miller pulls the Impala around to the front door to pick up Stone. Cooksey and Strong have found alternative transportation.

It’s symbolic in a way. Everyone in the D-League takes a slightly different route as they chase their NBA dreams.