The atmosphere is buzzing.
On one side of the court, bleachers are almost to capacity with roughly 1,200 people in attendance. The other side has been cleared out to welcome multiple bounce houses for the children. It’s Pirate Night. There are foam swords and pirate hats galore.
This is the NBA G-League.
The Salt Lake City Stars – affiliate of the Utah Jazz – welcomed Miami’s developmental squad, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, to town on January 4th.
The game was highly entertaining. In a matchup that featured high-flying slam dunks, deep three-pointers and superb defense on both sides, the highlight was a go-ahead three-point shot by Trey Lewis – a former collegiate teammate of budding NBA superstar Donovan Mitchell.
Sioux Falls point guard Briante Weber and an SLC Stars superfan engaged in some smack talk. It was all in good fun, but not something you typically see in an NBA game. It made you feel like you were actually part of the game, that you actually had a say in the outcome, creating a wonderful environment for all involved – truly a unique experience.
In a game that was eventually decided by five points, the Stars came out on top in a 110-105 victory where defense seemed to be the difference.
“[The Skyforce] shoot the third most threes in the league and they shoot the third highest percentage in the league,” Stars head coach Martin Schiller told Basketball Insiders. “And they have the most effective transition offense. So if you put one and one together they shoot transition threes. So our big thing was that we wanted to have our fingers up at all times, we wanted to limit attempts and pull percentages down.”
Near the end of the game with the score tied at 105 apiece and about 30 seconds remaining, Schiller drew up a play for Trey Lewis to shoot an above-the-break three. Basketball Insiders asked SLC’s coach his thought process behind it.
“That’s what [Trey Lewis] does,” Schiller said. “His rookie season he was a fantastic shooter and a clutch performer.”
Schiller recounted that he was familiar with Lewis from his rookie season playing overseas in Germany. Hitting the big shot was nothing new for the 26-year-old guard. In an exciting night capped by a go-ahead shot in the closing seconds, multiple Stars had big games to help put this one in the “W” column.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with both Tyler Cavanaugh – current two-way player for the Stars and former regular for the Atlanta Hawks – as well as Jairus Lyles – a former standout at UMBC, the first 16-seed in the NCAA tournament to knock off a one-seed.
Cavanaugh finished the game with 23 points, nine rebounds and two assists. He ended the game playing the five and was a huge factor in the final result.
Playing over half the season for the Atlanta Hawks last season, primarily as a three-point shooting stretch four, Cavanaugh finds himself in quite a different role this season. While he is currently on a two-way contract with the Jazz, he is playing consistent minutes for the Stars where he is featured as one of the primary players on a nightly basis.
“The G-League is a grind, I have a lot of respect for all of us that play in this league,” Cavanaugh told Basketball Insiders, “It’s a great opportunity to continue to get better and play extended minutes every single night and work on my game. And I just feel like I’m continuing to improve and that’s what’s most important.”
And improve Cavanaugh has. He’s averaging 15.3 points a night while knocking down 41.4 percent of his attempts from three. Playing just 11 games in last year’s G-League for the Erie BayHawks, Cavanaugh is already at 22 games played this season in Salt Lake City and there are still a bunch of contests left.
While his shooting percentages are slightly down compared to his G-League numbers last year, he’s averaging more points, more assists and, most importantly, more free-throw attempts per night. Noticeably finishing well through contact well in the Stars’ win, Basketball Insiders asked him what he’s been working on.
“[I’m] doing a lot of finishing drills around the rim, staying in the normal routine,” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh also pointed to continually working with trainers in the weight room to prepare himself for extended minutes on game day.
Looking at the other aforementioned standout, Jairus Lyles was a huge reason the Stars stayed in the game in the first half. He finished with 15 points and four assists on the night, but did the bulk of his scoring in the first two quarters. He finished the night on highly efficient clips of 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three.
A former standout at UMBC, Lyles scored 28 points on 11 shots to help his 16th-seeded team knock off the number one seed Virginia in last year’s edition of March Madness. Basketball Insiders asked him about his transition from NCAA hero to G-League regular.
“It’s definitely a different transition, you know a lot of ups and downs especially your first year being pro,” Lyles told Basketball Insiders. “It’s always frustrating when you’re not at the highest level so you gotta keep working and keep working.”
He went on to say that how you handle yourself through the growing pains is what defines you as a player.
On this night, Lyles seemed to shoot from either behind the three-point line or at the rim. With an ever-evolving game and teams are opting to take more and more efficient shots, it’s necessary to go with the flow.
“The NBA is changing, you gotta adapt,” Lyles told Basketball Insiders. “[There’s] a lot of three-point shots going up, it’s either at the rim or three-point shots, people don’t really like the mid-range shots, but you gotta take what the defense gives you.”
Both Cavanaugh and Lyles stressed that their ultimate goal is to make it to the NBA. The former has had a taste. The latter is still working on it.
But Lyles already has an idea of how he’ll take his path to the association.
“Being more of a point guard, different types of passes, seeing the court better,” Lyles said. “And then, defensively. Defense is most important because at my size I’m going to have to guard the ball great. Defense is the most important thing.”
Even coach Schiller has aspirations to make it to the next level, however, he knows what he and the Stars are doing has a real impact.
“[Quin Snyder] really wrapped his arms around us and took us and put us in the [Jazz] family,” Schiller said.
As the G-League continues to evolve and adapt, whether it’s testing future rule changes for the NBA or developing future role-players, it will continue to serve an important purpose.
Everyone at this level is grinding – from the coaches to the players, training staff and everyone else involved. The players in the league are all hoping for that one chance to get called up and prove their worth.
Many things can be said, but one thing is certain: G-League games are highly-entertaining and feature incredibly skilled players simply trying to improve their craft.