Life in the NBA Development League is everything David Arseneault Jr. thought it would be.
“I’m having a blast,” the coach of the Reno Bighorns told me Monday night. “The level of athleticism and basketball skill I see every day is just incredible. To watch our System at full speed, with these guys going full speed, and to see how much ground they cover …”
He trailed off a bit there.
“I’m having a great time. It’s so much different that Division III, in the middle of Iowa at Grinnell College, that I really don’t know how to explain the difference.”
So far, so good for perhaps the grandest of experiments with the frenetically fast-paced style of basketball created by Arseneault’s father, David Sr., at aforementioned NCAA D-III Grinnell College more than 20 years ago. The younger Arseneault helped run the basketball program at the school in the five years since he graduated and no longer was eligible to be the team’s point guard.
His hiring by the Sacramento Kings to coach their affiliate in Reno turned some heads, but that hardly compares to the buzz about the Bighorns (8-7) through their first 15 games.
- They average 141.3 points
- They average 19 3-pointers on 50 attempts
- Eight of the current 10 players on the roster average double figures
- They reached a season high in points during Saturday night's 174-169 victory over the Los Angeles D-Fenders, a game in which the D-Fenders scored a D-League record 98 points in the first half
- They gave up a D-League record 175 points to Los Angeles on Dec. 20, a game in which the D-Fenders scored 56 points in the first quarter, also a record
The exploits of Reno guard Brady Heslip deserves a few paragraphs of their own. He leads the league with 27.7 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. Oh, and that’s on an average of about 14 attempts, too, so he is incredibly accurate at a high volume.
How to quantify his shooting so far? Well, since the NBA adopted the 3-point line for the 1979-80 season, a player has made at least 10 shots from behind the line in 20 games. Heslip has done so three times this season in 13 games, and his total of 13 against Idaho on Nov. 29 is one more than the NBA record that Kobe Bryant shares with Donyell Marshall.
Again, all this has come 13 games into his professional career.
“He’s got a special gift,” Arseneault said of Heslip. “I’ve still yet to see any two of his shots look different, whether he’s coming off a screen, or shooting off the dribble, or in transition. His release of the ball is the same.
“When he’s shooting after practice, he will keep backing up until he’s almost at halfcourt, and his form doesn’t change at all. It’s unbelievable.”
Anytime a player puts up crazy numbers in The System – no matter if it’s Heslip making 13 3s or Grinnell’s Jack Taylor scoring 138 points in a single game – there is a backlash against this style of play. Arseneault isn’t worried about that; his only concern is doing what he can to help Heslip get to the next level.
“I think he’s making my System look good, and I think I’m helping him look good,” Arseneault said. “He’s a darn good right wing in our System, but if scouts say they want to see him handle the ball more, then what I can try to do is put him in positions on the floor where he’s got to handle the ball.”
Perhaps the biggest drawback with coaching in the D-League is that Arseneault doesn’t know from day to day who might be available for his team’s next game; Heslip flirted with leaving for a team in Turkey as recently as last week. And as Arseneault spoke to me Monday night, about 24 hours prior to Reno’s home game against the Austin Spurs, he wasn’t certain he would have Heslip, or Quincy Miller, or any of the other players on his roster for that one.
That’s because NBA teams have the added option of a 10-day contract, which became available Monday, so callups can happen at any moment. That will leave Arseneault particularly anxious on a four-game road trip beginning Thursday night at the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
“It’s eye-opening,” Arseneault said. “There’s just so many variables, so many moving parts, and that’s what makes it difficult. It keeps you on your toes, and keeps me thinking, trying to be creative in what we do with our lineups and our plans. Ultimately, it will help me as a coach.”
The Bighorns will play the upcoming road games in a span of six days, leaving Rio Grande and heading to Oklahoma City before a trip to Austin, Texas. The final game is in Fort Wayne, Ind., before returning to Reno for a home game against the Westchester Knicks.
And unlike NBA teams, those in the D-League travel using commercial airlines, which can be tricky.
“The trips certainly are tough for a lot of guys, like our center, Sim Bhullar, who is 7-feet-4 and weighs about 350 pounds,” Arseneault said. “It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of time. We are losing hours any time we head east from Reno.
“The second battle is we’ll only be traveling with 10 guys. So unless we get a player assigned from Sacramento, those are the only guys we’ll have to at our disposal. That makes it interesting, too.”
For now, Arseneault likes what he sees on his roster, including recent additions Quincy Miller and Jordan Hamilton, both of whom have NBA experience. Obviously, they want to get back up there as soon as possible, with Heslip and others simply looking for their first opportunity.
“When you add two guys as talented as Quincy and Jordan, that dominoes to other people who now aren’t getting quite as many looks or even guys who were playing and they’re not even on our roster,” Arseneault said. “There’s a fine line between getting talented guys and trying to validate our team chemistry.
“Some of these guys, their careers are on the line, and sometimes they might think, or they’ve been told, the best way to get noticed is to score as much as possible. That’s not actually the case. We’ve tried to help them realize that the ones getting called up are from winning teams, so we have to move the ball.”
Another player who has flourished in The System is forward David Wear, twin brother of Travis, who currently plays for the New York Knicks. David Wear was in training camp with the Kings and assigned to Reno when he was cut.
At UCLA, where he and his brother transferred after one season at North Carolina, David Wear was a solid post player not relied upon for much scoring. He averaged 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds as a senior for the Bruins, and showed good shooting range by making 23-of-53 from the 3-point line.
David Wear has improved on that with the Bighorns. In 13 games (he missed two with turf toe), he is averaging 18.2 points and 7.2 rebounds while making 45 percent of his 3s. And that’s on 98 attempts.
Coincidentally, he’s made 44 3-pointers and 44 2-pointers, which just might make him the most statistically perfect System player on the roster.
“He told me he hasn’t felt like this since he was in high school,” Arseneault said. “In college, he always was sort of a glue guy who wasn’t known for looking for his shot. I’ve asked him to step up his scoring and that’s given him the opportunity to do this.
“I’m a firm believer that about 75-to-90 percent of shooting is mental. He has confidence in his abilities. He’s a big part of what we’re doing, not to mention he’s just a great guy who is a complete gentleman, a real professional.”
As can be expected, Arseneault has kept in touch with his father, speaking daily about what he has already seen and what he wants to see. Grinnell is off to its usual high-scoring start, leading all college teams with an average of 118 points through 11 games.
And while he misses working daily with the players at Grinnell, the younger Arseneault plans to enjoy his challenge in Reno.
“I miss the kids,” Arseneault said. “I wasn’t looking to get away from Grinnell, and I wouldn’t have left if I couldn’t have been a part of something that still encouraged experimenting and doing things differently. I still pinch myself that I’m able to do that here.
“I think it’s good for my development. I know the program at Grinnell is in great hands, and I know I can always go back."