Insofar as his staff was behind teenagers Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody getting meaningful minutes, Gary Payton II becoming an impact player and Andrew Wiggins reaching his potential, Jama Mahlalela’s first season as Warriors director of player development was a rousing success.
Playing a crucial role in a victorious NBA Finals in Year 1 not only stands as validation but also sets a lofty standard.
Year 2 will be even more consequential, according to Mahlalela, because it will provide a glimpse into what’s possible from the likes of James Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody. They are considered the core of the next phase of Warriors basketball, the one that does not include Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
The real work begins this weekend, with California Classic Summer League games at Chase Center, and accelerates next week, with Mahlalela as head coach of the Warriors in the Las Vegas Summer League, which runs July 7-17.
“I believe the first NBA summer is the most important growth summer for so many players,” Mahlalela told NBC Sports Bay Area on Tuesday. “What (Kuminga and Moody) can do from now until we hit training camp is going to be critically important for the next season and, also, their careers.
“We want to add some nuance to their games while also trying to perfect the things that will keep them on the basketball court. The ability to catch and shoot, to attack downhill. Those are some of the basics that we really want to fine tune.”
Wiseman’s Summer League status has not been announced, but there is optimism that he will participate in Vegas. Though 2022 second-round pick Ryan Rollins is back in the Bay Area and expected to play this weekend and also in Vegas, there still is some uncertainty regarding first-round pick Patrick Baldwin Jr., who is awaiting clearance on left ankle woes that originated with a dislocation sustained in his senior year of high school.
All the youngsters have been placed in the care of Mahlalela, whose Vegas staff with include assistant coach Dejan Milojević and two members of the development staff – Kris Weems and Jacob Rubin – as well as Khalid Robinson, who spent the last four seasons as special assistant to head coach Steve Kerr.
The hirings last summer of Kenny Atkinson, Milojević and Mahlalela represented a new direction for the Warriors. Rather than shell out big money for a free agent, they were sitting on two lottery picks and the front office thought it logical to invest in the future.
“It was awesome,” Kerr told NBC Sports Bay Area. “I knew we needed some changes on our staff. I knew we needed help in key areas. To have that kind of support from the front office, where they’re bringing in people who were such good fits, that’s what it’s all about.”
Executive director of development Kent Lacob, during his trips to Europe, forged a relationship with Milojević that allowed the Warriors to recruit the man who coached two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. Nike U’Ren, executive director of basketball operations, got to know Mahlalela over the past few years and helped coax Jama from the Raptors.
Add Atkinson, and it was a shakeup that proved prosperous.
“It gave us a different vibe,” Kerr said. “Jama, with his player-development operation. Kenny, bringing in analytics into the process much more than we had before. ‘Deckie’ working with the big guys. We had very specific roles that needed to be filled, and they filled them really well.
It was a revamping of our entire coaching and player-development operation.”
Milojević was hired as sort of a personal coach for Wiseman but turned out to be an essential figure in Kevon Looney having his best season. Meanwhile, Wiggins and GP2, both of whom raved about their work with Mahlalela, also exceeded expectations – particularly in the playoffs.
“The season was special because everything fit, and I mean from the roster to the coaching staff to the performance staff,” Mahlalela said. “Everyone got along, found their own niche and discovered a way to contribute. It doesn’t happen very often, where everyone feels like they have a home, feels like they have a role. And it allowed everyone to be the best version of themselves.”
The departure of top assistant Mike Brown leaves a void to be filled on the front bench, alongside Kerr, Atkinson and Bruce “Q” Fraser. Internal candidates are being considered, with longtime assistant Chris DeMarco and Mahlalela being logical options.
Oddly, Mahlalela’s success last season, and his influence on the young players, might make him too valuable atop the player-development chart to move to an assistant role.
Consider, then, his work this summer – he has been in the gym with players since the draft – his immediate assignment. A lot is at stake, considering the franchise’s hope for the youngsters under his wing.
After all, Stephen, Draymond and Klay can’t be great forever.