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NBA players past and present develop front-office skills through union program

Dahntay Jones, Damien Wilkins among those who took part in leadership sessions

As the Cleveland Cavaliers fell short in the 2017 NBA Finals, 36-year-old Dahntay Jones had to be wondering if Game 5 was his last in the league.

But Jones has a plan: to work in an NBA front office. The odds appear to be against Jones, who is African-American, as only three black former NBA players hold positions as presidents of basketball operations or general managers. The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), however, is trying to help Jones and other current and former players land front-office jobs through its three-day Leadership Development Program.

“This is my third time taking the program,” said Jones, who has played for eight NBA teams and also spent time in the D-League (now the G League). “I’ve always been interested in this side of basketball. I’m just trying to learn something every time. I’m trying to find out what part I should be in and how I can be successful and what are the different dynamics. There are a lot of interesting things going on that side of the ball. I just take every opportunity to learn something different as I’m taking the course.”

The Leadership Development Program was held during the Las Vegas Summer League from July 11-13. The NBPA described the program as “tailored to provide valuable information, experiences and networking opportunities dealing with basketball operations, scouting, free agency, the draft, the CBA [collective bargaining agreement], salary cap, and many more options at the highest level. … Develop a career in basketball after basketball.”

Attendees included Jones, Jerryd Bayless, J.J. Barea, Primoz Brezec, Jack Cooley, Toney Douglas, Anthony Goldwire, Jeff Grayer, Devin Harris, John Jenkins, Joe Johnson, Bobby Ray Jones, D.J. Mbenga, Anthony Morrow, Gary Neal, Jannero Pargo, Theo Ratliff, Tiago Splitter, Bruno Sundov, Beno Udrih, C.J. Watson, Jahidi White, Damien Wilkins and Luke Zeller.

The program featured opening remarks from Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors’ president of basketball operations, and Tommy Sheppard, senior vice president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards. There was a player-to-executive discussion with three former players. Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers led a session called “Building a Winning Culture.” There also was a session on the collective bargaining agreement and salary cap fundamentals. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey talked about analytics.

After a session on scouting and player evaluation, the participants scouted four summer league games and participated in a summer league draft exercise. Former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin and Sacramento Kings general manager and former NBA center Vlade Divac also talked to the participants.

“This is my second time doing it,” said the 37-year-old Wilkins, who also is African-American. “It is really advantageous from a networking standpoint. Teams seem to be going in the direction of hiring more players. … This is something I’ve always wanted to do, be in coaching or scouting or a front-office position somehow. You’re kind of hands-on with it in this program and right in front of those guys’ faces. You’re able to talk to them, sit down with them and pick their brains. It’s a great program.”

What stood out most to Jones was Griffin explaining how much work there still was to do with contracts, the NBA draft and free agency after the Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA championship. Jones found Ujiri’s basketball mentality interesting as well.

“There are different speakers every year,” said Jones, who has a bachelor’s degree in public policy studies from Duke. “You get different perspectives. Guys I look up to in the industry. You get different informed perspectives about their lineage, how they got to their position and how they go about doing their business. This year’s edition was dope because I got to listen to two guys I enjoy and look up to in David Griffin and Masai Ujiri.”

Wilkins said the highlight of the week came on the final day as participants took part in “Speed Dating” with 23 NBA executives and front-office personnel. The exercise gave each of the participants a three-minute window to tell the NBA executives about themselves. Charlotte Hornets chief operating officer Fred Whitfield, Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman and Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard took part in the exercise as interviewers.

“Obviously, three minutes isn’t a whole lot of time,” said Wilkins, an eight-year NBA veteran who played in the G League and in Puerto Rico last season. “But it’s enough time to get your aspirations out to them and find out the things that they are looking for, especially based off the questions they asked. That part was really fun.”

Jones said: “The speed dating was cool because you got to see more than GMs and presidents. You got to see scouts and VPs and guys you can get different insight from and ask different questions rather than a typical general manager.”

The NBPA has other summer programs to help its players prepare for life after the NBA: Sportscaster U. for aspiring broadcast journalists; coaching; a real estate symposium; a technology summit to give a better understanding of the tech industry; and a business, entrepreneurship & franchising symposium. Current and former players who are NBPA members can attend each program.

The NBA league office also has programs in place to help current and former players attain front-office positions, including the NBA career crossover apprentice program, assistant coaches program, career development program, personal development coaching and basketball operations management development program.

Purvis Short, the NBPA’s chief of player programs, is “extremely proud” of the programs the union offers under three-year NBPA executive director Michele Roberts.

“We are trying to make a difference in terms of preparing guys to take on these positions. When we came through, there was nothing in place, so we have programs in place now that do make a difference,” Short said.

The NBA has four black presidents of basketball operations in Ujiri, Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and the New York Knicks’ Steve Mills. The black general managers include Altman, Knicks newcomer Scott Perry and the New Orleans Pelicans’ Dell Demps. The only former NBA players among that group are Johnson, Rivers and Demps. Meanwhile, about 75 percent of NBA players are black.

Short said there needs to be “a better process in place” that leads to more African-Americans and former players landing executive roles for teams. The former NBA forward added that players have experience from their years playing in the NBA that can translate into working in the front office.

“If we are going to have folks in these positions, then there has to be a greater awareness,” Short said. “There needs to be more information about exactly what these jobs entail. What is the path one needs to take in order to prepare themselves? We’re not exposed a lot to that. You can have some of these other guys come in that are exposed to a lot of information that the players or African-Americans are not.

“The leadership program is really an exposure and awareness program. Our guys have participated, we’ve increased their awareness and the significance of them being involved and staying involved in the game. They have so much to contribute. When I look around, we have guys with 20 years of experience and you hear, ‘Well, you know he doesn’t have front-office experience.’ Basketball is basketball.”

Jones and Wilkins are optimistic that change is on the horizon in NBA front offices.

“You see more and more [blacks] as the years go by,” Jones said. “In past years, I’ve been able to see Masai go from being a lower-level executive to a president of an organization. That gives you motivation that it is possible if you tend to want to go through that path. There is progress and room for us to be represented and to take interest in this side of basketball.

“I know we have some great [black] assistant GMs who are up next. I know some people who are working their way up the totem pole. I know we’re coming. It’s just a matter of persevering and keep working. That dynamic is going to change.”

Wilkins is the son of former NBA player Gerald Wilkins and nephew of Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins.

“The information that is available to us today hasn’t been available to guys in the past,” said Damien Wilkins, who has a bachelor’s degree in speech communications from Georgia. “But I don’t think ultimately that is the biggest reason. But at the same time the [statistics] are what they are. The information is being shared more now.

“I remember talking to my dad and uncle about it. They always say they wish those programs were available to them when they played. Today, people are leaning toward people who have experience. You have to be able to relate to players.”

Rivers recently said that being well-versed in analytics could help more aspiring black front-office candidates get hired. Wilkins said Morey provided some great information about analytics.

Wilkins said he asked Morey about the Rockets’ interest in trading for New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who wouldn’t appear to fit Houston from an analytical standpoint.

“Can you get a bucket, or can you stop someone from getting a bucket?” Wilkins said. “That is pretty much the logic on how players think. But everything evolves and everything changes. You have to change with the times if you want to be a part of it. It was very informative how he looks at things. I’m still trying to figure out some things he said, since it doesn’t necessarily reflect everything on their roster.

“That led to some of the questions that I had. ‘If you’re trying to trade for Melo, which is what Houston is trying to do, how does Melo fit analytically with you? Everything about Melo’s game is different or bad, if you will, when it comes to analytics. He takes a lot of midrange shots. You say midrange shots are bad. He’s an ‘iso’ player, and you say ‘iso’ is bad for analytics.’ There are exceptions to the rule.”

Jones and Wilkins are free agents who hope to be playing in the NBA next season. But once their pro basketball careers end, they believe this NBPA program can help spark their next career in a front office.

“This [program] gave a foundation,” Wilkins said. “What it does more than anything is it gives you a road map.”

Said Jones: “I’m trying to play next season, but after I’m done, this is the side of basketball I’m going to pursue. I really can’t wait to put my feet down and start getting to work.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.