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‘How to be a pro’: Brian Shaw is coaching elite NBA prospects through a pandemic

The G League Ignite coach discusses the challenges of leading the new developmental team, which features potential 2021 top pick Jalen Green

While the NBA’s record-long season is over, former player and coach Brian Shaw is still waiting for his season to begin.

Shaw is currently the head coach of the G League Ignite, the new developmental team featuring elite young prospects, including Jalen Green, ESPN 100’s top-rated prospect in 2020. The Ignite began practicing in Walnut Creek, California, not far from where Shaw lives in Oakland, on Aug. 28. But due to the pandemic, the 2020-21 G League season is up in the air. Shaw’s job is not only teaching basketball and life skills to teenagers, but also helping them navigate the uncertainty of the season.

“As a coaching staff, we have to improvise and keep it fresh and make it challenging,” Shaw recently told The Undefeated. “But the seed that I planted from the very beginning is, ‘Look, we can complain about it all we want, but the situation is what it is.’ We can’t control a virus that is controlling everything. And so instead of complaining about it, let’s just adapt to it and do what we can in the situation. So, they’ve embraced that kind of thought process.

“The other thing is I tell them, I say, ‘Hey, the guys who chose to go to college, they’re in flux too. They don’t know what the college season is going to hold. It’s going to be very different for everybody who’s involved, the guys in the bubble and everywhere else.’ “

Shaw has more than 30 years of experience as a player and coach in the NBA. He won three championships with the Los Angeles Lakers playing with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. And he has also held coaching positions with the Lakers, Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets. Shaw, 54, recently discussed his new job with The Undefeated.


What made you want to take this job?

I’ve been on the other side of it where I’ve complained as a coach when we drafted young players. High draft picks come in at 18, 19, 20 years old, and there’s an expectation level for them to play and to impact the team. And it felt like a lot of the guys was missing a lot. They’re talented and have a lot of potential, but have no understanding of what it takes to be a pro on and off the court.

And so, what better way to be able to impact some very, very talented high-level young players that are going to be the next wave of NBA players and stars than to be able to catch them right now at this stage and be able to help mold and teach them not only just NBA terminology, but all the nuances and ins and outs of how to be a pro on and off the court? So that the next coach that gets them once they get to that level, will look at them and say, ‘This is the most prepared young man that I’ve had at this age or this stage because they’re getting a head start in terms of what it takes to be a pro.’

Brian Shaw (right) of the G League Ignite coaches during training camp on Sept. 28 at the Ultimate Fieldhouse in Walnut Creek, California.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

You are coaching Jalen Green, who is projected to be special and is just out of high school. How has he looked so far?

The thing that I’ve been really, really happy with, not only with him, but with all the guys, is that first of all, they’re coachable. [Green is] very coachable and he’s willing to do the work, put in the work and he’s hungry to learn. He asks a lot of questions about players in the league. And so, when you have that kind of enthusiasm, willing to do the work and not only just do the work, but just the desire to learn as much as you can about the game and what you have, that’s a joy for any coach. And he understands that because he’s so highly talented that he’s already been subjected to people coming at him and trying to knock him off his perch because of where he’s been ranked and the expectation level of him. …

And he comes every day with that attitude that I’ve seen in some of the special young players that I’ve coached that get it right away. It’s like they don’t want to just make it to the league. They want to impact the team and make a place for themselves and be special. So, he’s always wanting to work. I had to tell him [once] after I cut practice a little short … he said, ‘Coach, I want to be great.’ And I said, ‘You will be great. You keep that attitude, but you also have to let your body rest sometimes and recover.’ …

He has that NBA bounce. … He has that ‘it’ factor that when you see it you say, ‘OK, I’m keeping an eye on this guy because he has a chance to be really special.’

What are the living arrangements for the players? Do they take a COVID-19 test daily?

We try to create as much of our own bubble, so all the guys are living in the same apartment complex. We have security that’s there, pretty much monitor what they do. They’re not on lockdown, but we were pretty much encouraged just to go from the apartment complex to the gym, back to the apartment complex. Obviously, if they need necessities, to go to the store or if they want to walk down the street to get something to eat, to wear masks and practice washing their hands and keeping social distance and all of that, we let them. We keep an eye on them, but at the same time, try to allow them to be responsible. … But we test every single day. And every morning they take swabs of the throat as well as in both nostrils. And so that’s just a part of the routine.

We try to improvise and keep it fun and do some things for them. For Labor Day, I had the team over. My wife Nikki and I barbecued so they could get some home cooking and watch the games that were on, still while social distancing at home.

Do you get tested every day?

Every day, the whole staff, everybody: the players, the security, the training staff, strength and conditioning coach, coaching staff, everybody.

Does being a parent to two young adults help you relate with your players?

It helps tremendously. My youngest is 19, she’s older than all the guys that are on our team, and my son is 21. And so, in terms of the kind of music that they listen to, it’s the same. It makes me think back to my parents going … when gangster rap and all of that came on the scene and I was listening to that in the early ’90s and what have you … and they’re like, ‘What is that you’re listening to? You need to listen to some good music like Al Green and Marvin Gaye.’ I found myself saying the same thing to my kids. And sometimes we play music at practice. They get to plug in their phone and play their playlist of music or whatever.

Was there anything you had to say to their parents or guardians before camp began?

I’ve personally made it a policy that no family members, handlers, agents, anything like that can come to practices and workouts. When you have a real job for the first time, you can’t bring mommy or daddy or a friend or handler or whatever to work. And it’s the same thing here. And so, start getting used to that now, and then that way they get their independence and get to figure some things out, some of them for the first time on their own, away from their parents or guardians or what have you. …

At the same time, I understand the anxiousness the parents may have from their children being away from them for the first time. And so, I’m sensitive to that as well. But my job is to help prepare them and teach them how to be pros on and off the court, and this is a part of it.

Do you have aspirations to be an NBA head coach again?

A lot of people have called me, especially because of the NBA coaching openings that are out there right now. And I’ll say, ‘Look, I have a job.’ I’m really, really excited about this. I’m happy with what I’m doing. It’s the first time that in 32 years, since I got drafted in ’88, that I’ve actually been able to live at home and work out of the same house that I live in. … It’s nice to be able to live in my house, be able to drive 15, 20 minutes to work and be able to come home and spend time with my wife and family, kids when they’re here [they’re gone now for school].

So, this is kind of a startup. It’s an important year for this program. Everything that it has to offer for the type of players that we have, to me it’s a win-win. … And I think that once we have the kind of success that I expect to have this season, there’ll be a lot more guys that are on that elite level, they may want to take this route. And so, we understand the importance of having success with this program this year. And for me being at the helm in terms of being the head coach and being able to design my own program to help make a blueprint to make this work.

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