“In training he would focus on pretty granular detail, go over various different game situations, things like: ‘We are down 4 points with 35 seconds remaining, how are we going to win?’”
This type of coaching might be typical in the NBA, and even in the BBL these days. But to basketball players like Ciaran Burns, a forward with the Brighton Bears during the early 2000s, it might have been more than some were used to. But this is why the current Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse won two BBL titles with the London Towers, plus one with the Brighton Bears along with two BBL Cups in just five years.
Burns continued: “Nick was very ambitious, he wanted to win everything, he wanted his team to win everything. From a coaching point of view he was excellent, he focused on the team and getting the team to win. That meant that everyone had to do their job and fill their role.”
Nurse’s journey to the NBA, like any that goes through the UK, is an unusual one.
On Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast, Nurse explained his move from the UK back to the United States went through Des Moines in Iowa, where he spotted a brand new arena had been built. He said: “I didn’t really know what it was for, or who was playing in it. And just literally took the next exit and pulled up right next to it and dialled the number for the General Manager… I said, ‘would you be interested in putting a D-League team in your arena?’ and he said ‘I’d love to’. I called the D-League and said ‘there’s a brand new arena in Des Moines’ and they were interested.”
In essence, Nurse set up a franchise from nothing. Ownership experience in the BBL – the successes and failures – helped him in this regard, but once it was up and running Nurse just wanted to focus on coaching, which has been of great benefit today as the Toronto Raptors are among the best teams in the NBA.
At the start of the season, the league listed just one player as being from the UK, with that being on the Canadian team: OG Anunoby. The country also boasts Luol Deng as someone who has previously donned a Team GB jersey but the NBA lists Deng as South Sudanese, where he was born.
The NBA has always been short of Brits – especially if you don’t include the players who were born elsewhere but represented Britain as part of an international tournament.
The first was Chris Harris, who grew up in Southampton and moved to New York in the early 1950s to play in college before joining the NBA for one season in 1955.
James Donaldson played 14 seasons in the NBA, starting in 1980, but he lived his whole life in the States.
Then, in 1989, the great Steve Bucknall earned a spot on the Los Angeles Lakers, but after one season his NBA career would end, and that would be it for Brits abroad until 1995 when John Amaechi was drafted and had a solid career.
Scotland’s Robert Archibald collected a handful of NBA appearances with multiple teams before settling in Europe. English-born Nigerian Ndudi Ebi never played for a British squad and went to high school and college in Texas.
In the same draft as Deng (and by the same Chicago Bulls), England-born, United States-bred Ben Gordon won a Sixth Man Of The Year Award and had a number of good seasons in the league.
Pops Mensah-Bonsu joined the NBA the following year, then went down to the D-League before bouncing around a few squads in the NBA and finishing his playing career in Europe.
Byron Mullens joined the NBA in 2009 and received a British passport thanks to his mother’s being born in England.
Joel Freeland eventually joined the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012, six years after the franchise drafted the right to him. He averaged 12 minutes and 3 points during his three years in the league before joining Moscow and winning a EuroLeague title.
One last one from the vaults: a (very) young Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Joel Freeland. pic.twitter.com/GyRZoBfjom
— Blazer's Edge (@blazersedge) November 20, 2016
But until OG Anunoby joined the league in 2017, that’s about it for British representation in the NBA.
In the WNBA, during the past 23 years, the likes of former player Shona Thorburn, the Atlanta Dream’s Elizabeth Williams and even Liz Cambage have links to UK but don’t identify as British. The country was represented Andrea Congreaves during its inaugural season, and Temi Fagbenle has been holding it down with the Minnesota Lynx in the past two years.
With a British mother, Karlie Samuelson (who recently played with the LA Sparks) has represented the country nationally, and will hopefully she can convince her sister to share in the family tradition.
So making it to the elite leagues in the United States is not easy, and there are numerous UK talents being taken over to high school and college programs, or even minor professional leagues, all looking to go pro.
One individual who spent time in the BBL, and is now playing for the Braves of Bradley University in Illinois, is Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye. After a few solid games for the Bristol Flyers, the Brit flew to the United States for a college education and took part in March Madness. He spoke to Double Clutch’s Archie Corbett recently and shared similar views to Ciaran Burns when he said: “The coaching is a lot more intense in my opinion (in comparison with the BBL). The attention to detail and the level of accountability is higher, and with more staff – my school has a head coach and four assistant coaches – a lot more people have an input in trying to get the best out of you.”
Jamelle Davis understands the grind. After coming through the British ranks, playing in the BBL and this year joining the Norweigan team Tormso Storm, Davis moved to Edmonton in Canada to build up his North American resumé. He said: “I’ve heard of a few British players coming over here, but not many – the numbers should be higher in my opinion. There is so much talent in the UK, it’s ridiculous, there’s just a lack of people who care about the sport.”
There are issues with the British basketball governing bodies, but the number of people who care about the sport in the UK and are invested in it is increasing. Independent coaches, groups and agencies like Gary Maitland, Ballers Heaven and Dave Owen have basketball connections around the world and aim to link up young players with potential to programs that can nurture them outside of the UK, because even today that is where they will get the best basketball tuition.
Davis agreed: “There’s a lot of talent in the UK but the BBL isn’t the NBA G-League, I think we know that. And that’s no knock on the BBL, but the leagues are different.”
If the BBL is considered the peak of professional basketball in the UK, and it’s a long way from the G-League, you can understand why British players seek development opportunities internationally.
Davis needed someone to give him a chance after a rough start, living in a hostel, being woken by the sun each morning because there were no blinds on the windows, waiting for a phone call from the council for a place to live. He said: “That’s when the process began. I asked my PE teacher to join the school team and the men’s team. I then went to play club basketball for Lewisham Thunder, then Harris Beckenham Basketball Academy, and Essex Leopards NBL D1. I then applied to Northumbria to work my way up to the BBL team Newcastle Eagles but I got cut from Northumbria first team and then NBL D1 team, and I played for the second team.”
He was spotted by a BBL journeyman and Canada native Sam Salter, who helped the young Brit earn a scholarship to play in Canada, where his game blossomed. Then, earlier this year he was given an opportunity to try out for the Raptors 905, Toronto’s NBA G-League team. Davis said: “My agent was talking to the Vice-President of the 905, who mentioned the team is short in bodies. He had watched my highlights from all my seasons and out of the 100s he saw that day he wanted to give me the opportunity.”
While Davis has yet to secure a spot in the G-League yet, he is continuing to work. But one player that has made it to the top of the mountain in the United States is Temi Fagbenle. Double Clutch shared her WNBA championship story last year, but she recently confirmed that there are plenty of others women on the British squad who are talented enough to play in the USA.
Even Karlie Samuelson said: “You got Joey [Leedham], Rachel [Vanderwal], little Stef [Collins], Chantelle Handy, and Temi for sure. We have a really good squad and makes you realise the talent in Europe, and just in this GB team alone – I think every single person could have a chance to make a [WNBA] team. I say this all the time, the spots in the WNBA teams are so small. It’s all about timing and opportunity. If they got a chance to come over, absolutely they could be on a team, it’s just all about getting that roster spot.”
— Huw Hopkins (@coach_huw) April 20, 2019
While Luol Deng is the best Briton to play in the NBA, even he has been a role player for most of his career. Making the league does not always guarantee success. But reaching it broadens what is possible for you.
Take Pops Mensah-Bonsu as an example. Born in Tottenham, his stops in the NBA included San Antonio, Houston, Toronto and New Orleans, while bouncing between the league and the D-League. He eventually finished his playing career in Greece but began work as a scout for the Spurs and last year was named General Manager of the Capital City Go-Go (the Washington Wizards G-League affiliate). Recently, Mensah-Bonsu told The Undefeated: “I’ve sat in the same seats as two-way players, assigned players and G League contracted players, so I use my experiences to help guys along with their journeys.”
This mentality is key for British players who have any success at an elite level, even if it’s not to the heights they dreamed of while practicing form shooting at places like The Regal. How often do we hear of players in the States going back to their hometown to set up basketball academies, gyms, schools and charitable organisations? For players with British links, it should be no different – even Luol Deng has the Deng Top 50 in the UK.
In Britain, seeing people have success will help generate more, just as it did when Amaechi blazed a trail for the country’s basketball development. He returned to set up basketball academies and help fund National Basketball League’s Manchester Magic team in England. While there might not have been any direct link between him and the generation that came after, his success led to more teams in the NBA looking at the UK basketball scene. This led to a flurry of players like Deng, Mensah-Bonsu and Joel Freeland earning spots in the league.
Since those players have moved on and Deng’s stardom has slipped following injuries, the talent pathway has disappeared slightly.
There are signs of life for the British contingent with the likes of Fagbenle playing for the Lynx in the WNBA while representing her country, inspiring young girls to join the sport. And while the Raptors’ Anunoby left London at the age of four, he still has memories of the bicycle he had to leave behind and the house he once lived in.
During a conversation with Mike Miller on the Double Clutch podcast at the start of last season, Anunoby said he was “definitely” keen to consider throwing on the Team GB jersey in the future. Maybe then he can create some memories for the next generation of young players, and the momentum of #NBAintheUK can build once again.
Feature photo – NBAE / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington