“It just felt like everything came full circle for me,” Epps said. “And to be so close to the Hawks, which I’m certainly a fan of, it just made everything more complete as far as someone having an opportunity to play for the Skyhawks and have the same opportunity to play for the Hawks because they’re minutes away from each other.”
From his son choosing the team’s mascot to helping organize community engagement events, Epps has been integral to the Skyhawks building a foundation in their inaugural season in College Park, and the move itself has been an asset for both the Skyhawks and their parent team in the Hawks. Having a G League affiliate close to home was one of the first few initiatives Tony Ressler prioritized when he became majority owner in 2015, along with building a new practice facility and upgrading Philips Arena (which has become State Farm Arena), and less than a year in, it has benefited the Hawks.
From the NBA Development League in 2001-05 to the D-League in 2005-17 to now the G League, it has evolved quite a bit, and three five-star recruits recently deciding to play in the G League after high school as part of a new "Select Contract" initiative has thrust the league to the forefront, though the season is on hold due to the coronavirus.
Whatever the future of the G League holds, with the Skyhawks in the Hawks’ backyard (and with Epps as a supporter), it allows them to have a closer relationship with their G League affiliate.
The benefit of being closer
Erie is one of the few places Delta doesn’t fly to directly from Atlanta.
So, naturally, getting there and back on short notice presented challenges when the team played its first two seasons there as the Erie BayHawks. The BayHawks are now affiliated with the Pelicans, who in the 2019-20 season became the 28th NBA team to have its own G League affiliate, with just the Nuggets and Trail Blazers outstanding. The Pelicans will relocate the team to Birmingham after renovating Legacy Arena.
“It’s a world of difference being 20 minutes down the road than being in Erie, Pennsylvania, the previous two years, just logistically,” said Derek Pierce, who was GM of the Bayhawks from 2018-19 and is now GM of the Skyhawks, as well as vice president of player personnel for the Hawks. “Every reason that we wanted to have the team close by, we utilized that reason.”
Previously, if the Hawks wanted to send a player to the G League for a rehab assignment or just to get some playing time, they’d typically fly into Cleveland or Buffalo, then use either bus or car service to get to Erie. To get back, same thing in reverse.
Having the Skyhawks about 20 minutes south has changed that dramatically, with Pierce meeting with Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and general manager Travis Schlenk once a week during the season to discuss the teams’ calendar, days when it’s feasible for Hawks players to play with the Skyhawks and when two-way players could go back and forth.
When Allen Crabbe was recovering from a knee injury in November and had progressed to scrimmaging, the Hawks were coming off a back-to-back. So, he instead had a rehab assignment with the Skyhawks, who came to the Hawks' practice facility in Brookhaven to work out with Crabbe (who was later traded to the Timberwolves).
“A year ago, that really wasn’t possible. … You had to plan ahead for flights, connecting flights, transportation, stuff like that,” Derek Pierce said. “Just to be able to have a same-day type of transactions was incredible for the development of our guys on both sides.”
Three times, rookie Bruno Fernando was assigned to the Skyhawks for Sunday home games, and Ty Wallace (who was waived in December) was assigned twice.
Two-way players, in particular, reap the benefit of being closer, as they're the ones who are jerked back and forth the most. This past season, Charlie Brown and Brandon Goodwin were the Hawks' two-way guys (each NBA team can have two), although Goodwin signed a full-on NBA contract with the Hawks on Feb. 11.
Before the Hawks signed backup point guard Jeff Teague, who will be a free agent this offseason, Goodwin backed up Trae Young and filled in for him when he was injured, bursting onto the scene with 21 points in the Hawks’ win in Orlando on Dec. 30. Two-way players get 45 days to spend with the parent club per season, and Goodwin, who played at Norcross High, had six days remaining when he signed a two-year NBA contract.
Before that deal, Goodwin still went up and down. But, with the Skyhawks so close, practicing at State Farm Arena where the Hawks play games, it’s a convenient process.
“For the Hawks, if they need a body to suit up for a game to play, the roster movement, we’re right there,” said Skyhawks coach Noel Gillespie, who coached the team when it was in Erie for the 2018-19 season. “Credit to ownership and management. Those situations, it wasn’t impossible in Erie, but it was really tough to say, ‘OK, we’re going to get a guy from Atlanta to Cleveland and then bus Cleveland to Erie, play a game, and then try to get them back.’”
In Erie, the team didn’t have a designated gym of its own, so it would bounce around to different colleges and public facilities.
“You’d be at a Division III college on Monday at 3 o’clock, and then it’d be like, ‘OK, we’ve got to get off for women’s volleyball,’” Gillespie said. “And then on Tuesday, we’re at a YMCA, Wednesday we’re at a different college. The players, they don’t really feel like it’s home. It’s tough. You’re always a guest.
“State Farm, seeing a Hawks logo, going by the locker room where you know the team is, it’s just a huge advantage for them mentally, I think, because it feels like the dream is real.”
According to Brown, who led the Skyhawks in scoring in his first season (averaging 17.1 points through 29 games), the team has welcomed having Atlanta as home base.
“During the season, all the guys would be like, ‘We’re so happy we’re not in Erie’ because it was always cold and there’s nothing really to do in Erie,” Brown said. “It is kind of out of the way. It definitely would have been different, traveling-wise. It would definitely take a toll on your body, mentally and physically. … It’s a blessing being in Atlanta, and I’m happy about that for sure.”
Building a brand
Moving an entire franchise across the country is quite the undertaking. Then, there’s the added challenge of getting the word out and getting people in the stands.
In marketing the Skyhawks, the Hawks focused on building interest in College Park, per CEO Steve Koonin, billing games as affordable entertainment for local families.
“It was really focused on the south side,” Koonin said. “It was inexpensive family entertainment. Obviously, we don’t do anything that’s a bad business decision, but this wasn’t about building a rival to the Hawks, this was about building player development that was a community asset. And that’s where 2 Chainz came in.”
Epps has been a big part of marketing the Skyhawks, from helping to brainstorm community-outreach ideas to sitting courtside at multiple games.
“Just things with the community where I feel I can bring them in on some of these Sunday games, after church and things of that nature, just about spreading awareness and being very inviting and warm,” Epps said.
He took a hands-on approach, developing relationships with players.
“It’s important for me to lead by example, being a (person of action) instead of someone who talks about it,” Epps said. “I felt like me being at tryouts and me being at the games sitting courtside, cheering on my team every home game, allows people in the community to not only dream, but to be a part of the whole journey. I’m sure the players are surprised, too, because I’m someone who builds a relationship with them, a rapport with them. … It’s important for me to use my resources to share them with individuals I’m connected with in this organization.”
In collaboration with NBA cares, the Skyhawks in November and December held a canned food drive, partnering with a local non-profit, Reaching Out 4 You, which helps provide resources to low-income individuals. For the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in January, players helped clean Old National Highway in the ATL Airport District. In February, coaches and players helped at East Point Parks and Rec youth basketball clinics, and in February and March, the Skyhawks held a book drive, with players distributing the books to College Park Elementary on National Reading Day on March 2.
They also partnered with Goodr, State Farm and the Hawks to help host a pop-up grocery store in College Park and help battle food insecurity during the coronavirus crisis.
After home games, players would take selfies with kids.
“I think the first week I was down there, we had a meeting with the season ticket holders, and you could just tell from the moment we walked in the door they were so excited to get this going and asked us how we feel about it, vice versa,” said Brown, who always kept it in the back of his mind that the Skyhawks were new to the area and building from the ground up. “I think it was amazing for 2 Chainz to come in and just provide that type of excitement and commitment to College Park, because they definitely were looking forward to it.”
As far as fan support, Brown noticed an increase from the beginning of the season toward the end.
Of the 28 G League teams, the Skyhawks were tied for fourth in per cap ranking (a metric that combines sales, which includes merchandise, and attendance), with the Skyhawks’ per cap ranking 70% higher than the league average.
They averaged 1,438 in attendance (Gateway Center Arena has a 3,500 capacity for basketball games). The Skyhawks sold out the home opener with 2,900 tickets, and their “priority nights” -- Dec. 8 Kids Jam, Jan. 24 Faith and Family Night, Feb. 7 Black History Month Celebration and Feb. 11 Education Day -- were their next-highest attended games.
Opening night was the highest sales night of the season, which is to be expected. The Skyhawks saw an uptick in earnings, with more revenue in the last four games they played than in any other four-game stretch of the season (excluding the home opener), despite finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference standings at 20-23 at the time of the league’s suspension of play. The majority of games were broadcast on Peachtree TV.
“Support wasn’t a thing we were shy of. … I can see us just growing since the day we opened,” Epps said.
From a business standpoint, Koonin is confident the Skyhawks are headed in the right direction as they put down roots in College Park.
“We think the G League is going to increase in value,” Koonin said.
X’s and O’s
To keep the transition between the G League and the parent club seamless, the Skyhawks run the same style of play as the Hawks. Similar actions and sets, similar offense and defense.
Granted, they don’t have a Young or a John Collins to go through those motions, so they tweak things here and there. But the actual wording is the same, so there aren’t any surprises if players go up or down.
“When guys go back and forth, if Bruno is assigned to us, we can’t say that we put in this new defense, this new set that he’s not accustomed to. … When we start up and guys go back and forth, the terminology is the same,” Gillespie said. “The defense, offense, our vocabulary, our terminology is the same so there’s no learning curve.”
With the Hawks being as young as they were (often starting a lineup with no player older than 22), there weren’t as many players assigned to the Skyhawks this season as there likely will be in the future. The oft-injured Hawks needed every healthy body they could get, and they relied heavily on two young rookies in Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, with Fernando getting a fair amount of playing time as well.
If the Hawks improve and become more experienced, they’ll utilize the Skyhawks more to get young players minutes.
“Presumably as we get better and we’re still drafting players every year, maybe they’re not getting minutes the guys have gotten the last few years, that’ll create an advantage of being able to send guys down there,” Schlenk said. “... I think obviously as we grow into more of a veteran team, it’s more realistic for young guys to get minutes down there.”
As that happens, that could boost awareness about the Skyhawks, Pierce thinks.
“ The level of talent (in the G League) is growing, so we’d like to believe the interest in the league itself will grow,” Pierce said. “For us, just naturally, for us to continue to market our team, get the word out of what we are, how we are affiliated with the Hawks, as we get more of our guys assigned to the Hawks, I think that will help as well. The reality is, the Hawks are such a young team themselves and all of our young guys played so many minutes, so originally you’d think we’re going to get all these young guys, these rookies in College Park, but the reality is they’re all playing for Atlanta.”
The future of the league
At the end of the 2018-19 season, a record 272 NBA players, or 52% of the league, had G League experience. Forty-eight G League players earned 55 call-ups, and a record 105 NBA players were assigned a record 482 times to the G League for either rehab or player development.
Every NBA team finished last season with at least five G League veterans on its roster, and a record 10 teams featured 10 or more G League veterans. On opening night rosters for the 2019-20 NBA season, which has been on hiatus since mid-March because of the coronavirus, 42% of players had G League experience.
So, it's safe to say the footprint of the G League is growing, with Milwaukee's Khris Middleton becoming the first G League alum to become an NBA All-Star. To name a few current or recent Hawks with G League experience: DeAndre' Bembry, Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin, Miles Plumlee, Taurean Prince.
How much NBA teams are utilizing their G League teams is one of the bigger things Schlenk has seen change over the years.
“When you just look at the total number of assignments that you see, it used to never happen,” Schlenk said. “Maybe you’d see a second-round pick down there. Now you see lottery picks down there, a much greater increase in veterans doing rehab assignments down there that you never used to see, probably even three, four years ago.”
There’s also less stigma, now that more and more big names (Rudy Gobert, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam) have development league experience.
When Hornets guard Dwayne Bacon wasn't getting much playing time, he asked in February if he could transfer to the Swarm and get some playing time, per Sports Illustrated, where he promptly tuned up with a franchise-record 51 points.
“I think the biggest thing for me, and talking to other coaches, when it was the D-League, a lot of players saw it as punishment,” said Gillespie, who also coached the Hornets’ G League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm, in 2016 and 2017. “Meaning you were getting sent to Sioux Falls, or sent to Iowa, whereas now, I think a lot of the players, they understand the process. … You’re getting game minutes, which is what the whole league is for, to throw these guys to the fire and get them pro minutes and get them pro minutes that sometime they can’t get at the parent club.”
For the 2020-21 season, the G League has a new initiative with the "Select Team," which won't be a part of the existing G League team structure, in the works. It gives elite players (including five-star recruits Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd and Daishen Nix) coming out of a high school, who are not yet draft eligible, another option besides college or playing overseas.
According to ESPN, the initiative "will pay elite prospects $500,000-plus." The G League originally advertised a $125,000 salary, but given higher-paying options overseas, that number wasn't enough, G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim told ESPN. (Abdur-Rahim grew up in East Point and played at Wheeler High).
It’s unclear exactly how the Select Team will be structured or how games will be set up, but it bumps up the amount of talent in the G League.
“Now the NBA teams own (their G League affiliates) and are invested in them, and I think the standards that the G League teams have, have gone way up because of the financial resources,” Schlenk said. “And now, what we see the NBA doing by getting its third five-star recruit in and paying them more money, they’re trying to make it a much more of a development and economically sustainable business. By having more talent there, more people are going to watch the games, more people are going to want to go and watch the games.”
For Epps, the expansion of the G League makes sense, as it gives players an option to make a living and gives them the building blocks for the future — especially now that teams are more connected with their parent clubs.
“I’m very in support of kids wanting to take that initiative to go to G League and try to make an income and try to make a living,” Epps said. “Especially if they can see, if they already seem themselves going to the next level, I’m behind that 1,000%. You have roughly 53% of the NBA that’s come through the G League. It’s a thing now. It’s not just like a league on its own on the side. People know it’s in conjunction with the NBA, and it’s a perfect highway or bridge to get to the next level.”