D-League coach aims to tighten T-wolves ties

MINNEAPOLIS — Last February, Malcolm Lee didn’t have a clue where he was.

The Timberwolves’ rookie had been sent to the team’s D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, for a rehab stint after December knee surgery. Almost immediately upon his arrival, the California native tweeted about being stuck in Iowa, where the population is “like 30,” a move that couldn’t have ingratiated him to the hometown Skyforce fans.

Very funny, Malcolm. Except Sioux Falls is in South Dakota, and its population is just a bit above 30, hovering around 157,000.

Lee may have deleted the tweet, but the sentiment stuck. He didn’t have any idea what he was getting into, and frankly, neither did many Timberwolves fans. He was in the D-League, and that was it. He was rehabbing, and the team would occasionally provide scores and statistics to illustrate how the rookie was faring.

But those dispatches had no context. Who was coaching him? (Morris McHone.) Was the team any good? (No.) Who were his teammates? (No one you’ve heard of.) Players like Lee can disappear for a few weeks with few people really asking where they’ve gone, especially on teams like the Timberwolves, who share a D-League affiliate with three other NBA franchises. The connection is weaker, the relationship more distant, and in many ways, it’s easier not to know what’s going on in South Dakota.

That all might change if Joel Abelson has anything to say about it, though. Abelson was named the head coach of the Skyforce on Aug. 10, and at 29, he’s the youngest active D-League coach in team history. Even so, Abelson brushes off the congratulations that come with age — current D-League and former NBA coach Eric Musselman got his start at 23, he pointed out — but does acknowledge the energy and enthusiasm he’ll bring to the team.

“I think they like my energy, my youthful exuberance, my ideas,” Abelson said. “I’ve been in this league, this is going to be my sixth year, and I’ve worked for four different guys in five years. It’s like anything else in life: you take what you like and kind of leave what you don’t. I think they liked some of the ideas that I came with.”

Abelson, a University of Michigan graduate who spent the past two seasons as an associate head coach of the Idaho Stampede in the D-League, impressed Skyforce owner Mike Heineman with the connections he’s formed within the NBA community. Prior to his hire, Abelson had already gone beyond his D-League coaching duties, working as an assistant coach for the Raptors in summer league and with collegiate and professional basketball players at the Bob Hill Basketball Camp and Impact Basketball.

For a 29-year-old, Abelson boasts a packed resume, and he’s hoping to continue the success of Musselman and other young coaches in the D-Leagues and the now-defunct CBA. For a team that’s gone 25-75 in the past two years after making the playoffs in three of its first four D-League seasons, Abelson represents a calculated move toward change, and Heineman was blown away by his ideas and energy throughout the interview process.

“We were looking for someone to really impress us in interviews, and we think he has a great NBA future,” Heineman said.

Abelson’s first step when he takes over will be to streamline a team that by nature is pulled in many directions. The Skyforce is affiliated with four NBA teams, the Timberwolves, Magic, Heat and 76ers, and with such a setup, it struggles to obtain the talented players that a single-affiliation team is guaranteed. Abelson has the background to understand and combat those issues, though; the Stampede were a multiple-affiliation team before the Trail Blazers purchased them in July, and Abelson had a close look at both the transition and its aftermath. He has also worked for the Tulsa 66ers, a team that has a single affiliation with Oklahoma City, so he knows the nuances of that setup as well.

The Thunder, Trail Blazers, Cavaliers, Knicks, Nets, Celtics, Spurs, Lakers, Rockets, Warriors and Mavericks all boast their own D-League affiliates, and in such situations, those NBA teams usually sign three players who are almost guaranteed to be shuttled to the D-League squads, Abelson said. For the multiple affiliation teams, though, acquiring players is tougher, and relationships with NBA affiliates are often more distant. As both coach and general manager of the Skyforce, Abelson is in charge not only on the court, but in terms of acquiring personnel, and he hopes to narrow that distance with his four NBA affiliates. By doing so, he says he’ll have a greater chance of acquiring players and building trust, and that’s the first step in the process.

Perhaps the most difficult part of Abelson’s job at the outset will be to create those relationships. In the coming weeks and months, he’ll try to sow the seeds of investment in his team with NBA squads. He knows that the four affiliates will never have the close ties and interest in his club’s wellbeing that a single-affiliation team would, but he doesn’t hold it against them. That’s just how the system is structured, and Abelson will do his best to go against it.

“This year I’m hoping to meet with each of our affiliates, and whether or not they ask for it, they will all be provided with information,” Abelson said. “A lot of information. It’s up to them to read it or press delete.”

Abelson’s efforts might come at the perfect time. Portland’s purchase of the Stampede is just a symptom of a growing movement toward single-affiliation teams, Heineman said, and though the transition will likely be slow, it’s definitely in progress. That could mean an expanded D-League — it currently stands at just 16 teams — but the logistics of the change are yet to solidify. Abelson has already been a part of the change, and he sees the benefits of building those relationships and edging his way more visibly into the consciousness of his NBA general managers and coaches.

Talking to Abelson, it’s impossible not to sense his excitement. This team is a project he’s excited about, and it’s easy to see that he wants to have a long-term impact on professional basketball. But perhaps the best thing about Abelson for the Skyforce is his commitment. He knows he’s young. He knows his stock is rising quickly. He knows the team’s owner is calling him a future NBA coaching prospect. And yet he’s happy in the D-League. He’s excited for his opportunity, no matter that it involves relatively unknown players in a small market in South Dakota.

So in the near term, the Skyforce should improve, with more energy and new ideas already being implemented. Their NBA affiliates might notice quickly, or it could take longer for Abelson’s work to garner attention, but perhaps next time a Timberwolves player is sent to Sioux Falls, he’ll have heard of it.

Joel Abelson wants to put his team on the map.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.