As Prosper Karangwa and Coby Karl exchanged leadership principles during their initial days working together with the Delaware Blue Coats, Karangwa shared a video clip of the late Bruce Lee with the advice to “Be water, my friend.”
The famous quote is a reminder to be adaptable, to flow and mold to one’s environment. Karangwa had adopted it as a personal mantra when he stepped into a new role as a first-time G League general manager. Unbeknownst to him, Karl, the Blue Coats’ new coach, had used that exact phrase in a recent presentation to the basketball team at his alma mater, Boise State, using Alex Caruso as an example of a player’s “willingness to just fill in gaps” while carving a path from the G League to the NBA.
Karl said that when he received the clip from Karangwa, “It gave me goosebumps.”
They determined it was the perfect theme to foster with their incoming team. Adaptability is required in the G League, where players shuffling in and out leads to ever-changing on-court roles, travel between smaller markets is grueling and the daily work occurs without the NBA’s fanfare. That has turned out to be especially true during another pandemic season, which has caused unexpected midseason disruption and also unprecedented opportunity for players to reach the next level.
So far, the Blue Coats have successfully put that quality into practice.
They went 14-1 during the first chunk of the season, winning last month’s G League Winter Showcase (and its $100,000 prize) in Las Vegas even as NBA teams constantly pillaged their roster. Five players have received 10-day hardship NBA contracts — including one that Philly native Charlie Brown parlayed into a two-way deal with his hometown 76ers. Thanks to alignment with the Sixers, Wilmington has become a terrific place for young players on two-way contracts or on assignment to get meaningful reps against viable competition.
The Blue Coats have shouldered the swerves to marry team victories with individual development, two objectives that don’t always mesh at this level.
“[That’s] what the G League is about,” Karl said. “It’s not about being the best player or the most talented. It’s about who can fit in and be ready in any situation. Those are the guys that have success. Our guys are completely willing to do it.”
That leadership team of Karangwa, Karl and assistant general manager Jameer Nelson has established a quick rapport.
Karangwa, who had been the Orlando Magic’s director of scouting before joining the Sixers’ front office in the fall of 2020, would rather empower his staff from the background than micromanage. Karl, the son of legendary NBA coach George Karl who needed a fresh start after he and the G League’s South Bay Lakers parted ways during the pandemic, has deep roots in the league along with a calm and curious approach. Nelson, a local legend now creating his post-playing path in the front office, has an ability to connect with players and, by Karangwa’s design, is “the face of the team.”
Karangwa’s role with the Sixers as vice president of player personnel also creates a direct line to president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and GM Elton Brand, a connection that also exists between other verticals of the organization. Blue Coats assistant coach JP Clark was a longtime Los Angeles Clippers assistant under Sixers coach Doc Rivers. Sixers vice president for athlete care Simon Rice and head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson were involved in the hiring of the Blue Coats’ medical and training staff. Even Blue Coats basketball operations manager Danielle Lyons is tied to Sixers chief of staff Annemarie Loflin.
“It’s another area, when we all came [to the Sixers], that we targeted,” Rivers said. “You got to have a developmental league. [It’s] very similar to baseball now. You really do. And they have to all be on the same page, running the same stuff you’re doing, communicating with the coaches there.
“It’s just so important, because with the injuries and stuff we have — and now with COVID thrown into that — you’re going to need those guys to come up and run our stuff.”
While building his team, Karangwa valued positional versatility on both ends, allowing the Blue Coats to play without a traditional center. He wanted balance between players with G League experience and younger players who may have only known last year’s shorter bubble season. He sought those who fit the Sixers’ foundational schemes also taught to the G League players, and who would understand how their role might change when Paul Reed, Jaden Springer, or Charles Bassey arrived for a stint.
“If you’re not going to be a team player, I’m just not going to have you around for long,” Karangwa said.
Tenacious defense rapidly became the Blue Coats’ identity.
Karangwa first noticed his team could excel on that end of the floor during preseason drills, when “those guys were so dialed up. They were so focused. They were competing against each other at a level that you necessarily don’t see often.” They had ideal players to snap into the structure helmed by Sixers assistant Dan Burke, from Shaq Harrison harassing the ballhandler, to Brown using his length instincts to jump passing lanes, to Braxton Key and Haywood Highsmith guarding positions one through five, to Jarron Cumberland grabbing rebounds despite being an undersized big man. And after Harrison was called up by the Brooklyn Nets just before the Showcase, the Blue Coats also inadvertently discovered a zone defense mid-scramble that helped fill his void on that end of the floor.
They held five of their first 14 opponents to fewer than 100 points.
“We’re probably one of the scrappiest teams I’ve ever seen, on any level,” Nelson said.
Following a Nov. 14 loss to the Maine Celtics, the Blue Coats ripped off nine consecutive wins to head to Las Vegas as the tournament’s top seed. That trip virtually coincided with when the omicron COVID-19 variant began decimating NBA rosters, prompting the league to install a policy for teams to utilize 10-day hardship deals to keep games moving even with multiple players in health and safety protocols.
That drastically changed the Blue Coats’ personnel, but not their on-court results.
Harrison, who has played in 175 NBA games with five teams during his five-year professional career, was first to get an invite to return to the league. Following their first Showcase win against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Reed, then-two-way forward Aaron Henry and new two-way point guard Myles Powell were all recalled to the Sixers to provide reinforcements after their Dec. 19 game against New Orleans was postponed because they did not have enough healthy players. During pregame warmups less than an hour before the Blue Coats’ semifinal game against South Bay, Brown received a 10-day contract offer from the Dallas Mavericks and needed to leave for the airport during a third-quarter timeout.
That all shifted Cumberland from out-of-rotation big man to starting point guard, where he averaged 20.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7 assists (including a triple-double) in the three tournament games to earn Most Valuable Player honors. As the team celebrated its 104-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Blue in the championship game, Karl brought Cumberland up to the front of the group and said, “You be water, you get more water!” as teammates emptied bottles onto the tournament’s breakout star.
“It was a storm that we’ve been preparing ourselves for,” Karl said. “But you just never know, when it occurs, if you can withstand it. And our guys did. I don’t know if pride is the best word, but being so proud of our guys that they stood strong when they could have crumbled and looked adversity in the face and didn’t budge at all, and that goes from everyone on the roster.”
On social media, Blue Coats players confidently clamored for more 10-day call-ups while the G League was on hiatus. Brown and Key joined the Sixers. Cumberland went to Portland. Highsmith was signed by Miami after coach Erik Spoelstra told Karl he wished Highsmith were with the Heat’s G League affiliate in Sioux Falls, which prompted Karangwa to quip “we aren’t trading him.” Karangwa believes Shamorie Ponds would have been a sixth player to earn a 10-day deal had he not recently tested positive for COVID-19.
“The reason why we do this is for these guys to get an opportunity,” Kawangwa said. “ … You want to put a group together, but eventually you want them to take ownership of it. You want them to feel empowered to go out there and compete and play for each other.
“These guys did that, and the reward of that was all these call-ups. Obviously, us having the success we’ve had, the buy-in has been incredible. Without that, I don’t think we accomplish any of that.”
The new year has brought a fresh set of challenges for the Blue Coats. Records reset following the Showcase for this portion of the regular season that will run through early April. Karangwa and Karl used the words “chaotic” and “surreal” to describe last week’s restart, with an almost entirely different roster because of players still on with their NBA teams.
The Blue Coats began the new slate with a heartbreaking double-overtime loss to the Wisconsin Herd and a lopsided defeat to the Windy City Bulls, before topping the Maine Celtics on Thursday night behind 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 assists from Key in his return from the Sixers. They’ve also gotten back Springer, Harrison, and Highsmith, who all scored at least 22 points in Sunday’s home win over the Grand Rapids Gold. They will host Grand Rapids again Monday afternoon.
Those players will give Karl’s team an immediate lift as the Blue Coats chase another championship. But perhaps nobody has recently embodied that team’s essence more than Brown, who continues to seize his opportunities away from Delaware.
He swiftly moved from a 10-day contract with the Mavericks to the same type of deal with the Sixers, then was converted to a two-way contract before that short-term deal with the Sixers expired. Without top wing players Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green on Saturday night, Brown was an important part of the rotation for the Sixers’ win at Miami.
He guarded perimeter standouts Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson during his 15 minutes. He grabbed a rebound off a Joel Embiid missed free throw, which led to a Tobias Harris three-pointer. He found Seth Curry for an open three and Tyrese Maxey for a baseline floater. He cut to the basket to receive a bounce pass from Andre Drummond for a layup that gave the Sixers a four-point lead early in the decisive fourth quarter.
When asked how he has navigated the frenzied month, Brown said, “You’ve got to just adapt to every environment.”
“Some people might say it’s tough, but I love to do it,” Brown said. “Any time I’m available to play basketball or do anything that will better me and my situation, I’m going to do it 100%. I’m enjoying the journey.”
Just like water, my friend.