PHOENIX — The D-League’s biggest impact on the NBA may not be what many would assume.
The ‘D’ stands for development, and times are changing for the growing minor league that on Thursday tips off its 15th season of existence.
Indeed, development is happening.
But these days, NBA teams may benefit as much from the coaches stalking D-League sidelines as much as they benefit from the players on those courts. That statement is probably subjective — and certainly too complex to fairly evaluate.
Yet, first-year Suns assistant coach and player development coordinator Nate Bjorkgren spent his last eight seasons in the D-League and the final one as coach of the Bakersfield Jam, which is operated by Phoenix.
After playing college basketball at South Dakota and Buena Vista University in his hometown of Storm Lake, Iowa, Bjorkgren set his sights high en route to reaching a significant career goal.
“I knew I wanted to be a coach, I wanted to be a head coach right away,” he said, recalling his first coaching job at Sioux Central High School. “The very first job I had was an assistant coaching job for a year, but then I was a head coach at age 23. I was even at a smaller school: I was head basketball coach, assistant baseball coach, assistant football coach, I drove the bus. It was one of those jobs where you had to do everything, so it really helped me become organized and all that stuff early.”
Bjorkgren then took a head coaching job at Cactus Shadows High School in the Phoenix area, winning a High School Coach of the Year award in 2005-06 before leaving after three years.
His D-League journey began when he returned home in 2007.
Bjorkgren joined the Iowa Energy staff as a volunteer under head coach Nick Nurse, who had coached Bjorkgren in the early 1990s as an assistant for South Dakota.
“I was sending him emails, calling him,” Bjorkgren said of Nurse. “He already had his lead assistant but he said, ‘Hey, if you want to come volunteer, come along.’ I had a great job, great situation with Cactus Shadows, but I gave that up to want to go coach pro basketball.”
Bjorkgren eventually became a D-League assistant, then earned a head coaching gig with the Dakota Wizards in Bismark, South Dakota. The franchise, now the Santa Cruz Warriors, moved to California, where Bjorkgren spent a year and led the team to a 2013 D-League title game. He returned to Iowa as the Energy head coach for the 2013-14 season before being selected as Bakersfield’s head coach last season, the franchise’s first under single affiliation with the Suns.
After running the Jam under the Suns’ supervision, using coach Jeff Hornacek’s plays — and sometimes his players in T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin — Bjorkgren earned a promotion to join Phoenix as an NBA coach.
“It’s funny. I’ve lived in five different cities in five years. My daughter is 5 years old,” Bjorkgren said.
“I always had that urge to coach the best players in the world. I had that chance in the D-League.”
And now he continues as one of many coaches to reach the NBA through the D-League ranks.
He joins Nurse, who after coaching the Energy and the Houston Rockets affiliate in Rio Grande Valley is an assistant for the Toronto Raptors.
Bjorkgren also joins Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger, who began his career as a Dakota Wizards assistant in 1997, when the franchise was in the IBA. Joerger coached for teams in the USBL and the CBA before returning to Dakota and the D-League in 2006. He became a Grizzlies assistant in 2007 and head coach in 2013.
Another notable D-League coaching success story is Quin Snyder. The current Utah Jazz head coach revived his career with the Austin Toros after resigning because recruiting violation allegations at Missouri.
The list of coaching successes from the D-League reads rather long, but it’s much shorter when not counting coaches with past NBA or college experience, or professional playing experience.
“You’re not there to be a head coach for six or seven years, or you must really love the D-League,” said Santa Cruz Warriors broadcaster Kevin Danna, who worked with Bjorkgren for his single year in the Bay. “The goal for — whether you’re a coach or a player — is to get up to the Association.”
Now that Bjorkgren is there, Phoenix will take advantage of his positive reinforcement and skill development work. Bjorkgren is the one putting Warren, Goodwin and rookie Devin Booker through shooting drills after team practice ends — not unlike he did as the Suns assigned their young players for stints with the Jam a season ago.
Danna calls Bjorkgren “very determined,” and added that he valued pushing the pace and heavy ball pressure. His type of guy: those who play defense first and work to improve their skill.
“There was one thing on Nate’s mind, and that was winning basketball games,” Danna added. “He made sure losing streaks stopped at one.”
Now in the NBA, Bjorkgren believes the D-League, which is expanding through NBA investment of single-affiliation teams, is more and more an opportunity for its players.
The Suns surely liked how the Jam has developed young players like Alex Len, Warren and Goodwin in just one year of the teams’ partnership. Phoenix might also find the D-League a valuable tool to determine what their 14th overall pick from 2009 has left. Forward Earl Clark was traded by Phoenix in 2010 and begins this season fighting for a spot on the Jam after stops on five NBA teams, one D-League squad and a team in China.
Those aren’t the only projects coming out of the D-League.
It prepared Bjorkgren for his own call-up.
“When the D-League started, when I was in it eight years ago, there was just two assistant coaches and a trainer,” Bjorkgren said. “Scouting reports, film, travel, transportation, housing, you name it; as a D-League coach you have to do all of it, the media side of it, sponsors, events, public speaking. It really gives you that foundation. But now the D-League’s getting better and better. It’s becoming more and more NBA-like every day.
“I’ll just tell you this about the D-League: It is a very challenging league to coach in and it really prepares you as a coach. You could wake up one morning and two guys get called up, a guy goes to Europe and a guy gets traded. Your roster changes all the time. It’s continuous teaching, you have to keep things simple,” he added. “You have to really work for your team. If you work for your guys, they’ll feel that and they will bust their tails for you. My biggest thing as a D-League coach is you want to get those guys to the NBA.”