Quantcast

15 Skyforce Alumni, One Goal: Win an NBA Championship

By Matt Dykstra | May 18, 2021

The 2021 NBA Playoffs is set to tip-off tonight, featuring eight former Sioux Falls Skyforce players and seven former coaches. In total, the 15 Skyforce Alumni are spread across eight different NBA franchises and all will be looking to make an impact for their respective organizations. The Miami HEAT lead the way with three former players and four former coaches, accompanied by the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors.

Each Skyforce connection to this year’s postseason is highlighted below, starting with none other than the Miami HEAT. No Skyforce player has ever gone on to win an NBA Championship after spending time in Sioux Falls early in his career. There is no shortage of opportunity for one or multiple players to earn that honor in this year’s playoffs.

* * * * *

MIAMI HEAT (40-32) | 6TH SEED

As expected, the Miami HEAT enter the NBA Playoffs with more Skyforce alumni than any other team in the Association. Players including Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent and KZ Okpala have all appeared in a Skyforce game as recently as recently as the 2018-19 season. Vincent and Okpala were both in Sioux Falls as recently as March, 2020 prior to the NBA G League season’s early shutdown due to COVID-19.

Joining the three former Skyforce players on the HEAT’s roster are four former Skyforce coaches, including Chris Quinn, Octavio De La Grana, Anthony Carter, and Eric Glass. Glass, who re-joined the HEAT staff prior to the 2020-21 season, is the only former head coach of the Skyforce, with the others having served as assistants before solidifying themselves on the HEAT bench.

Miami enters the playoffs with an overall record of 40-32, ranked sixth in the Eastern Conference. Despite an up-and-down season in large part due to injuries, quarantines and roster fluidity, the HEAT enter the playoffs ranked just one position behind last year’s fifth-seed ranking. Highlighted by an NBA Finals run in 2020, the HEAT have proven rankings to be irrelevant heading into the playoffs, and will look to make another splash in the 2021 postseason.

Former Skyforce Players to Watch:

DUNCAN ROBINSON | FORMER SKYFORCE GUARD (2018-19)

Duncan Robinson’s meteoric rise to being an impact player in the NBA has been well-documented. This season, Robinson averaged 13.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range. 2020-21 marked the second-straight season that Robinson made at least 250 three-pointers and shot above 40 percent from the field, making him the fastest player ever (152 games) to make 500 career three-pointers.

Skyforce fans shouldn’t be surprised by that accomplishment, though, as Robinson set a franchise record with 152-made three-pointers during the 2018-19 season in just 33 games played, shooting over 48 percent from three-point range in the process. Robinson is a great example of someone who not only thrived at the NBA G League level but stands out on a nightly basis in the NBA as well.

GABE VINCENT | FORMER SKYFORCE GUARD (2019-20)

Gabe Vincent played through the 2020-21 season on a two-way contract, but was allowed to have a much greater impact at the NBA level with the adjusted two-way player rules this season. The cap for a two-way player’s “days in the NBA” was removed as NBA teams needed all the help they could get playing through COVID-19 related absences and quarantines. Because of this, Vincent appeared in 50 games this season while averaging 4.8 points, 1.3 assists and 1.1 rebounds per contest.

Despite his modest scoring totals, Vincent notched two 20-plus-point performances and scored in double-digits six times on the season. Most recently, Vincent wrapped up the regular season by tallying his first-career double-double with 15 points, 10 assists and six rebounds in the HEAT’s regular season finale victory over the Detroit Pistons.

During the 2019-20 season, Vincent appeared in 11 games with the Skyforce, averaging 16.4 points per game and guiding the Force to a 9-2 record in that span. Vincent was later awarded NBA G League Most Improved Player honors for his efforts that season.

KZ OKPALA | FORMER SKYFORCE FORWARD (2019-20)

The Miami HEAT drafted KZ Okpala as a “project” in 2019 and he’s shown the ability to continuously improve over the course of his young career. As a rookie during the 2019-20 season, Okpala appeared in 20 games (20 starts) for the Skyforce while on assignment from the Miami HEAT. Okpala averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per contest, and appeared to be hitting his stride just as the season was cut short.

That development carried over into the 2020-21 season with the HEAT as Okpala appeared in 37 games (nine starts) for Miami during his sophomore season. Though he averaged just 2.5 points and 1.8 rebounds on the year, he finished his campaign on a high note, scoring a career-high 17 points (6-9 FG) and adding five rebounds in Sunday night’s regular season finale in Detroit.

Okpala is still a raw talent but has the length and athleticism to be an impact player in the NBA. The HEAT have become known for their development of young talent over the years, and Okpala might be the latest success story to come from that program.

Former Skyforce Coaches to Watch:

CHRIS QUINN | FORMER SKYFORCE ASSISTANT COACH (2014-15)

Chris Quinn served as an assistant coach for the Sioux Falls Skyforce under then-Head Coach Phil Weber during the 2014-15 season, a team and staff that finished with a 29-21 record on the year.

It only took Quinn, a former HEAT player turned coach, one season in Sioux Falls to display his talent for developing players. Miami quickly moved him down to South Beach, where he’s been since the start of the 2015-16 season under Head Coach Erik Spoelstra.

Now in his sixth season as a member of the HEAT coaching staff, Quinn has worked his way up to one of the lead assistant coaching positions and has become a valuable asset to the coaching group as a whole.

OCTAVIO DE LA GRANA | FORMER SKYFORCE ASSISTANT COACH (2013-16)

Octavio De La Grana, or “Coach O”, as many in the organization call him, has long been regarded as one of the best player developers within the Miami HEAT system. He was tasked with serving as an assistant coach in Sioux Falls during the early stages of the HEAT’s single-affiliation partnership with the Force between 2013-16.

Coach O served as the common link between Miami and Sioux Falls development programs, ensuring the same “HEAT Culture” was instilled early in the Skyforce system as well. His mission was successful, culminating in a 2016 NBA G League Championship alongside then-Head Coach Dan Craig before both returned to the Miami HEAT coaching staff on a full-time basis. Coach O has remained in his Player Development role with the HEAT ever since.

ANTHONY CARTER | FORMER SKYFORCE ASSISTANT COACH (2016-18)

After two seasons as an assistant coach for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Anthony Carter jumped at an opportunity to become a Player Development Coach for the Miami HEAT prior to the 2018-19 season and has been with the NBA club since.

It didn’t take Carter long to establish himself as one of the best player development coaches around during his time with the Skyforce, and the HEAT wasted no time in snatching him up (as they so often do with young coaches who show promise). Carter’s 13-year playing career boosts his credibility with any young player coming into the league, and he’s become a staple on the HEAT bench now in his third season since making the leap.

ERIC GLASS | FORMER SKYFORCE HEAD COACH (2019-20)

Miami HEAT assistant coach Eric Glass marks the most recent departure among former Skyforce coaches, having served as Skyforce Head Coach during the 2019-20 season prior to the league’s early shut-down due to Covid-19. Glass and his Force roster had hit their stride at just the right time, representing one of the league’s best times early in 2020 before the season was cut short.

Glass had Sioux Falls in position to make the playoffs for the first time since winning the 2016 NBA G League Championship, which would have been a breath of fresh air for players, staff and fans who have become used to “championship basketball” over the last three decades.

Now, Glass serves as a player development coach within the HEAT system, becoming the next of many great Skyforce coaches to re-join the HEAT bench following a strong stint in the NBA G League.

* * * * *

BROOKLYN NETS (48-24) | 2ND SEED

This year’s Brooklyn Nets need no introduction. With the likes of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant assembled on one roster, it’s no surprise the Nets enter the 2021 NBA Playoffs as the second seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s been far from a runaway competition, though, as injuries have riddled the Nets’ star-studded roster throughout the season.

Brooklyn, who wrapped up the regular season with a 48-24 record, relied heavily on its supporting cast over the course of the year to get them to where they stand today. Former Skyforce guard Tyler Johnson is a member of that supporting cast.

Former Skyforce Players to Watch:

TYLER JOHNSON | FORMER SKYFORCE GUARD (2014-15)

Tyler Johnson signed with the Brooklyn Nets shortly before play resumed in the “bubble” toward the end of the 2019-20 season, and has since solidified himself as a member of the Nets’ reserve unit over the course of the 2020-21 season. Johnson has appeared in 39 games (three starts) from Brooklyn this year, averaging 5.4 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists in just 17.5 minutes per contest.

Johnson began his professional career by appearing in 15 games (15 starts) for the Skyforce during the 2014-15 season. Johnson averaged 18.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on his way to earning a call-up and ensuing multi-year contract from the Miami HEAT.

Johnson went on to spend the majority of his first five seasons with Miami before ultimately being dealt to the Phoenix Suns during the 2018-19 season, where he played until being released shortly before signing with Brooklyn. Though Johnson has had to fight to carve out a position in a reserve role over the last few seasons, he now finds himself with a legitimate opportunity to become the first Skyforce player in franchise history to go on to win an NBA Championship following his time in Sioux Falls. Not bad, for one of the most talented players in Skyforce franchise history.

* * * * *

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (49-23) | 1ST SEED

The true test awaits, as the Sixers sit atop the Eastern Conference entering the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Philadelphia has come close in recent years with the likes of star players such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but hasn’t been able to “get over the hump” and make a deep run to the finals. The same can be said for first-year Sixers Head Coach Doc Rivers, who comes to Philadelphia after years of regular season dominance with the Los Angeles Clippers, but little playoff success.

The players in Philly, as well as the newly assembled coaching staff, are hungry to prove they’re the “real deal” this season, looking to buck the trend that’s been haunting both sides in the past. Former Skyforce Head Coach Dave Joerger, who won a Championship with the Force in 2005, serves as an assistant coach under Rivers as the team looks to make its first real splash in the postseason.

Former Skyforce Coaches to Watch:

DAVE JOERGER | FORMER SKYFORCE HEAD COACH (2004-05)

After a glorious run throughout the 1990s, the Skyforce organization, as well as the CBA as a whole, found itself slipping during the early 2000s for a number of reasons. That changed for Sioux Falls when Dave Joerger stepped in as Head Coach prior to the 2004-05 season. In two seasons at the helm with the Force, Joerger led the franchise to a 61-35 regular season record and a 12-4 record in the CBA playoffs, including a CBA Championship in 2005.

Joerger was on to bigger and better things not long after his tenure with the Force ended in 2006. After a brief stint with the Dakota Wizards, Joerger joined the Memphis Grizzlies as an assistant coach in 2007 where he later earned his first opportunity to head coach in the NBA from 2013-16. After a Grizzlies fall-out in 2016, Joerger was named head coach of the Sacramento Kings from 2016-19.

Currently, Joerger serves as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers under newly-named Head Coach Doc Rivers. As the top seed in the East, Joerger and the rest of the Sixers coaching staff had the opportunity to coach at this year’s NBA All-Star festivities, and now finds itself in prime position at the top of the east entering the playoffs.

* * * * *

PHOENIX SUNS (51-21) | 2ND SEED

After going undefeated in “bubble play” to end the 2019-20 regular season, the Phoenix Suns went out and added Chris Paul to its young core of players, highlighted by the likes of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. All Phoenix has done since then is continued to win. After finishing the 2020-21 season with a 51-21 record, the Suns sit in second place in the Western Conference just behind the Utah Jazz, and appear primed to make a splash in the postseason.

Despite their success this season, the Suns are far from a “super team” as is the case for many other franchises in contention for a title this season. While Paul, Booker and Ayton have been great, it’s been a consistent supporting cast of role players who have allowed Phoenix to flourish, and the team will need those supporting players now more than ever. Among those hitting their stride for the Suns down the stretch is former Skyforce standout Torrey Craig.

The Suns may be victims of a tough matchup draw following the first-ever play-in tournament to tip-off the NBA postseason. The Los Angeles Lakers currently sit in seventh place, and if they survive the play-in tournament, would certainly give Phoenix a difficult matchup in the first round of the playoffs.

Former Skyforce Players to Watch:

TORREY CRAIG | FORMER SKYFORCE FORWARD (2017-18)

Torrey Craig has been a revelation for the Phoenix Suns since being acquired from Milwaukee for “cash” back in March. Now having appeared in 32 games for the Suns (eight starts), Craig has averaged 7.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists in just under 19 minutes per game this season.

After tallying a 20-point, 14-rebound double-double in an ESPN loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Craig was inserted into the Suns’ starting lineup at which point the team rattled off six wins in its next eight games. Craig was eventually moved back to a reserve role with the return of Jae Crowder, but the Suns ended up winning nine-of-12 games to end the year since giving Craig a more featured role.

Craig’s numbers on the year are modest, but fans that watch him play know he brings much more to the game than what appears on a box score. In 15 games with the Skyforce (12 starts) during the 2017-18 season, however, Craig’s numbers did the talking for him. He averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest while donning a Skyforce uniform. Some called him the “G League LeBron” at times as he continued to stuff the stat sheet night after night.

Since then, Craig carved out a successful reserve role for a competitive Denver Nuggets team over the last few seasons prior to walking in free agency in advance of the 2020-21 season. After initially signing with the Bucks, Craig now finds himself back in contention for making another deep run in this year’s playoffs.

* * * * *

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (47-25) | 4TH SEED

After yet another disappointing exit during the 2020 NBA Playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers overhauled their coaching staff and made some key changes to their on-court personnel in an attempt to “buck the trend” and make a real splash in this year’s playoffs. The biggest change was the removal of head coach Doc Rivers, who was pivotal in rebuilding the culture of Clippers basketball in recent history, yet came up short in “crunch time” playoff appearances.

Enter Tyronn Lue, along with almost an entirely different basketball operations staff. Former Skyforce Head Coach Dan Craig was also brought on as Lue’s associate head coach. Between those two, and the rest of the Clippers coaching staff, there’s no shortage of championship habits.

Former Skyforce Coaches to Watch:

DAN CRAIG | FORMER SKYFORCE HEAD COACH (2015-16)

Dan Craig put together not just the greatest season in Skyforce franchise history, but the greatest single-season in NBA G League history as well when he led his team to a 40-10 regular season record (G League record) before nearly sweeping his way to an NBA G League Title during the 2015-16 season.

Craig rightfully won NBA G League Coach of the Year honors for his efforts that season, and was a big reason why then-Skyforce GM Adam Simon was awarded G League Executive of the Year, along with players DeAndre Liggins and Jarnell Stokes winning G League Defensive Player of the Year and G League MVP respectively. His team not only nearly ran the table in overall record and playoff victories…it nearly ran the table with the G League awards as well.

Craig was quickly pulled back to the NBA coaching ranks where he served as an Assistant Coach under Erik Spoelstra with the Miami HEAT until the summer of 2020, when another opportunity called. Over the past offseason, Craig took a leap and joined the Los Angeles Clippers as Associate Head Coach to Head Coach Tyronn Lue.

The Clippers, who enter the postseason as the ranked fourth in the Western Conference, are looking toward the newly-assembled coaching staff to guide the team to postseason success after another disappointing exit during the 2020 playoffs. There’s no shortage of championship pedigree amongst the coaches that the organization brought in to lead its star-studded roster. The only thing left to do is win.

* * * * *

DALLAS MAVERICKS (42-30) | 5TH SEED

The Dallas Mavericks enter the postseason ranked fifth in the Western Conference, with a difficult road ahead. Led by the likes of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavs will match up with the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

Doncic is averaging 27.7 points, 8.6 assists and 8.0 rebounds for the 42-30 Mavericks as playoff basketball begins, but the lethal combination of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is about to give the Dallas front court fits. The Mavs will need supporting cast members to step up and play a major role in the opening series if they hope to make a deep playoff run, and one of those X-factors could be former Skyforce guard Josh Richardson.

Former Skyforce Players to Watch:

JOSH RICHARDSON | FORMER SKYFORCE GUARD (2015-16)

Josh Richardson has played fewer games with the Force than any other Skyforce alumni on this list, totaling just four appearances (four starts) during the 2015-16 season while on assignment from the Miami HEAT. In his four appearances, though, Richardson averaged 23.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.75 assists and 2.5 steals per contest, helping the Skyforce to four-straight victories during the NBA G League showcase and ensuing west-coast road trip.

It was clear Richardson was ready for the NBA, and he’s continued to carve out a role for the teams he’s played with since. After spending his first four seasons with the Miami HEAT, Richardson was sent to Philadelphia as part of the deal that brought Jimmy Butler to South Beach. After just one season in Philly, however, Richardson was then sent to Dallas in a Philadelphia trade for Seth Curry.

In his first season with the Mavs this year, Richardson has appeared in 59 games (56 starts) and has averaged 12.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists per contest. After a disappointing end to the postseason with Philadelphia last year, Richardson will do his best to provide aid to Doncic and the rest of the Mavs squad to avoid the same fate this season.

* * * * *

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (42-30) | 6TH SEED

Portland enters the 2021 Playoffs ranked sixth in the Western Conference after narrowly avoiding the play-in tournament in the final games of the regular season. With the likes of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and company, the Trail Blazers will look to make a deep playoff push in what might be one of head coach Terry Stotts’ last few chances to get this team into true contention.

With Lillard averaging 28.8 points per contest, and coming up big in seemingly every clutch situation, the Trail Blazers are never truly out of the mix. They’ll have a tough test in round one, though, matching up against MVP contender Nikola Jokic and the red-hot Denver Nuggets to begin play.

Portland marks the only other team besides the Miami HEAT that features both a former Skyforce player and former Skyforce coach as NBA postseason play begins. Former Skyforce forward Derrick Jones Jr., a walking highlight reel, has had varying degrees of success moving in and out of the rotation over the course of the season. Meanwhile, former Skyforce Head Coach Nate Tibbetts is now in his second year as Associate Head Coach under Stotts, and will look to continue adding to his resume with a deep playoff push.

Former Skyforce Players to Watch:

DERRICK JONES JR. | FORMER SKYFORCE FORWARD (2017-18)

Derrick Jones Jr. signed with Portland in free agency prior to the 2020-21 season and has since appeared in 58 games (43 starts) for the Trail Blazers while averaging 6.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest. Jones Jr. has played well in his given opportunities but has battled injuries and other absences throughout the course of the season. Portland runs a deep rotation, too, capping Jones Jr. at roughly 22.7 minutes per game this season. He’ll certainly look to make an impact now as playoffs commence, having just made a run to the NBA Finals with the Miami HEAT a season ago.

Jones Jr. appeared in 13 games for the Skyforce (11 starts) under two-way contract with the Miami HEAT during the 2017-18 season. His time in Sioux Falls featured significant boosts in his offensive numbers across the board as he averaged career-highs with 19.2 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting over 35 percent form beyond the arc.

Despite his short tenure in Sioux Falls, Jones Jr. still stands as a fan favorite to many after providing some of the most prolific highlights in recent history. The 2020 NBA Slam Dunk contest has continued to impress no matter what uniform he’s wearing since then, known league-wide as one of the best in-game dunkers around.

Former Skyforce Coaches to Watch:

NATE TIBBETTS | FORMER SKYFORCE HEAD COACH (2007-09)

It’s only a matter of time before Nate Tibbetts lands himself a head coaching position in the NBA after having spent the last eight seasons within the Portland Trail Blazers’ system. Now in his second year as Associate Head Coach, Tibbetts spent the previous six seasons as an assistant coach for Portland.

Tibbetts served as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2011-13 after having spent two seasons as the Head Coach of the then-named Tulsa 66ers (Oklahoma City Thunder’s G League affiliate), where he guided the team to a 64-41 overall record and two straight trips to the NBA G League playoffs.

Tibbetts success in the NBA G League began in Sioux Falls, though, where he got his first professional Head Coaching opportunity from 2007-09 after having spent his first two seasons with the franchise as an assistant. Tibbetts was well-respected by his players and staff during his tenure as Head Coach in Sioux Falls, none more vocal about his impact than former NBA G League MVP Kasib Powell, who is now an assistant coach for the Skyforce himself.

“Coach Tibbetts taught me how to be a true professional when I came to Sioux Falls,” Powell said. “We had a lot of conversations about how I should be dressing, how I needed to be acting both on and off the court…watching film and preparing for games. He had a lot of confidence in me. It meant a lot for me at that point in my career.”

Tibbetts was a former standout player at the University of South Dakota before his coaching journey began, and got his first crack at coaching as an assistant coach at the University of Sioux Falls from 2001-05 prior to joining the Skyforce staff.

* * * * *

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (39-33) | 8TH SEED

Stephen Curry has somehow willed the Warriors into playoff contention this season. They’ll have to survive the play-in tournament, featuring a first-game matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, but they’re still alive. After Klay Thompson’s season-ending injury prior to the season beginning, nearly everyone wrote this season off for the Warriors. Since then, Curry has put together an MVP-worthy season and earned the NBA’s scoring title on his way to leading the team into the play-in tournament.

Curry has been a one-man show, but there have been others on the Golden State roster who have stepped up at times over the course of the season to provide assistance. Former Skyforce guard Mychal Mulder is one of those players, who has seemingly found a perfect fit in the Warriors’ system as a 3-and-D type player.

Former Skyforce Players to Watch:

MYCHAL MULDER | FORMER SKYFORCE GUARD (2019-20)

Mulder was on pace to snap Duncan Robinson’s year-old record for three-pointers made in a single season (152) before a call-up to the Golden State Warriors ended his 2019-20 NBA G League season a bit earlier than the rest of his teammates. Mulder ultimately ended the season with 151 three-pointers made, good enough for second place on the all-time single-season list, in just 39 games played (34 starts).

In total, Mulder averaged 17.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per contest during his Skyforce tenure, a large reason for the Force’s late-season success under the guidance of then-head coach Eric Glass. Mulder’s success didn’t go unnoticed as he earned the first NBA call-up of his career (to the Warriors) and he hasn’t looked back. A lethal three-point shooter, Mulder has carved out a role in the reserve unit for this year’s Golden State roster. He’s proven the ability to step up when given an increased workload as well, highlighted most recently by a career-high 28-point outburst in a much-needed win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday, May 14.

Mulder ultimately appeared in 60 games for the Warriors this season (six starts), averaging 5.6 points in just under 13 minutes per contest. He’ll look to keep his late-season success going as Golden State enters the play-in tournament. There will be pressure on the supporting cast to rise to Curry’s level of play if the Warriors hope to survive to the next round.