The Grand Rapids Drive have one of the best rosters in the NBA D-League this year. Only one of the players on the team this year was also on the team last year. They have an entirely different team. The Drive also have a new coach. His name is Rex Walters.
“I’m thankful for the job number one. I wanted to coach,” Walters told Palace of Pistons on Saturday.
He’s enjoyed the challenge so far and loves the man that each player on his team is.
“What I’ve found it is a lot of fun is helping these young men understand what really is about and what it takes to be a pro and try to help them put themselves in a better position as a better basketball player,” he said.
Walters played in the NBA for seven seasons with the New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Miami Heat. He was previously the head coach at the University of San Francisco, where the Dons went 15-15. Walters was fired after the season.
While his coaching tenure at san Francisco did not end the way he wanted, he is enjoying the benefits of coaching in the D-League and not the NCAA.
It is easier to coach. You’re not worried about recruiting. You’re not worried about academics. You’re not worried about who did something wrong because you are talking about 18, 19, 20, 21-year old kids. So, that has been really cool for me,” Walters told me.
The Drive are loaded with talent including point guard Ray McCallum who was not supposed to be on the team. McCallum was signed by the Detroit Pistons over the offseason. He went to training camp with them and played with Detroit in the preseason. McCallum was battling for the third-string point guard spot against Lorenzo Brown. He was fantastic in the preseason, averaging five points, four assists, and three rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game. He appeared in three of the six preseason games Detroit played, as Brown played in the other three contests. McCallum was announced as the third-string point guard when Detroit waived Brown. Then, the Miami Heat waived veteran point guard Beno Udrih. Stan Van Gundy knew he could not pass up the opportunity to bring in a veteran with background Udrih has. Van Gundy made the decision. He claimed Udrih off waivers, and in a corresponding move, waived McCallum from the Pistons.
“You couldn’t ask for anything more from a guy that was a Detroit kid, feels like he’s going to make his hometown team, and then the move was made.”
Walters had high praise for McCallum, a player who he believes will not be on the team long.
“Whatever we get from him is a bonus because he’s an NBA guard,” he said. “I really hope he gets an opportunity because he deserves it.”
In the Drive’s first game of the season, a 134-111 win over the Canton Charge, McCallum proved to be too talented, even for last year’s D-League MVP, Quinn Cook. He posted 21 points and 10 assists in the blowout win.
The praise continued from Walters:
“He’s a phenomenal young man, his attitude, everything has just been so good. I couldn’t ask for a better attitude, better leadership, and positive energy. It’s like having Darrelle Revis playing cornerback for you, I don’t have to worry about his position. That’s a great feeling as a coach. I’m very comfortable when he has the ball in his hands. I’m very comfortable about his ability to guard his position. He’s also a really good team defender. He’s really good.”
While it is unlikely McCallum is on the team the entire season, Walters is not upset with that, in fact, that is what he wants.
“I made it clear to him,” Walters said. “I was like, our goal is for him, not to be here very long.”
If McCallum continues to put up 21 points and 10 assists nightly he won’t be.
Walters’ goal is for multiple players in his team to not be on the Drive very long. Not only does he believe McCallum could earn a call-up, but he is also expecting to lose Jordan Crawford as well.
“If you want a guy that makes the right play and scores at a high level, Jordan Crawford should be in the NBA. He’s been phenomenal in camp, his presence on the floor, his leadership to our younger players, I love coaching him. I love talking to him. I love the example he sets. I wouldn’t say he’s a choir boy but that dude wants to win and compete. If he doesn’t get called it’ll break my heart. They’re guys in the NBA that can’t do what he can do. He’s really coachable. I don’t get how he’s not in the NBA. “
Crawford spent four seasons in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics, and most recently the Golden State Warriors in 2014. He spent last season playing in the Chinese Basketball Association last season, where he averaged over 40 points per game.
The Drive recently had Pistons rookies, Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije down on the roster. Along with them came Aaron Gray and Pat Garitty, two members of the Pistons player development staff. Walters was able to work with both Ellenson and Gbinije on their game and most importantly getting them reps. He also thought that them being down with the Drive not only benefited them but the team as a whole.
“I think it’s great for all of our young guys to see guys that have played in the league and understand what it means to be an NBA player. Obviously, they’re really talented.”
Michael Gbinije did a little bit of everything against the Charge. He posted eight points on 2-5 shooting from deep. He also assisted on three shots and grabbed two boards in 32 minutes. While not a sexy stat line, Walters has been nothing but impressed with him.
“It’s like a shot in the arm for all of our wings to go up against Michael Gbinije,” he said. The Drive are loaded on the wing with Jordan Crawford, Bruce Massey, Zeke Upshaw, Chris Anderson, and Paul Graham III. “He’s a great facilitator, a great shooter, a very good team defender. We want him to be more aggressive and he’s so unselfish at times that you have to nudge him a bit. We’re hoping he nudges himself. He’s always in the right spot defense. He’s really coachable.”
The Pistons first round in the 2016 NBA Draft, Henry Ellenson, also received high praise from Walters, especially when it comes to the offensive side of the ball.
“Henry’s got a chance to do some special things. He can really score the ball. He can pass it and handle it. In the D-League, you go up against a lot of threes as a power forward so it’s great for him to get challenged by slashing threes that are playing the four spot. I think that is really going to help him as a defender. He can make some bad offense look good with his ability to stretch the floor and his ability to make plays off the bounce.”
Ellenson scored 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the Drive’s win against the Charge. He played 31 minutes in the contest.
The two players the Drive received as affiliate players from the Pistons prior to the beginning of the season were Trey Freeman and Nikola Jovanovic. Freeman and Jovanovic were both waived by the Pistons before the season began and with their decision to play in the D-League, were sent to the Drive. Freeman is a 6’3 guard that went undrafted out of Old Dominion, while Jovanovic is a 6’11 combo big who went undrafted out of USC. With Gbinije on the roster, Freeman came off the bench and he may do so when Gbinije is up with the Pistons. He plays a unique role with the Drive, but Walters stressed his importance.
“He’s your picture perfect development guy. He’s a natural scoring guard,” Walters said. “He’s learning the point guard role and there’s not a better guy in the D-league to learn it from than Ray (McCallum). We do want scoring from him, but we also want him to develop his pick and roll game, his ability to run the offense. We think that that is really important for him backing up Ray.”
Freeman went to camp with the Pistons who had a healthy Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith, Ray McCallum, and Lorenzo Brown all taking reps at point guard.
“He didn’t get a lot of reps at training camp playing point guard. The only thing he needs is that he needs to get reps playing the point guard position. That’s where he needs the most development right now and it’s just about getting him more reps there at practice,” Walters said.
Nik Jovanovic is one of the few big men the Drive have on their roster when Ellenson is up with the Pistons. He finished the season opener with 21 points and 15 rebounds. Walters knows with the limited size the Drive have, Jovanovic is a major key to the team’s success.
“If we can get him to just to play without fouling. He’s a guy that can pick and pop at the five spot, he has some really good four skills, he’s a really good rebounder. He’s a difficult matchup for people.”
Being too talented is a problem in the D-League. If you’re really good, chances are you will lose one of your top players to an NBA team. That will likely be the issue with the Drive. McCallum will likely earn a call-up this season. Jordan Crawford and Nikola Jovanovic have a chance as well. While that is not ideal for fans, it is the ultimate reward for not only the player but the coach who has put the player in the position to be called up.