Julyan's Journey: Searching for victory in the Midwest
An inside look at the NBA D-League as Denver Nuggets guard Julyan Stone plays for the Iowa Energy
DES MOINES, Iowa – NBA, NCAA, NAIA, AAU, YMCA.
No matter the level, there’s nothing sweeter than winning.
And the Iowa Energy have not been winning.
Less than two years removed from capturing the NBA Development League title, the Energy are in a transitional period. They recently made a coaching change and are also trying to incorporate five new players, including Denver Nuggets guard Julyan Stone, who is on assignment from the NBA.
On a frigid night at Wells Fargo Arena, it doesn’t appear things are going to get much better.
Playing the first of back-to-back games against the Springfield Armor, the Energy struggle with turnovers, rebounding and shot selection while falling behind by nine points in the game’s first 4 minutes. Coach Bruce Wilson paces the sideline and implores his team to pick up the intensity.
Wilson, tall with neatly parted gray hair and glasses, has a friendly demeanor and disarming appearance. He looks like someone the casting agency would send to play the role of a grandfather reading to a small child in front of a warm fire.
At the moment, Wilson is neither friendly nor disarming. Sitting in front of his players in the timeout huddle, he delivers a message of urgency.
“It has to start right now!” he says.
VIDEO: Game Night
A former player and longtime coach at nearby Simpson College, Wilson joined the Energy coaching staff as an assistant in 2010 and took over as Iowa’s coach when the team parted ways with Kevin Young on Jan. 21.
He has spent the previous week putting together a game plan that will effectively utilize his new personnel.
“This is really different for me because I’ve always been a college guy,” Wilson says after the team’s morning shootaround. “I’m glad I had the last two years experience with the D-League with guys coming in and out. You have to keep the game simple, teach concepts and then try to create as much chemistry as you can in the short-term. That’s a huge task.”
If Wilson and his fellow coaches have one thing going for them, it’s that the D-League experience offers plenty of bonding moments.
The Energy players and coaches are housed in the same apartment building, and they carpool to practice and games. For shootaround, Nuggets prospect Quincy Miller parks his rental car at the Quality Inn adjacent to Wells Fargo Arena. He and three of his teammates then make the 300-yard walk to the loading dock entrance.
Despite not having a “players’ lot,” Wells Fargo is an impressive facility. Owned and operated by Polk County, it is a multipurpose venue that seats 16,110.
On this February night, the announced attendance is 3,413, with many of them holdovers from a high school game played beforehand. Prep games are common during the season, forcing the D-League players to wait until about 6:20 before they take the court to warm up.
When the high school game finishes, two arena workers dry mop the hardwood to clear any lingering dust and debris. It is one of the few tasks not assigned to Wilson and his two assistant coaches.
“I’d do it if they asked me to do it,” Energy assistant Jordan Brady says.
Multitasking is part of the job description in the D-League.
General Manager Chris Makris arrives at the arena by 3 p.m. and is in perpetual motion well past the final buzzer. Carrying a two-way radio, he chats with season-ticket holders, checks in with players and even makes sure the high school cheerleaders are standing in the right location along the baseline.
Any suspicions about Makris doubling as the team mascot are put to rest when he and the mask-wearing Surge are spotted in the arena at the same time.
Off the court, Makris is responsible for player personnel matters, including the draft, free-agent signings, trades and NBA assignments. The NBA part can be particularly tricky considering Iowa has four affiliates – the Nuggets, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards.
This is Denver’s first year working with the Energy, but it’s been a good fit so far. Miller has spent more than six weeks in Iowa, while Stone is with the team as part of his recovery from hip surgery.
“It’s been ideal from our standpoint,” Makris said. “The Nuggets' front-office staff has been great to work with. We’ve had great communication. That’s been the key. It’s something that we’ve been looking for, and they’ve stepped up to the plate.”
On this night against Springfield, the two Nuggets Miller and Stone also step up, playing key roles as Iowa rallies from their early deficit to pull away for a 105-89 victory.
It is their first win in nearly three weeks.
“This team showed heart,” Stone says after filling the stat sheet with seven points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
It also is the first professional win for Wilson, who collected 341 victories and three conference titles in 25 years at the NCAA Division III Simpson College.
In the locker room after the victory, Brady presents Wilson with the game ball, and the players tussle the coach’s neatly parted hair.
“You guys don’t know how much I appreciate this,” Wilson tells the team as he flips the ball in his right hand. “I want your autographs on this darn thing.”
The players shout their approval before huddling together for a short postgame prayer.
Spirits are high in the frozen Midwest.
Further proof that winning is sweet at any level.