Blue Coats, GM Jameer Nelson work to ‘Be water' and ‘weather the storm'

Blue Coats, GM Jameer Nelson work to ‘Be water' and ‘weather the storm' originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Elton Brand ended up guiding Jameer Nelson down a path he’d once walked himself.

After spending 14 years as an NBA point guard, Nelson was searching for a new role.

Brand had the perspective of shifting from player to front office executive — first Sixers player development consultant, then Delaware 87ers general manager, then Sixers GM.

“Initially, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, whether it was front office, coach, media, whatever,” Nelson told NBC Sports Philadelphia in a phone interview. “I just knew I wanted to stay around the game. Elton and I had been talking for a couple of years just back and forth about what I wanted to do. And he was willing to help me step foot in the right direction — step in a direction, in general.

“So I did, and he’s the one that brought me on from the beginning, got me in the building and everything. Over the years, we’ve been seeing what I like, my value. … He’s played a huge role in my growth and my front office experience.”

Nelson, a Philadelphia native and Saint Joseph’s great, joined Brand’s team in 2020 as Delaware Blue Coats assistant general manager/Sixers scout. He’s just completed his first regular season as Delaware’s GM.

The Blue Coats play a first-round, single-elimination G League playoff game Tuesday night against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. In a league characterized by rapid, unpredictable turnover, they’ve been exceptionally successful of late — runner-up in 2021 and 2022, champions in 2023.

Looking through ‘a different lens’ 

As Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey knows well, strong coaching and savvy style of play can be especially advantageous in the G League.

While the Blue Coats haven’t been as experimental as the pace-pushing, three-point-happy Rio Grande Valley Vipers teams led by Chris Finch and Nick Nurse, they’ve clearly found good head coaches.

Connor Johnson, who helmed that 2021 team starring G League MVP Paul Reed, is now an Oklahoma City Thunder assistant. Coby Karl got promoted this summer from Blue Coats head coach to Nurse’s staff. Longtime NBA assistant Mike Longabardi is in charge of the 2023-24 squad.

Scouting has been another obvious strength.

Sixers vice president of player personnel Prosper Karangwa was Blue Coats GM for the 2021-22 and ’22-23 seasons. Born in Burundi, Karangwa moved to Canada at 9 years old, played at Siena, and did quite a bit in the basketball world — including start his own scouting service — before becoming a Magic scout. The Sixers hired him in 2020.

“I think my background allows me other ways to see things differently,” Karangwa told NBC Sports Philadelphia in a phone interview. “The experiences with growing up in Africa, living in Canada, playing in the U.S., and playing professionally in Europe and for the Canadian national team for a while have allowed me to have more of a global view … and different perspective on ways you can approach people and evaluate players.”

In assessing young players, Karangwa observes a variety of factors and tracks growth.

“I think there’s different filters when it comes to tools, skill set and the person,” he said. “I used to refer to it as ears, eyes and numbers to really get a full picture of a player. And then you have to figure out your own environment to narrow down whether or not that player fits. The biggest thing with young players is just are you seeing progress from year to year? … I think it’s important to start early with these guys, and then you can see how they progress over time.”

Nelson entered scouting with all the knowhow of a wise former NBA floor general.

In working with the Sixers’ front office and the analytically-inclined Morey, he learned that alone was not sufficient.

“You definitely have to look through a different lens,” Nelson said. “Early on, I would get to conclusions. It’s easy to see if somebody can play or can’t play, for the most part, right? It’s just, ‘Why can’t they play? Why can they play?’ Getting deeper and understanding that not everybody’s going to be a superstar … so what attributes do they have that could help the Sixers or Blue Coats? And individually, is this person an NBA player? … I think early on, I was getting to my conclusion a little too quick.

“And look, I’m the first to raise my hand and say I need help. I think the group has been really good for me, just with picking brains and understanding how other people think. It’s totally different from being a player because (that’s) like, ‘Can he shoot, can he dribble, can he pass? Put him in positions so he can help the team.’ But you also have to look at things from a broader perspective when you’re in the front office. There’s contracts involved, there’s the salary cap, and there’s roster spots and all that stuff.”

Prosper Karangwa, Jameer Nelson
Sixers VP of player personnel Prosper Karangwa and Blue Coats GM Jameer Nelson

One of the many challenges inherent to building a G League team is that the can’t-miss prospects are off the table.

Instead of sensational youngsters who could become stars, G League executives want to add players with something that might be valuable in the NBA.

For instance, Reed’s an excellent offensive rebounder who’s got a knack for productive hustle plays — steals, blocks, exceptional activity.

“Honestly, the reality of it in the NBA is you have one percent of the league that’s superstar players who can dictate the style of play and what you do once they’re in your organization,” Karangwa said. “And the rest of the roster, the rest of the league is just role players. So it’s really trying to identify what does that player have that’s an outlier, that he does at an elite level? And what does that look like within our environment? And once you have him, just making sure they’re aware of that and they play to their strength.

“You have to be a star in you own role to fit in the NBA, and it all starts with self-awareness — understanding who you are and what’s needed of you, and then just working on it. To Paul’s credit, he and (Tyrese) Maxey are the two hardest-working guys on the team and they’ve been that way since Day 1.”

The one constant 

Blue Coats shooting guard Jared Brownridge shines in the self-awareness department.

Brownridge, 29, has been with Delaware since the end of the 87ers days. He’s up to 603 made three-pointers, which ranks third in G League history.

“It’s just trying to pick your spots,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia after the Blue Coats' regular-season finale Saturday night at Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Delaware. “Knowing what you do best and trying to be aggressive at that. Not trying to do anything outside your comfort zone, not trying to do anything that you don’t work on every day. … For me, I’m obviously known as a three-point shooter. So every single game, my mentality is, ‘OK, how can I get open on threes?’ … I have to do my job and be ready — and shoot those.

“When I don’t shoot, I hear it from (the players), I hear it from the coaches. It’s something they count on me to do, just like we count on (Ricky Council IV) to attack the basket, just like we count on (Terquavion Smith) to be aggressive every single time he’s on the floor. Everybody knows their role and when you’re in the G League, you just have to do your role to the best of your ability.”

Beyond his on-court contributions, the 6-foot-3 Santa Clara product recognizes that maturity is meaningful to the Blue Coats.

“Part of the natural part of being an athlete is as you get older and you start understanding the game more and more, you have to be the voice when it calls for it,” he said. “You have to be there for your teammates, especially the younger guys, and help them in any way possible. I think that’s something I strive to do, although I tend to be a quiet person. But it’s definitely something I strive to do. Talk when necessary and be that voice when need be, both for my team and for the coaches.”

Jared Brownridge
Blue Coats shooting guard Jared Brownridge

Brownridge, who’s yet to appear in an NBA game, now focuses more on process than outcome.

“At this stage of my career, I’m just letting whatever happens happen,” he said. “I’m just letting it unfold itself. I don’t want to put anything out into the universe. I just want to go about my business the way I go about it and see what happens from that.”

Nelson’s been glad to have Brownridge stick on the Blue Coats’ roster.

“He’s a great dude, first and foremost,” Nelson said. “I like to get to know the guys. I like to be myself around them and I want them to be themselves around me. If they have issues, they can come to me and we can hash it out, have healthy conversations. But he can play. Who doesn’t need shooting? Who doesn’t need veteran leadership? That is lacking, in my opinion, on a lot of basketball teams at a lot of levels. So if you can shoot the ball and you can play defense a little bit, there’s a spot for you somewhere.

“And Jared, I have the utmost respect for him because doing what he does is not easy. He’s a guy who plays with rhythm and sometimes he doesn’t play as much when our two-ways are down … or for whatever reason. But you can always count on him to be professional. … He’s a part of the culture. He’s seen it when it wasn’t good and he’s seen it when it’s been pretty good.

“If there’s a guy where you would retire his jersey right now, it would be Jared Brownridge, honestly.”

Be water … and weather the storm 

Flexibility is mandatory in the G League, as Nurse can speak to from his days cobbling together game plans with the Iowa Energy and Vipers.

Seeing stars called up to the NBA — and often back down, then up, then down again — would have a serious impact on any team.

To Karangwa, that’s not a bad thing.

“I think you plan for it,” he said. “I think we’ve pushed versatility — the ability to adapt and play different positions, both on offense and defense, which kind of helps you absorb a lot of the changes.

“But the change is good. The change is the goal, whether that’s for the players or the staff — to do a really good job so they can move on to playing in the NBA or playing at a high level in Europe. … I think we’re very intentional about the players we bring in. We make sure we can help them showcase their talent and move up.”

When he led the Blue Coats, Karl preached the mantra “Be water” from the martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. He used the expression to stress the concept of flowing naturally in all imaginable situations.

Nelson’s supplemented that idea.

“It seems like we had five different teams this year,” he said. “At the end of the year, we have a staff dinner. We talk about things, we set some small goals. The main thing is over-communicating and being there for the person that’s next to you. Look, it’s not easy. It’s not easy losing (Darius) Bazley, (David Duke Jr.), Kenny Lofton, Javonte Smart. All those guys averaged 18-plus points for us, right? But we continue to win … and call-ups are part of the job. It’s part of why I do it, putting guys in better positions.

“One thing we talk about as a staff is being water. … I guess that’s like our motto. And then I added on to it … saying, ‘The storm is coming.’ There’s going to be a storm. You can’t prevent it. Your job is to weather the storm and get through it.”