The Los Angeles D-Fenders hired Casey Owens as their head coach last week, replacing Conner Henry who was called up to the Orlando Magic coaching staff. Owens served as an assistant coach during the D-Fenders 2013-14 season and has worked in coaching, player development and scouting at the NBA, NBA D-League, Continental Basketball Association, and international levels for the past 16 years.
Q: Congratulations on the head coaching gig! You were an assistant under former D-Fenders head coach Bob MacKinnon back in 2013-2014, how does it feel to be back in El Segundo and not just back with the D-League but back with the D-Fenders?
Owens: I’m really pleased, you never know how basketball is going to treat you career wise. Looking at my career, I’ve been all over the world and in out of the NBA and in and out of the D-League, the minors and I just took this last year off to watch my son play basketball and when this opportunity came up, I was elated. I really enjoyed my time in El Segundo with the D-Fenders and helping the Lakers out as well and we had a good year that year and hopefully we can duplicate some of that success.
*Note: The D-Fenders were West Division Champions, finishing with a 31-19 record during the 2013-14 season.
Q: When you were an assistant coach a couple years ago, Mike D’Antoni was the head coach… but Thomas Scott, Byron Scott’s son, was around at the time as an assistant as well, were you able to develop any relationship with Byron at that time?
Owens: I just met Byron a couple times through Thomas when he would come to watch our games. He was always friendly to me. I’m looking forward to working with him closely and to implement his system and his terminology and his philosophy with the D-Fenders… so when guys are called up, you obviously want a seamless transition from the players. The relationship is only going to grow with Coach Scott and I’m looking forward to it.
Q: Last year, we saw players get sent down and called up to the D-League, Jordan Clarkson, being one of them, but it’s not only young players, I remember when Shawne Williams was waived, he had first turned down an offer to play for the D-Fenders, before ultimately deciding to stay in the D-League and it was hard for him… having been around the D-League, how do you view the struggle of players viewing their D-League assignment as a demotion rather than seeing it as a challenge?
Owens: That’s interesting because I think when the D-League first started doing this, sending players down, a lot of guys were very hesitant and did view it as a demotion but now that it’s developed, so many players in the NBA have spent time in the D-League and they understand the talent is very good. Obviously, the NBA and the D-League are two different entities, but it’s great for guys like Shawne Williams or guys trying to resuscitate their career. I think it’s an outstanding avenue for guys trying to do that and young guys trying to learn. It’s essential they get time on the floor because if they’re rookies with the Lakers, there may not be too much time initially and that’s what happened with Ryan Kelly our year.
*Note: Ryan Kelly was assigned and called up from the D-League multiple times that season. Shawne Williams was waived by the Lakers and signed by the D-Fenders. He was then called up to the Lakers on a 10-day contract and re-acquired by the D-Fenders when his contract expired.
Q: Is that common? Do you see players struggle with feeling like they’ve been demoted and do coaches feel like it’s their job to lift them up?
Owens: I think you’ve got to communicate with them constantly because expectations for each guy are different. Young players that are sent down might think ‘The Lakers must want to see me score 40’ and that’s not necessarily the case. They want to see you play quality minutes and defend and play the game the right way. I think constant communication with these guys, especially with how young the league is getting, a lot of these guys are still learning to be pros. Like with Shawne Williams, it was easy, he was a pro, he had a plan, he was going to use the D-League to get back in the NBA. It worked out perfectly for him, but there are tons of cases where guys have struggled in the D-League and usually it’s from a lack of communication and it’s not really clear what their role is or what they’re supposed to do. The leagues do such a good job of telling their guys what to expect while they’re down there and both coaching staffs communicate on what they want to see from the guy. As long as communication is open, I think those guys really embrace it.
Q: Obviously the D-League is called the Development League for a reason, is the number one goal in your mind to get these guys called up to the NBA?
Owens: I always say we want to get you to a place that is better than your current situation. If that’s a call up, fantastic. If that’s a signed guaranteed deal in the NBA, even better. If it’s getting bought out by a great club in Europe, awesome. If it’s a Summer League invitation or even a mini camp tryout, that’s a goal. If you’re trying to put numbers together to try to start a European career, that’s a goal. Everyone always says it’s the D-League no one wants to be here, players don’t want to be here, coaches don’t want to be here. Well, that’s true, but it’s not necessarily in a negative sense that we’re all looking at it. As we’re developing as well and the opportunity to be seen by NBA coaches, scouts and general managers is tremendous, so that’s why I think the D-League has been so successful. All these NBA teams are buying teams because they’re seeing it as not only developing players, but developing trainers, assistants, front office people, PR people, and you see so many people getting hired out of the D-League now. It’s just tremendous and it’s a formula that works really well.
Q: When that does happen, that NBA call-up, obviously it’s a positive, but is it hard when it takes away the team chemistry that you’ve worked so hard to develop with the goal of trying to win a D-League championship?
Owens: That’s a very valid question because the most important thing of a the team is the chemistry, the trust, and then you have guys coming down for assignment that maybe take up minutes for a guy that’s there and then there’s a call-up or a buyout or an injury or what have you, so you really have to be flexible and be willing to adjust on the fly to be able to coach in this league. You have to embrace it, it’s not for everyone, some people can’t stand it, you only have 10-man rosters. I’ve always loved it, I’ve always said if you can coach in the minors you can coach anywhere because you have to really be able to adjust on the fly. And, I always tell players too, because everyone wants to play all the minutes, everyone always wants to start If you don’t like your situation, today is Monday, wake up Friday and it’s going to change. Now, it could change for the better, someone’s going to get called up or signed and your time is going to come or it can change for the worse and that’s because we don’t have guaranteed contracts, so if guys don’t buy into that team concept, we’re able to move along.
Q: What goal have you set forth for yourself in your first season as a head coach?
Owens: I think the goal that I’m looking for is to be able to create an environment that players can succeed in because this is a players league and it’s about them. And I want them to enjoy their time while we’re competing, while they’re fighting for call-ups or yearly buyouts, while assigned guys are fighting for playing time and have to come down here and earn it with us. My goal is to foster an environment that supports all these guys. My personal goals don’t really matter because this league is about the players.
Q: How do you make the D-League better, what’s the draw for fans and for people to come to the games?
Owens: I think they’re doing a great job, but it’s something that’s kind of a growing thing and it keeps getting better and better. Games were on ESPN last year for the first time which is huge for the league but what I’ve always enjoyed is how close the players and fans can interact, we’re always doing the autograph sessions after the games, which you would never see in the NBA, you just couldn’t do it. Being able to be up close in the community and with the fans I think that provides a very intimate experience so I think to just continue to go down that path of making real relationships in the community can only help us. Not every city can support these minor league teams. I’ve been in a cities that have folded for a number of reasons. It’s a unique situation again with the Lakers, again that we play in the building, there’s not a big draw/fan base in that sense. Would I like it if we played in front of 5,000 people? Of course, everybody would, but there’s another side of it that’s equally as valuable as far as the exposure you get from being a part of the Lakers organization.
Q: It’s clear that your number one focus is the players, but five years down the line, do you have a vision of where you hope your career takes you?
Owens: I do and I had a vision earlier and I think I’ve followed it. I really wanted to try international basketball to get more experience as a coach. And I’ve done that and I’m comfortable with where I am as a coach. This challenge is going to be great. But yes, I’d like to be in the NBA. I’m no different than these D-League players in that respect. And that’s the thing that I will share with them. Hey, I may be the head coach but my goals are just the same as yours, I’m looking for a call up too and the only way we’re going to do that is if we do that together – we put ourselves in a position to succeed. Five years from now, I would love to see myself, coaching in the NBA.