AUBURN HILLS – The league no longer carries its mission statement in the title, but development remains the priority for Rob Werdann.
The NBA Development League – the D-League, as everyone knew it – is now the G League, the result of Gatorade’s corporate sponsorship of the feeder system that’s becoming more important every season for the parent NBA team. When Stan Van Gundy plucked Rex Walters from the Grand Rapids Drive to help the Pistons do a better job of developing their own young players, he turned to Werdann to take Walters’ place in Grand Rapids.
“I think we hit a home run there,” Van Gundy said of Werdann, who for the past three years has served as a Pistons pro personnel scout. “I think he’s going to be great in terms of developing guys.”
Werdann, a 1988 McDonald’s All-American who played at St. John’s and for three seasons in the NBA, is happy to return to coaching. He got his start in the NBA under Pistons general manager Jeff Bower when Bower was GM in New Orleans as an advance scout and later became an NBA assistant with New Orleans, Golden State and Charlotte.
“It’s always been where my passions lie,” Werdann said of returning to the sidelines. “I was grateful to be invited to come on board when the new regime took over and the pro personnel scouting gave me a different outlooks. It’s been great. When they came to me about this job, it was more or less a no brainer. I was very excited about the opportunity.”
Walters said his one year in Grand Rapids was invaluable to him on many levels and Werdann – who coached in the old CBA and spent three years in Columbus, Ga., in the D-League’s infancy – expects a similar experience.
“Everywhere you go and every place you land, there’s a learning experience and an opportunity for growth,” he said. “You get rounded out. You don’t realize it’s happening, but you get rounded out into what you ultimately become. That’s how I view it.”
Van Gundy noted Werdann’s input during meetings with the pro personnel scouting staff tilted toward the development of young players and how he projected their growth. His knowledge of the game and his passion for development were two qualities that made him the first choice to succeed Walters.
“And the third thing to me that was really important working at that level, Rob’s got a great demeanor and a real high level of maturity to guide guys through all the ups and downs that go with players trying to make it. Plus in that league, you have to deal with everything, travel and everything else. Every year it’s a little more integrated into what we’ve done and it will be more so this year. Having a guy like Rob who we’re familiar with and can trust was important to us.”
The only pause Werdann might have had, over the weekend he took to consider Van Gundy’s offer, was leaving his family – wife Suzanne and two boys, 13 and 7 – back home in Charlotte, where he made his base his first three years with the Pistons.
“We’ve done it before,” he said of the separation. “I’ve got the greatest wife in the world and she allows me to do this stuff. I’m really lucky to come out here without something hanging over my head. It’s because of her.”
Werdann will have one additional responsibility Walters didn’t have. It’s the first year of the NBA allowing each team to carry two players on two-way contracts that limit them to 45 days with the parent team during the G League season. The Pistons signed Luis Montero and Dwight Buycks to those deals.
“That’s just a product of the growth of the G League,” he said. “This two-way player thing is, I think, phenomenal. Guys have an opportunity to seize it. It’s a true minor-league affiliate. If there’s a need, to have a guy that you can call in and not have to start from scratch with, I think it’s just invaluable.”
Van Gundy said before camp opened that it’s possible young Pistons like Henry Ellenson, Eric Moreland and rookie Luke Kennard would get some time in Grand Rapids, as well, though the last two No. 1 picks, Ellenson and Kennard, have opened eyes over the first handful of practices. Two players the Pistons brought to training camp, Derek Willis and Landry Nnoko, are expected to be mainstays with the Drive as “affiliate players” who won’t be subject to the G League draft.
“It’s about developing talent,” Werdann said. “Developing players, developing front-office staff, developing coaches. That’s what it’s there for. Gatorade took over the naming rights and now the development aspect isn’t part of the name, but it sure is as far as we’re concerned here. Those are our marching orders. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”