Inside the Raleigh Firebirds Training Camp
Around 7 PM, at Southeast Raleigh Charter School, the 18 players on the Firebirds' training camp roster would begin to arrive. They got loose before practice started, laughing, talking, and shooting around. The shooting in particular was impressive, because the team normally shoots from an NBA three-point line. With a high school three-point line, the entire team looked like Damian Lillard; and the accuracy! It was something to behold.
After a few minutes of warming up, Coach Bob MacKinnion called his players over to the baseline. MacKinnion has had lots of experience coaching players, as he's coached all throughout the NBA G-League, and his players have the highest number of call-ups to the NBA in the history of the G-League. MacKinnion welcomed his players to training camp, but made sure to let them know that they all had to be their on time. A few players walked in after 7, and to MacKinnion, this wasn't ok. "I expect you to be ready to go at 7," he said. "If you can't do that, the respectful thing to do is call or text. If you walk in late, you're showing you don't respect me."
MacKinnion laid down the guidelines of training camp, the practice schedule for later on in the season, and what he wanted to accomplish with the team. One point of emphasis was numbers, and points. Numbers further the careers of players looking to get called up. More points on the boards mean more possessions, which means a higher, faster, and more entertaining game of basketball. The Firebirds are going to be one of the most exciting teams to watch in The Basketball League, so if you get the chance to buy tickets and see them play live, I highly recommend it.
"We're going to play fast basketball, one of the highest paces in the league. That means more numbers for us, more possessions for us." -Coach MacKinnion
As Coach MacKinnion continued to talk, it was clear that he was very strict with his players. MacKinnion has a solid sense of self awareness, saying, "I may be mean, but I'm not mean to waste your time." MacKinnion may be tough, but his methods are proven to work, and if the team as a whole buys in, it will be a spectacular season. MacKinnion also mentioned a problem area for the team last year: talking. The old saying "You practice how you play" proved to be prophetic for the Firebirds, as guys would talk trash in practice to one another. Unfortunately, this carried over to games, which resulted in multiple technical fouls. MacKinnion was adamant that this had to stop, making it clear that if the talk didn't stop, he'd cancel practices. Coach MacKinnion lectured his players on not admonishing the refs, even though the refs will often "let the players play" (read between the lines, dear reader).
The players started with warm-ups, in two lines of eight (since two guys still hadn't arrived). They did some jogging, high-knees, defensive slides, cutting; normal stuff that teams do to warm up. They followed that up with some two-ball handling. One player that caught my eye during the warm-ups was James McKelvin, the Firebirds' first round pick out of Missouri Baptist University. Despite being 6'4", you could see that McKelvin was one of the youngest guys in training camp. I immediately found myself drawn to his hard-working demeanor, as I could see the effort he was putting into the two-ball dribbling warm-ups. He didn't slack off during warm-ups, and he was the first guy to clap for his teammates, all qualities I love. Owner Wade Harris told me that he drafted McKelvin after watching him catch and shoot a three in transition, and pick up a guy full court while continuously applying pressure. McKelvin was skinny and fast, yet very muscular. In a way, he reminded me of a young Giannis Antetokounmpo.
After warm-ups were completed, MacKinnion ran plays that the team would use throughout the season. I have been told that I can't disclose the names and sequences of the plays that were ran, but I will note that I saw staggered screens, handoffs, and lots of dunks. There were so many dunks that I swear I saw the rim bend and start to shake at different points. I'm relatively sure that the rims will be broken sometime in practice this year, and will need to be replaced. I'm betting it'll be Desmond Jackson, a 7'0" center who slammed it down multiple times with authority. Many of the plays had different possible endings, so whenever the play ended with a dunk, the players dunked the ball as furiously as they could. Matt McLain, a 6'5" guard, had likely the best dunk of the night, when he went up a la Michael Jordan and slammed the ball home. McKelvin had a nice dunk as well, where he got off to a running start from the three-point line and slammed it down with two hands. Unfortunately, the dunking would soon come to an end, as blood was found on a ball that was just dunked. Point Guard Will McNeil tried to find out whose blood it was, but there wasn't blood on anyone that had dunked. It will forever remain one of those unsolved mysteries.
After running plays (which was a solid half an hour at a minimum), Coach MacKinnion ran a new drill; he would shoot a free throw, and after intentionally missing (at least, I think it was intentional), the players would run down the court, and start a fast break. After starting the fast break, the players would pass the ball around and score, then run back up the court and do it again. After four times, the group of five would leave the court, and the next group would come onto the court. This was all instinctive, quick thinking basketball, as Coach MacKinnion said during this drill, "If you can't think, you can't play."
During this drill, McNeil got tired of Coach MacKinnion taking too long to shoot the free throw, and as MacKinnion raised his arm, McNeil decided to block his shot, triggering the fast break. This was not only funny, but displayed the intensity that the Firebirds want to have on the court this season. Unfortunately, during this drill, McNeil upset his hamstring, and had to stop practicing in order to be stretched out by the team therapist.
After the Firebirds had run this drill multiple times, they took a water break that lasted 30 seconds; this was their only water break the entire practice. The players are extremely well-conditioned, and it'll show on the court. After the break, the team moved to 3v3s, at first just working on close-outs. From there, they did live 3v3s, and then 5v5s. There were a few interesting takeaways and facts I find about basketball, none of which apply only to the Firebirds:
Don't directly pass the ball to a guy's chest
In doing this, you effectively "handcuff" a player, limiting what they can do with the ball. If you pass it high or low, you give them time to pivot, jab, or do a rip-through.
"If your man turns his back, and you can see his head, go to the rim." -Coach MacKinnion
Soft trapping vs hard trapping
In essence, soft trapping is when you have two players trapping one player, but they're not restricting his movement. They're cornering him, but not trying to poke away the ball. This is because if a ball handler is good enough, they can split the trap, and then the offense has advantage in numbers. Start with a soft trap, and from there, move to a hard trap. Hard trap once the player has picked up the ball, and they can't run from the defense. By doing this, you limit their options and make a turnover near inevitable. "Andre Pierce would be a great trapper," said owner Wade Harris. "He's got long arms, and he's very agile and athletic. He can cover a lot of space."
Speak with your actions, not your words
An exchange between MacKinnion and the team went something like this:
Coach: What do I hate that guys say?
Players: *No immediate response, mumbling*
Someone: My bad
Coach: Yeah, screw my bad. Just do it.
Unfortunately, the fun would have to end, as the players had practice at 7 the next morning, and needed their sleep. After giving a post-practice talk, all the guys picked up some food which Harris had brought for all of them. Harris is a great owner, and makes sure to provide the best for his players. The players from out of town are currently staying in a Comfort Inn and Suites in Raleigh.
It's going to be difficult to cut this roster down, but it'll have to be done.
Thank you Renee Neptune for all the pictures used in this article!