Like most people on their first day of a new job, Jake Ness figured he would just ease into his new role as a player development assistant with the Dallas Mavericks.
That was, until he met Dirk Nowitzki.
“My first day on the job, I wasn’t real sure what to do; I brought my basketball shoes just in case,” Ness recalled. “I thought they were just going to show me around. I get to the gym and I walk in and Dirk’s in there shooting around, and I was kinda starstruck. I was like a kid again, because I had his poster on my wall when I was a kid.
“And he’s like, ‘Ah, new guy, come on over. Let’s play.’ So we ended up playing a little one-on-one in the post my first day there. I got a few stops, but overall, I think he won.”
Ness, a part-time Coeur d’Alene resident and son of Kootenai Health CEO Jon Ness, spent the last year with the NBA club, as one of three player development assistants.
PLAYER DEVELOPMENT assistants did their work before practice, during practice, after practice, before games — and sometimes, even after games.
Whenever they were needed, by a player or the team.
“We help work guys out, before and after practice, during practice we’d be part of practice — we’d run scout team against them, run plays against them, play defense against them,” Ness said. “Anything and everything they needed — jump in a drill if they didn’t have enough (players). Utility guys. Any guys who wanted to come in late and work out, we’d help with that. We’d help with pregame ... we’d also help other teams, which is pretty awesome.”
One of those teams was the Golden State Warriors.
Ness got to help Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and the boys warm up, helping them run through game shots — setting screens, doing pick-and-roll handoffs, running plays within their system to simulate the shots they would get in a game. As Ness recalled, Thompson didn’t miss a shot during his entire workout.
“Draymond Green came down at the end of his workout, and he wanted to end it with a dunk,” Ness recalled. “And I was standing there and he said, ‘Hey, will you hold my phone real quick?’ And I wasn’t paying attention and he threw it to me and I dropped it, and he had already gone up and dunked it, and I picked it up and there was a scratch on it and it was all damaged at the top and he came over to me and was like, ‘Ah, man ... ’ And I was like, ‘Hey, man, I’m so sorry.’ He was like, ‘Don’t worry; I’ve got two other ones.’”
NESS, 27, was a three-sport athlete at Billings (Mont.) West High. He played one year of post-graduate basketball at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., then played three seasons at Boise State before returning to Hargrave as an assistant coach.
Ness eventually hopes to land a job in college basketball, as an assistant coach or in adminstration.
His Mavs experience provides one route to get there.
“It was unreal,” Ness said of the experience. “You thought you knew a lot about basketball, and then you go to that level and it’s just a complete game-changer. The game’s so much faster, the guys are so much smarter, bigger. I was 6-8 in college and I played center, and in the NBA they’re 6-8 and they’re wings. It’s a completely different level.
“I learned a lot. It’s a different game than high school or college, especially with the defensive three in the key; it just changes everything. Guys can get to the basket more.”
Ness and the others sat in on film sessions with the players, and paid attention to how coaches spoke to the players.
“We get to play against them a lot, too,” Ness said. “We’ll run scout team against them for the other teams, and especially early in the year, we’ll play full-court 5-on-5 against them. That was humbling, to say the least.
“I’ve been dunked on before, but ... (rookie) Dennis Smith, the point guard, unbelievable jumper, just a freak athlete, and there’s a couple times I’d be right with him and then the next step he’d be at the rim.”
When the players went through their individual workouts, the player development assistants were there to help them — not coach them.
One of his favorites to work with was Nowitzki.
“Dirk, he doesn’t do a lot of movement in his workouts, he does a lot of stationary shooting,” Ness said. “But he’s an unbelievable shooter; I don’t think I saw him miss three shots in a row all year.”
One of Dirk’s patented moves is a one-footed jumper off the wrong foot. Does he practice that?
“Oh yeah, everything you see on TV, he practices; it’s unbelievable,” Ness said. “He goes through that routine before every single game, and it’s just very unorthodox. And just being around him, he said he would never teach anyone to shoot like him, because it’s so weird ... 7-1 and he has the ball behind his head. It’s impossible to block.”
Did Ness ever try that wrong-footed jumper, just to see what it felt like?
“I did a couple of times and I hit nothing but backboard, so I stopped trying,” Ness said.
A DAY in the life of a player development assistant:
“We had a couple of guys that liked to shoot before practice, so we’d be in there at 8 (a.m.) every day, and we’d always be the last guys to leave practice,” Ness said. “And if anyone wanted to come back and shoot that night, we’d come back for that.”
On game day?
“We’d have shootaround usually 9, 9:30 (a.m.), but some guys would shoot early, so we’d come in 7, 7:30, and some guys would shoot afterward, you wouldn’t be done until noon-ish,” he said. “Then we’d have to be back 3:30, 3:45, the young guys start warming up, and you’re going all the way until game time. Some of the superstars from the other teams would come out and shoot early, before anyone was even allowed in the arena. Some days you’d work with your guys, some days work with other teams’ guys.
“I got to help the Cavs, so I was down there with LeBron,” Ness said. “We’re the same height (6-foot-8), but he’s got me by 30-40 pounds. He’s a big dude. These guys, you see them on TV, you don’t realize how big they are (in person), how strong they are. These guys are built like houses.”
Once the game started, the player development assistants would be seated in the second row, behind the players and coaches — not a bad vantage point, to watch and learn.
Player development coaches do not travel with the team. When the Mavs were on the road, Ness spent time breaking down game film, and also was an Uber driver at night to make extra money.
The Mavericks finished the season with a 24-58 record, good for 13th in the 15-team Western Conference. The top eight teams make the playoffs. Only the Memphis Grizzlies (22-60) and Phoenix Suns (21-61) had worse records. The Mavs have the fifth pick in the June 21 NBA draft.
In the haves and have-nots world of the NBA, the Mavs were lumped in there with the group of teams that were considered “tanking” in order to get a high draft pick, and a jump-start on their rebuild.
“People say tanking, but people don’t realize how hard they’re out there playing,” Ness said. “They’re actually giving an effort. We had a couple of injuries. If we’d been healthy, we’d have had a shot at the eighth seed in the West. I think if we’d been in the East, maybe we would have had a shot at the playoffs.”
Ness said Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavs, was “just like one of the guys.”
“He’d play 5-on-5 with us sometimes after practice,” Ness said. “He was a wrestler in college. He could actually shoot it pretty good. ... the first or second time he played with us, a ball came out to me, and he was right under the basket and I was like, ‘I could dunk this on him, but I could also lose my job.’ So I just kinda did a little finger roll ... ”
NESS IS still weighing his options for next season.
He could return to the Mavs, but is also looking at a couple openings with colleges.
“I kinda want to get back into college,” Ness said. “But I enjoyed this year very much, and wouldn’t mind doing it again. Any way I can stay in basketball, stay out of a 9-to-5 office job, I’ll do whatever I can.”
He said all the Mavs’ people were great to work with — coach Rick Carlisle and some of the players had the player development assistants over to their houses during the season.
“I had a great time, enjoyed it, and honestly, there’s so many cool memories ... ”, Ness said.
And maybe more next season — if, by chance, LeBron asks him to hold his phone.
Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.