When Chris Pongrass was going through the process of becoming the new CEO of the Sydney Kings, one of the first things he did was book a flight to San Francisco.
He was in Memphis at the time, finishing off his stint as the Grizzlies’ Director of Basketball Operations, and the trip to the west coast was an obvious one. Andrew Bogut, the Kings’ marquee player and stakeholder, was with the Golden State Warriors, so Pongrass’ visit to the Bay Area was a way to talk things over with his future colleague.
Pongrass did a similar thing with the Grizzlies, sounding out Tayshaun Prince – who’s been working his way up that franchise’s front office – in order to find areas for improvement and growth. An ex-player like Prince had a unique insight to how the organisation works, and Bogut’s experience in Sydney, as well as his long and accomplished NBA career, made him the ideal sounding board for Pongrass.
“He’s just a guy that tells it as it is,” Pongrass told foxsports.com.au. “He’s sure of how he wants things done. Not only that, he’s had the experience of 13, 14 years in the NBA, where he’s seen it done at the highest level, and thinks that this team and this league can bring a very similar approach to how we do things, so I love that from him.”
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Now six months into the job, Pongrass has been gauging Bogut’s thoughts on different opportunities for change, whether it’s alterations to the roster, to the players lounge that’s currently being built.
“I 100 percent get his opinion on things, because he has a good view, and a very different view from front office staff,” Pongrass said. “He’s got a large knowledge base, and of friends, and players and coaches he’s played across the world and in the NBA, that know a lot of background intel. He’s a huge help with that. He’s a pleasure to be part of this team, and an ownership stake in the team; he’s been fantastic.”
Will Weaver, the Kings’ new head coach, used the mantra: “the best idea wins.”
Pongrass urged a “collaborative approach,” citing Bogut’s time in a winning franchise like the Warriors, Weaver’s stint in a budding organisation like the Nets, as well as his own experience with the Grizzlies. But, it doesn’t stop there. Luc Longley is a special advisor to the team, and brings a wealth of knowledge from across generations, while Pongrass also pointed to the other veterans of the team who bring a unique point of view, stemming from years playing all over the world.
From ownership to management, the Kings have gone through an overhaul, and they haven’t been afraid to make drastic changes in order to make the franchise fit their vision.
“Obviously it’s a fresh start for a lot of people,” Bogut said.
“A very different culture. Even down to our director of sport performance (and) strength and conditioning. We’ve made a lot of changes, which can sometimes be a bad thing; it was a time where I think we went as far as we could with the group that we had. As harsh as that sounds, that’s the reality of pro sport.
“We’ve got a lot of younger guys that we can develop for the future now on the roster, and we’ve got a lot of good support staff, and genuine, good, hard-working people who want this club to succeed.”
The collaboration between Pongrass and Weaver is one that’s been particularly fruitful, thus far, with the pair working together in a meeting of the NBA minds, in order to elevate the organisation beyond just being a giant yet stagnantly ball of potential.
“Will and I came in with the same philosophy of finding the best players, and I think character – in my mind – weighs into a large part of the scouting template; it’s talent and character,” Pongrass said.
“So, finding guys that work well together, and that’s why I think putting Casper with Bogues, and with Kev; they all play well together. Then, taking our time and evaluating the talent, and finding the best that’s out there. With Ja’Sean and Didi, we’ve put a complete team together that pairs well, so you never know which talent’s gonna be out there, and basketball around the world is growing so rapidly.
“The platform that we have to look at; we’re looking at the G-League, we’re looking at Europe, we’re looking at the NBA, we’re looking at ex-NBA players. Look how Aaron Brooks played on the weekend. It’s a true testament to the work ethic of these guys, and we’ve had a large talent pool to sort, but I think we’ve put a really good group of guys together.”
Weaver is a big fan of how versatile his group is. Bogut is the reigning NBL MVP and makes his presence felt on both ends, while Casper Ware Jr. is the two-way point guard the team was looking for to replace Jerome Randle. The likes of Kevin Lisch, Brad Newley, and Daniel Kickert stayed on board, but it’s the two other imports – technically one import and one ‘Next Star’ – that Weaver sees as the players who can elevate his team to a different level.
The Kings can play in the half-court with the talent they have, but it’s the addition of Didi Louzada and Jae’Sean Tate that gives them the ability to run. Weaver likes the idea of Bogut, the rim protector, anchoring a team that can get stops, push the ball, and get easy baskets in transition, while the Boomers big-man also sees a lot of the ball when the game slows down.
Then, there’s that in-between. Weaver’s time with the Philadelphia 76ers afforded him the opportunity to work with Mike D’Antoni, who the Kings head coach says is a master at understanding the pace and speed of the game.
“There’s a speed the great ones play with that’s really hard to guard,” Weaver said, citing teams like D’Antoni’s Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors.
Weaver spent his off-season with the Australian Boomers on their 2019 FIBA World Cup campaign, and a big part of his job was scouting opposing teams. He practically got no rest over the off-season, but that’s how he likes it.
“I’m twisted that way. That’s what I like,” he said. “Anybody who would complain about getting to go from season to season, great team to great team, is wired wrong.”
And so, that sort of mentality sums up what the Kings are aiming to bring to the table.
It’s not so much like Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals, but it’s a group of people with the experience and knowledge to build the most successful franchise in the NBL; all of whom are open to new ideas.
“He’s been a breath of fresh air for a lot of guys,” Bogut said of his new head coach.
“A lot of us have been happy with how things have been going day to day. He’s gonna have times where he’s gonna learn things on the fly, or he might struggled with one or two other things, but he’s a great guy with reaching out to different people, like Luc Longley and these kinds of people we have on our staff, to get advice when he needs it. One thing with Will, I know, is that he’ll always bounce back the next day with a resolution or something he can fix.”
That sort of independence – the idea of trusting ideas over egos – can be as significant as the assistant coaches getting the opportunity to run things on the court while Weaver and Bogut were in China, or as small as the text exchanges between the head coach and his frontcourt. Tate wrote in the group message that he’s learned a lot about post spacing from working with Bogut and Kickert, and that sort of tutelage wasn’t something he was expecting.