The setting for the drafting of the Rocky Top League, a Knoxville summer league that consists of former and current Vols and many other past and current collegiate players with local ties, isn’t the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver isn’t overseeing the procedures.
It’s a much more modest setting – Doc’s All-American Grill – and the crowd consists primarily of local media, a few league participants, basketball superfans and a few other onlookers who are enjoying dinner or a drink at that particular time on Wednesday night.
Teams make their selections in The Rocky Top League at Doc’s pic.twitter.com/I9L7iramOf
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) June 10, 2015
But for the six coaches who serve as de facto presidents/GMs/coaches of the six teams in the Rocky Top League, this night is weeks in the making – and building and leading these rosters is something they look forward to all year.
“This is like my basketball fix,” said Chad Smith, who is leading the Rice Buick GMC team. “It’s the only thing I haven’t given up in terms of game. This is my connection to the game.”
And it’s a a connection to a game that Smith is no stranger to. A former coach at South-Doyle, the ABA’s Smokey Mountain Jam and for the Tennessee Travelers, a Nike Elite basketball team, Smith knows his way around the court. He’s given it up on a full-time basis to become the principle at Carter Middle School.
But Smith, a Rocky Top League coaching veteran, is as qualified as anybody to build and lead a team. He knows the game. And he knows this game too – the ins and out and the quirks of coaching in a summer league with players from different teams, backgrounds, styles, level of commitment and motivation.
So when pick No. 5 overall in the first round rolls around for Smith and Rice Buick GMC, he’s thrilled to see Tennessee guard Detrick Mostella still on the board. The UT sophomore put up a modest 3.4 ppg as a freshman with the Vols, but lit up the Rocky Top League last year.
“In my experience in this league, athleticism and the ability to score reigns over all else,” Smith said after scooping up Mostella for the second straight year. “I coached him last year. The kid can flat out score.”
Smith is thrilled with that start. Now time to build around him. When the draft snakes back to him at pick No. 8 overall in the second round, he becomes the first coach to go away from the University of Tennessee-heavy strategy that permeates the first seven picks. But he does grab a name many in the area are familiar with – Dre Mathieu – a point guard who played at Central High School before eventually landing at Minnesota, where he started 25 games in 2014-15.
Again, Smith is relying on his basketball past to help him predict the future of the 2015 Rocky Top League. He loves his starting backcourt that’s been assembled with his first two picks.
“[Mostella] plays so well in the open court,” Smith said. “And then when you think about putting him at the two spot and you put Dre (Mathieu) in there, and, you see, Dre played for me when I coached the Tennessee Travelers. Dre was on my team for three years, so I have a lot of experience with him. I followed his career very closely at Minnesota, so I know what he can do.”
Smith goes back to the UT well in the third round, getting what he sees as a steal in UT veteran forward Derek Reese there. He’ll grab former Marquette player Dominique Wright in the fourth and Tusculum big man Chase Mounce in the fifth. The draft table pauses after five rounds for a break. Smith has the smile of a GM who has aced a draft test – he’s extremely confident that he has a top starting five in place already.
“I’m very pleased with the draft,” Smith says, still with four rounds to go at the time. “And I’m going to tell you right now, and when those top five show up, we’ll be the best team in the league, hands down.”
He’s looking for the best available players now. He’ll add former UT big man Pops Ndiaye a couple rounds later to go along with three other small-college players. Smith begins to think about how his team is taking shape.
“I think preparation-wise, when you get together, you think about what your team’s strengths are – like right now I’m thinking we’re going to be out and run,” he said. “So our philosophy from the beginning is going to be get the ball out, push it, attack the rim as much as possible. There’s another team on the board that’s going to have to pound it inside to get any production, so we play them, our strategy is going to be to outrun them from beginning to end, so there is that little component in there.”
These coaches know the game, but nobody at the table is pretending to be an Xs-and-Os genius. It’s more about managing, Smith said. There are certainly some street ball components, but he also said there’s more coaching than most people who show up to the game realize.
“I compare it very similarly to the NBA game,” he said. “My job as the coach is to kind of figure out who is hot that night and I’ve got to work and make sure those other four guys feed that guy to make sure that he continues to score.”
Of course, there are some stark differences between the NBA and what goes on in this summer league. For one, Smith said it can be all about who shows up. Other commitments keep players out of games, and coaches may not know until up until game time exactly what their lineup will look like on a given night. And the draft stops at nine rounds – leaving a few open spots for some former UT players such as Skylar McBee and Jeronne Maymon, who couldn’t commit to play in the entire league, but are hoping to get some run in. They’ll be divided up later, possibly drastically affecting the makeup of some rosters.
Even the best-laid plans from Smith or any other coach could easily be ruined by what’s going on with the players on a given night.
That won’t stop what the coaches love to do as much as anything though: Trash talk. It’s part of the culture around the league, and it fires up well before they convene at Doc’s on this Wednesday night.
“All the time,” Smith said of the trash talk that flies around. “It’s been going on for about two weeks between the coaches. There’s a lot of texting going on between the coaches, a lot of calls going on. We take this very seriously. It’s a lot of fun, but we take it very serious, and we all want to win at the end of the day, every single one of us.
“We’re ticked if we don’t.”
The Rocky Top League begins June 15 at Knoxville Catholic and will be played every Monday and Wednesday up until the July 1 championship.