It’s a typical Wisconsin day in Oshkosh. Cloudy skies, chilly temperatures and winds blowing off Lake Winnebago that start to hurt your face. The downtown has its monuments, a busy street with little mom and pop shops and bars to have your own pub crawl. On the other side of the Fox River, a few blocks down is a new building. Nothing spectacular, but it has that fresh attraction vibe to it. But there is something that catches your eye. Banners hang off the nearby light pole promoting the popular local team. Not the Green Bay Packers or Milwaukee Brewers, but the Wisconsin Herd.
The Wisconsin Herd have been in the making since 2016, when the Bucks ownership group was seeking to establish an expansion team in the NBA’s developmental league, freshly re-dubbed last year as the NBA G-League. After a lengthy decision process to see which city would call this expansion team home, Oshkosh was deemed the winner and re-established the Fox Valley as a basketball town. The city was an ideal location, close enough to Milwaukee to keep communications and logistics simple and populous enough to reach a greater portion of the state with the Appleton/Green Bay metro area within driving distance. By June of 2017, the team had a name, logo and colors and followed it up with a coaching staff and roster. The Wisconsin Herd were ready to be the new expansion team and kick off its inaugural season.
Being an expansion team brings some uncertainty. Sometimes you hit the ground running and impress, other times the growing pains are very evident. You can succeed in attendance and set records like the Atlanta United in MLS last year or be in the championship like the Las Vegas Golden Knights this past season. But for every Atlanta United or Las Vegas of the world, sometimes you end up being a Minnesota United in the 2017 MLS season or the 2002 Houston Texans, setting records for poor play and struggling to adjust to the new league. Thankfully the Wisconsin Herd can view the 2017-2018 season as a success; while the team didn’t reach the playoffs in its first year posting a 21-29 record, team president Steve Brandes won executive of the year, three players (Brandon Jennings, James Young, and Xavier Munford) got NBA call ups and the Herd were league leaders for attendance with 69,240 fans attending games including 12 sell outs.
The second season for the Herd is underway and after a pair of home games, the Herd is back in the Menominee Nation Arena for practice. There are blue squares around the perimeter, Coach Jordan Brady is instructing a drill which is emphasizing outlet passes. Grab the rebound, push it up the court. If you fail to make an outlet pass though, it’s a turnover. The drill is to get the team to play faster, more akin to their affiliate club the Milwaukee Bucks. When I asked Coach Brady about the boxes and offense, he mentioned, “We try and run a similar, very similar to the Bucks so that way our players can be ready to run it if they ever get called up or if a Bucks player gets assigned to us, it makes an easier transition.” The Herd adopting the Bucks system isn’t a coincidence, as Brady mentioned he hung out with Coach Budenholzer all summer and preseason. Their staff is in constant communication with Bud’s staff. This communication is key as coach Brady was, “happy that he was able to bring back everyone on his staff as that would be beneficial to the team’s improvement and takes away the stress.”
When I was observing practice, the Wisconsin Herd had just completed a weekend back to back playing Friday and Saturday night at home. The Herd fell short on the Friday game against the Greensboro Swarm, but won on Saturday against the Canton Charge. Despite splitting the pair, Coach Brady was encouraged by the team’s performance but noted, “the team seemed flat on both sides of the ball against Greensboro.” Brady, however was happy with the team’s bounce back performance against the Charge. When we talked about the Charge game, one player we discussed was Milwaukee Bucks wing, Sterling Brown. Brown was assigned to the Herd to get some playing time before the Bucks western conference road trip and with it, he brought his dogged intensity on defense and attacked the rim. It was something Coach Brady wanted to note, that having Brown there with his play style is something he hopes that his players pick up on and have that same intensity for the season.
While the coaching staff will be able to maintain continuity, the same can’t be said of the roster. Brady noted this to me saying “The only player we have returning to our team is James Young, who was away for a bit when he got called up to Philly.” This is going to create quite the challenge for the Herd; Milwaukee rotated their two-way players frequently last season which included: Gary Payton II, Joel Bolomboy, Sean Kilpatrick, Xavier Munford, and Marshall Plumlee. Trevon Duval and Jalen Morris are the new two-way players, but this roster has experience both with the Milwaukee Bucks organization and the G-League. Young is one of the standout players in the G-League, Travis Trice and Ike Nwamu have G-league experience while Brandon McCoy and Jordan Barnett were a part of the Milwaukee Bucks summer league and training camp roster. The talent is there for the Wisconsin Herd and Brady noted that a few players to watch are Nwamu and Barnett. Nwamu is someone Brady feels can continue to play well on the professional level after averaging 14.5 points last season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce. On Barnett, Brady said he, “Is someone who has a lot of physical tools and shooting to play in the NBA and continuing to apply what he already has to take off.”
Jordan Barnett is someone you see as a prototypical 3-D wing player. Those who followed the Bucks Summer league saw the shooting in full effect and that continued the reputation he established in Missouri when he shot 41% from three. Barnett attributes his shooting to confidence saying “If you believe and step into the shot and think you will make good things will happen compared to if you hesitate, it can throw off your rhythm.” Barnett isn’t thrilled with his 1-6 start from three the first two games, but knows that will work itself out.
When it comes to goals for the Herd, the message was the same with Brady and Barnett in one regard, and that’s to get better and help the team win. But as a G-League team, Brady knows that players want to make that next step and he wants that to happen for them whether it’s going to the NBA via a 10-day or two-way or a larger contract overseas if needed. No matter what, he wants to help them out. The Herd head on the road for their next game after a week off and will continue their road to the playoffs. Thus far, they’ve proved that basketball in Fox Valley can be the must see attraction on a cold winter night in Wisconsin and the team showed it can compete while learning as they go. The foundation was laid last season and this is the time to get on the bandwagon. #HerdUp