Johnathan Motley awoke Thursday at 2 a.m. in an Ohio hotel room to a buzzing cellphone.
It was still Wednesday night in Los Angeles, where Clippers center Marcin Gortat had missed a victory against Phoenix because of back spasms. With no guarantee Gortat would be available in their next game, Thursday in Sacramento, the first-place Clippers sought to bolster their frontcourt depth as a precaution.
Motley picked up the phone and heard Dee Brown, the general manager and director of player programs for the Agua Caliente Clippers, telling him to set an early alarm to leave for the airport. Hours after the 6-foot-10 Motley scored 21 points in a G League game in Canton, Ohio, he took a commercial flight out of Cleveland and, one connection later, arrived at Sacramento International Airport after noon. A hired driver wearing a rumpled suit and holding a sign for “J.Motley” waited at the bottom of the escalator in Terminal A.
“This is where I want to be,” Motley said after warming up at Golden 1 Center, “so it’s always great to get those phone calls.”
Such call-ups from the NBA’s developmental league were the norm a year ago as the injury-plagued Clippers relied heavily on the Agua Caliente team for reinforcements. Guard Ty Wallace once flew from Los Angeles to Oakland to meet the Clippers the morning of a matchup against the Golden State Warriors and was whisked to Oracle Arena after landing. Puzzled workers there told him he was early but let him inside anyway.
“They take me to the locker room and there’s literally no one there,” Wallace said. “I’m like, all right, what’s going on?”
The team was practicing in San Francisco; the driver had been given bad instructions. The mistake cost Wallace a start and he still shakes his head about it.
NBA teams and their G League affiliates try to eliminate such crossed wires by being more intertwined than ever. Twenty-seven of the NBA’s 30 teams are now affiliated with a G League club; the Clippers added the Agua Caliente Clippers in 2017.
Casey Hill coached the Ontario-based team last season before joining the staff of Clippers coach Doc Rivers last summer. Brian Adams, who’d coached under Rivers the last four seasons, took Hill’s place and runs the same offensive playbook and defensive principles as Rivers.
“The players are better, that’s the biggest adjustment to come from the G League,” Rivers said. “It makes it easier.”
The coaching staffs are in constant contact to keep tabs on the development of players such as Motley, one of two Clippers whose two-way contracts allow them to spend up to 45 days in the NBA.
In nine G League games this season Motley has averaged 24.4 points and 11.6 rebounds in 36 minutes. Sixteen points a night come in the paint, but he has also doubled the number of three-pointers he took a season ago while playing with the Dallas Mavericks’ G League affiliate. Motley might have already played valuable minutes with the Clippers last year but they have remained healthy and Thursday marked his first call-up this season.
While the Mavericks wanted Motley to roll to the basket off of screens as a center last season, the Clippers allow him to pop behind the three-point line and shoot if open.
“I’ve always had those capabilities but it just depends on what system you’re in, and in the Mavericks’ system I just so happened to be a roller, a lob finisher, things like that,” Motley said. “Here they’re kind of letting me branch out — pass the ball, push it up on the break, shoot the three and get those easy baskets off lobs, too.”
Hill, after watching Motley play last season, calls him “a completely different basketball player.”
Also vastly different were the ways Motley came to and went from Sacramento. Where he had to “fight for those emergency exits” to stretch his legs flying commercial, he left with the Clippers on a private charter bound for Dallas late Thursday, less than 24 hours after answering when opportunity called.
The quick transition from G League to the NBA is “tough,” he said, “but it’s what I live for.”