Shelvin Mack on 2015 Hawks reaching the Finals if not for LeBron James: ‘I would say so’

Shelvin Mack, the eight-year NBA veteran who played for seven different franchises, went to two consecutive Final Fours as a starter for the Butler Bulldogs and currently is a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports. He was a part of the 60-22 Atlanta Hawks team, played in Kobe Bryant’s last game, and is a Greek League champion.

Mack sat down with HoopsHype and talked about his March Madness experience, Brad Stevens, Quin Snyder, playing in Europe, and more.

Can you tell me about your time at Butler University, playing with Gordon Hayward and being coached by Brad Stevens?

Shelvin Mack: So yeah, we had a group of about six other freshmen coming in, kind of, you know, getting Stevens on the right path, it all just mixed together. They did a great job of recruiting. Everyone fit a different role, and it worked really well freshman year. We won freshman year, and we were pretty good at competing in a rally, just trying to figure out college basketball. We made the NCAA Tournament but lost to LSU when Marcus Thornton was there, they kind of put it on us.

Next year, Gordon and I were with the USA Basketball. So I got to experience playing against a lot of players from the Power Five conferences. The first was in Brussels, and the biggest number we played in was the Horizon League. So it’s completely different. Once we got to go to USA Basketball, I was able to gain a lot of confidence and come back. I still have confidence in our teammates. We won a 25-game winning streak and had a great run in the tournament, just had that belief because we played against those guys earlier. Now, we can really do something special here.

Could you envision Brad Stevens being an NBA coach at the time?

SM: Yes, I could definitely envision it, seeing it once I got to the NBA. We had very NBA-style practices, from 6:15 [am] to 7:15 [am]. It wasn’t your typical college practices. Also, the players we recruited and players that Butler prospected, there was more, “Kind of be a pro, do your work. I don’t need to come here and yell at you and force you to do all this other stuff [like] running sprints. It’s up to you to do it.” And that’s simply how the NBA is, you have players who do their work, take care of yourself. It’s very good. Having relationships, communicating well, whether I might not play this year, [or] might not play today. That’s a big factor of being a good NBA coach is communicating with your players and letting them have an understanding of what’s going on.

Do you get nostalgic looking back on your March Madness experience, Butler’s run during the NCAA tournaments and being so close to winning a national championship twice?

SM: I felt good that we had a lot of momentum just coming in and planning. Everyone understood their role and was considered very good at it, and great at it. Even Ron [Nored], nor my roommate, a point guard, now with the Atlanta Hawks, didn’t shoot well and didn’t shoot often. But he understood his role was to play defense, he’s the only guy I’ve ever played with who did defensive slides in the warmup. So just to let you know how important his role was for him and the team. Matt Howard, another guy who sacrificed his whole career at Butler, I think is one of the best players to ever play there. But no ducking it, you have freshmen coming in with me and Gordon Hayward, and now he’s returning as a sophomore on a really good team that I think won Sixth Man of the Year.

How did playing at Butler allow you to transition quicker to the NBA than earlier drafted peers?

SM: Yeah, so it was different for me because a lot of stuff happened. So, you have the high of going to the Final Four, losing that game, getting drafted, then the lockout happening. So I had the lockout, and then I was still at school, still in Indianapolis, for the next six months. And then when I finally got to the NBA, I got an opportunity to go play for the Washington Wizards. It just wasn’t a great mix. I’ll tell you that, then we started off 0-18 in my NBA career, it was a little different.

How did that affect your rookie year and transition to the NBA?

SM: I stayed in Indianapolis to continue hanging out with the team and working out. I took a few classes because I left school early, so I was finishing up my degree, but mainly focused on playing in a lot of professional scrimmages. Then I started getting itching and thirsting to play, especially with college basketball still ongoing. Your basketball game is still there, so you naturally want to get those competitive juices flowing. You kind of had to stay active. Played in a lot of pro-am leagues. I also believe that at that time, Impact [Basketball Competitive Training Series] in Vegas had a league where many players just came out to play to keep their game sharp.

I know some guys went to Europe and came back but was it a weird season and vibe?

SM: For sure, it was the same season. You had back-to-back-to-back games. So, three games in three nights, it was hard trying to recover from those games and get everyone’s money back. It was definitely a transition for me once I went from playing college basketball to the NBA. Like everyone says, the NBA is extremely competitive. I don’t think people understand that even the guy on the bench who cleans the glass might have averaged 20 points at some point in his career.

He could still do it, there are opportunities that arise, and whether they can showcase that skill set at the NBA level or not, they are capable of it. So, as a rookie, every time I got into the game, there’s someone that I might have admired before I got there, thinking, “I can handle them a little bit,” and then they show me something special or something spectacular, and I just have to respect their game.

What was it like bouncing between the D League and NBA at the beginning of your career?

SM: I had some great mentors along the way who helped me understand the business of basketball. Some of the situations weren’t really my fault, it’s just how things worked out. Even when I was with the Wizards and got cut the first time, John Wall tore his ACL or something, which put him out for a whole year. It was my second year going in, and they needed someone more established who could run a team, so I kind of understood that. I wished I had gotten an opportunity, but I knew how to be professional. So, I got cut once, but then a few weeks later, the Wizards called me back. I always kept belief and stayed positive, focusing on controlling the things I could control. I got traded a few times, and when you get to the highest level, a lot of times, it’s just salaries matching. It’s nothing I did, and I understand that and didn’t take it personally.

Do you think basketball fans don’t understand the business side of sports and how a lot it is opportunity based?

SM: Yes, they see it as a game, but the business aspect is that many people overlook it. It can be challenging in different situations, especially having a family. You get traded, the kids and family stay here, or you pick everybody up and move to a new city. There are a lot of things that happen off the court that can impact you on a court, and then there are social media people just talking crazy and don’t understand the actual business of basketball.

You played for Quin Snyder in Atlanta and Utah, how did he help you grow as a player?

SM: He definitely helped me, and I also played for all these different coaches. It allowed me to understand the game from a different angle. Also, Atlanta’s coaching staff was one of the best coaches ever. You had Quin Synder, who’s the Hawks coach now. Taylor Jenkins, who’s the Memphis head coach of the Grizzlies. Mike Budenholzer was the head coach, and we had Darvin Ham. So you have all these coaches, including Kenny Atkinson, the associate head coach with the Warriors, who used to be Brooklyn’s head coach. So, I had all these guys every day in practice to learn from them. That’s the other part about being like a pro and understanding a game. I was a third-string point guard in Atlanta, but I showed up every single day as a professional working with coaches. When Synder got an opportunity [with Utah], he brought me along.

How important was the mentoring and coaching you received in your career to help you succeed?

SM: Oh, it was great; I got to see everyone’s different points of view and philosophies on coaching how to play the game of basketball. That’s one thing I’ve been very blessed with playing the game for some great coaches; even Flip Saunders was one of them. He was the coach in DC when I was there. I played for Frank Vogel in Orlando. So I got a different mix of things on how people want to guard a pick and roll or how they viewed a close-out situation. Different offensive ATOs, so I have all this stored in my brain. Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to use it.

How crucial, in your opinion, does coaching play in developing a high basketball IQ?

SM: The coaching from that part is being very patient and understanding when you’re communicating to someone that doesn’t understand, being able to go out there and show it. And, like many coaches now, they are physically in shape; they get out there and show you exactly what you need to do to get the job done. Because the basketball IQ is lower than it used to be. A lot of people are relying more on athleticism. And again, just running up and down the whole time. So, having a very patient coach that can explain it on film and then go out on the court and do it. When you have a good team, you can explain it on film, and high basketball IQ players understand it on film and can do it in the game. But when you’re coaching, you have to adapt to players. So some people might get it, and some might need more time to put in the extra effort to get on the record and show them how to do it, not just yell it or show it on a TV screen.

What were your best years or most enjoyable years in the league?

SM: My most enjoyable year was when the Atlanta Hawks won 60 games that year. We had a great mix of young players and veterans in their prime. The coaching staff was fantastic, and everyone got along well, which showed on the court. The most enjoyable moments were off the court, like being on an airplane or hanging out and going to dinner. That season created a lot of memories, and I’m still close to many of my teammates and coaches from that time.

You think if there wasn’t LeBron James and the Cavaliers, that 2015 Hawks could’ve gone to the NBA Finals?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

SM: I would say so. It was a very tough matchup, especially at that time. I think we got swept like it wasn’t even close. LeBron James took it to another level, another gear, and he was young and had the city on his back. Kyrie Irving was starting to come into his own, and everyone was beginning to see it. They had a tough team, I will say that.

As a recently retired player, how much has the league changed since you left?

SM: Yeah, because the league is a lot younger. I was talking to Gordon Hayward the other day; he was the oldest on the Hornets. And he’s only 33. We had older guys like Elton Brand when I played for the Hawks. That were 34, 35, I had some great vets who showed me how to do the things the right day, the right way. Now, it’s hard when many of these teens are super young and expecting the 26-year-old or 27-year-old to teach the 20-year-old how to act the right way. He finally got into his prime and figured out his skin at the NBA level, and I think the NBA is trying to do a better job of that by having these two-way spots to have guys go down to the G league play, get some reps and learn how to be a professional. But the basketball IQ part concerns me, especially all these resources we had to be able to watch a basketball game and pick up and learn some knowledge.

What are your thoughts on AAU, high school and college basketball, are the players being prepared for professional basketball?

SM: It’s more like TikTok; you want to get a highlight or do something cool instead of playing the right way. That’s the issue that I see with everything. AAU helped me tremendously in my career, putting me in the right spot to get seen. Now, it is getting outrageous. You have parents sending their kid in the fourth or fifth grade from Kentucky to Phoenix to play a basketball game to get the kid seen even though he’s double dribbled three times. Like, let’s work on these other things first and save a few, a few thousand dollars before we make this trip; it’s like we’re trying to skip the steps instead of putting them 10,000 hours.

Do you think wanting to be a social media influencer or streamer has negatively affected or distracted players?

SM: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. You can use basketball to launch yourself into other avenues, like being an influencer or whatever, but it does not really focus on basketball. Also, the way we consume media and sports has a lot to do with that. I’m not trying to throw any shade.

Do you think college coaches are retiring because of the new generation and NIL?

SM: I would say a little bit of both. Also, I think a lot of coaches should have retired a lot sooner. They should enjoy life a little bit like Coach Nick Saban is 72. I didn’t know he was 72. Like, let somebody else get in there and give it a go. It definitely could be a distraction and there is no loyalty. These kids, they spent three or four years recruiting them, you get them then they don’t play two games so they decide to transfer so it can be very draining from that aspect as well.

What is your best NBA memory?

SM: Great question. One of my best memories is probably getting drafted. I remember that night vividly, surrounded by my family and friends. After 12 to 14 years of hard work, seeing it all come together and getting drafted was a moment I’ll never forget. Also, playing in Kobe’s last game was unforgettable. Kobe was one of my favorite players growing up, and I had the opportunity to play against plenty of times, but to be there for his final game was something very special.

What was it like playing against your role models or idols?

SM: Yeah, that was the guy on my wall when I was twelve. So it’s a lot different. I would say that. I reallyI haven’t got too much shell shock on the court because I didn’t do this basketball. When I was great, it was a significant moment. Most of the time, I let them know how much it impacted me. However, you’ve got to understand that I need to give them their due recognition while keeping a competitive spirit. Even if you used to be better than me, it doesn’t mean you’re better now. It’s all about having that attitude.

Who is your current top 5 in the NBA?

SM: I’ll go with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, I still think LeBron is one of the best, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. And Ant-Man, Anthony Edwards.

If you had to rank them how would you?

SM: Jokic, Embiid, Shai, Anthony Edwards, LeBron.

What would you say is the biggest difference from playing in the NBA versus Europe that people don't think about?

SM: I believe the style of play in the NBA is a lot more free-flowing. I think the absence of defensive three seconds is a big factor. The issue with coaching is that the coaches have great minds and ATOs, but they sometimes try to control too much of the game instead of letting it happen naturally on the court. In the NBA, you have the best players for a reason. Sometimes, you don’t need to coach them; just let them go and figure it out. However, in Europe, the approach is more structured, with coaches wanting to be more involved.

Who was the hardest person you had a play against in Europe?

SM: I would say Mike James is obviously a guy who was tough to guard and very creative. He’s one of those guys who could play in the NBA. I believe he’s going to be remembered as one of the best Euro players ever. He’s highly skilled and creative, particularly in putting the ball in the basket.

What is the hardest part about adapting to overseas basketball?

SM: The hardest part for me wasn’t the challenges on the court but rather being away from my family. It’s tough when you’re alone in a different culture, where sometimes they speak English and sometimes they don’t. Not having someone to talk to after a bad day at practice was the most challenging aspect. Other than that, is talking through FaceTime or your iPhone isn’t the the same interaction as having someone there in person to grab a bite to eat with. When I played overseas, I was fortunate enough to bring my family with me, which helped. I always tell people, if you have the opportunity to go overseas and play, just do it. You get to play basketball during the day, get paid well, and experience another culture through basketball. It’s an opportunity you shouldn’t pass up.

What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

SM: I would say stay positive and focus on what they can control. Often, I see players getting frustrated and upset when things don’t go their way. Then, they start treating others poorly in the situation, whether it’s coaches, ball boys, or managers. They lash out at everyone else, even though they have no control over what happened. It might have been one person’s decision, and letting it affect your long-term career isn’t wise. A lot ball boys or assistants eventually become head coaches or GMs. You want to keep the door open for the future, instead of risk ruining those chances. That’s something they should keep in mind.

If you could change one thing about the NBA what would it be?

SM: I enjoy playing in style games. I wish they could figure out a way to move it from city to city and create more of a vibe. Similar to what they did in Las Vegas with the In-Season Tournament Final Four, for example, if you have the Knicks versus the Bulls, and then the Sixers versus Celtics, they could have that matchup in DC.

Story originally appeared on HoopsHype