Every basketball team has its own identity.
Some teams find their identity based on their star player (Cleveland and Lebron, Kobe and the Lakers), some base their identity on their coach (the Larry Brown Pistons, the Phil Jackson Bulls), and others base it on a system (Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns system, Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs system).
But finding a team identity is easier said than done. The Seoul SK Knights have spent three seasons trying to find their identity and this year, it’s finally here.
“Last season we were just so worried about winning the championship. You know, after losing in the finals the year before we thought last season should be a championship year and we kept saying that all year long,” says SK Knights swingman David Michaels.
“But at the end of the day, we were just adding more pressure on ourselves. So I think this year we are more relaxed, we know what we got to do and we are doing it. As far as the championship goes, yeah what player doesn’t want to win a championship? We definitely want to win it. I think each and every player on this team knows what we our goal and knows what we can do without repeating it over and over again. At the end of the day, it comes down to trust and this team, we trust each other like family.”
In basketball, specifically for basketball teams trust is an asset that is highly undervalued. If you look at all of the championship teams, each and every player on those teams trusts their teammates and coaching staff on making decisions based on achieving the ultimate team goals (the extra pass, help defense, knowing that when coach restricts your minutes, it’s for the better of the team, etc.).
From team bonding on one of their two off-season trips to California to making that crucial outlet pass that leads to their punishing fast breaks, the Seoul SK Knights have found their identity via trust. But trust within a team is not built over a month, season, or full calendar year. It takes time. In 2011, the SK Knights were one of the worst teams in the Korean Basketball League finishing in ninth place (nine out of ten) winning only 18 games while losing 32. Change was inevitable.
The following season, the SK Knights put their trust in a young Korean prospect out of Chung-Ang University named Kim SunHyung. ‘Sun’, as his teammates call him, was expected to be the next Korean superstar. In college, he and Oh SeKeun rallied 57-consectuive wins en route to a Korean national championship.
The 2012 season was Sun’s breakout season. At 23 years of age, Sun played in 57 of the 62 games averaging 30 minutes per game while scoring 12 points per contest earning himself the 2012-2013 KBL most valuable player award. The SK Knights had trust in the Korean point guard and knew that his time to shine was now.
That year, the Knights also brought in a fresh pair of foreign players. Former Boise State swingman Aaron Haynes was no stranger to the KBL when the Knights acquired him. He was an established player in the league who won a KBL title in 2009 with Mobis Phoebus, selected to three all-star teams and won back-to-back scoring titles (2010/2011, 2011/2012). At first, Haynes was paired up with Chris Alexander but a mid-season trade brought in Courtney Sims, a former NBA big man who carries the load inside when needed. KBL teams change their foreign players on a regular basis. But SK has managed to keep the Haynes/Sims duo active until now. After each season, the team has the first rights to re-sign their foreign players (who are all on one-year contracts) and SK has used that right to re-sign both Haynes and Sims the past two years.
If you look closely at the SK Knights on their home court in Jamsil, you will certainly notice Kim MinSoo, a 6’8 (204 c.m.) center with tattoos on both arms and more facial hair than your average Korean. He is half Argentinean/half Korean and was already a part the SK Knights prior to the 2012 season. He started his Korean basketball career playing college basketball at Kyung Hee University and worked his way up into the pros. He provides rim protection and rebounding from the Knights. He’s also a player who can guard the opposing team’s foreign player allowing Haynes or Sims to spend most of their energy on offense. Through time he would develop an outside shot that stretches opposing defenses out away from the basket.
Finally, the pure hustle and grit of Park SangOh adds consistency on both ends of the floor. Park was the KBL MVP during the 2010/2011 season when he played for the Busan KT SonicBoom. At 33 years old, Park’s basketball IQ is above and beyond the average KBL player. He seems to always be in the right spot at the right time and if he is left alone can knock down the open three.
SK Knights head coach Moon KyeungEun had a lot of work to do in 2012 after coming off a terrible season of only 19 wins and 35 defeats finishing ninth out of ten in the standings. Coach Moon says he learned a lot from that losing season and came into the next year with new disciplines.
“When this team first came together we focused solely on defense. On offense we just used everyone’s individual strengths and put them in the right spots on the floor so that they can fully utilize those strengths to the best of their abilities,” says Moon.
And in 2012, the SK Knights didn’t disappoint. They would do a complete 180 and go from worst to first winning 44 games and bringing home the regular season league championship banner.
“In 2012, I focused more on the players’ mentality. I tried to get on them more because the expectation for this group was so high. For example, we worked on establishing a strong defensive presence a lot that year. So if somebody didn’t follow the plan on defense, I made sure they knew about it. After a while, our defense became natural and that’s when I noticed the individuals started trusting each other and that led to creating team chemistry,” says coach Moon.
One of coach Moon’s biggest attributes is the development of his players. Take foreign player Aaron Haynes for example. Sure Haynes was established in the KBL but he was also being moved around a lot. He played for three different teams in four seasons. Nobody wanted to give him a long-term chance until SK picked him up. Now Haynes is a fan favorite in Seoul and is en-route to becoming the KBL’s all-time leading scorer after reaching the 6000 career points plateau this season. Coach Moon knew exactly what he was getting when the team signed Haynes.
“Every foreigner in the KBL produces more than half of what goes on during KBL games. But I think where Aaron stands out is his experience playing in Korea. He’s been here for a very long time. He’s won a championship and has always played at a high level on successful teams. It was just a matter of taking that talent and implementing it into our system. And that wasn’t much of a challenge because Aaron and I played against each other so I already knew what he was all about,” says Moon.
Many Korean basketball fans can argue that coach Moon’s work with all-star point guard Kim SunHyung is most impressive. But Kim SunHyung is a natural talent. He grew up in the Korean basketball system and possesses a natural gift that only comes around once in a decade for Korean basketball. Coach Moon should really be praised for the patience and success with bringing in swingman David Michaels, the half Korean import from Las Vegas, Nevada. Michaels was signed in 2013. That year, the SK Knights had a chance to grab the half Korean star Jerod Stevenson but opted to go for the 23-year-old Michaels instead.
“David came in on a three-year contract. So we knew we had three years to work with him to get him to where we want him to be,” says coach Moon.
“Last year was his first season in Korea, so we wanted him to adapt to the Korean culture and the Korean style of play. It was important for him to naturally find his role within the team. This season is his second year and he’s fully launched himself into a big role on the team. He is consistently stepping up and making big plays. And from here I can guarantee that his role is going to be bigger and bigger going into his third year. When we picked David, we knew that he was a three-year project so we are most looking forward to that third year.”
This year, Michaels finds himself in the starting lineup and earned himself a nickname, “Spiderman”, a nickname given to him by the fans for his long active arms on the defensive end. Michaels says in his short pro basketball career, he’s changed his style of play several times and for SK it was no different.
“In college, I was put in a lot of one-on-one situations. They were running isolation sets and pick-and-rolls for me. And then I went to play in Holland for a year. And when I was there it was a little bit different. On defense, I was guarding every position on the floor. But on the offensive end, I was the second or third guy on sets. It was a little bit different,” says Michaels.
Last season, coach Moon and the SK Knights decided to restrict Michaels’ minutes resulting in a lot of bench time for the rookie. But that didn’t bother Michaels too much. In fact, it was a situation that he had seen before.
“In high school, I wasn’t the best player on the team. So I went to my coach and asked him what I needed to do in order to get better. He told me in order to get better I need to find a way to get on the floor. He said I needed to do whatever it takes to get out there. So I solely focused on being a defensive stopper and that’s what got me off the bench and into the game. From there I just improved my all around game but defense is what got me this far into my career. I feel like when I was on the bench last year, I had to do the same thing,” adds Michaels.
The SK Knights currently sit in second place with a 21-7 record. They are a unique team in various different ways. First, they are one of the only teams in Korea to make two trips to America during the off-season for training.
“When we train in Korea we focus on team defense and team offence. But when we go to California, the players receive individual coaching on some of their weaknesses. The California trip is essentially for improving weaknesses in individual skills. From there, we take those individual skills and implement them into our team’s system,” says Moon.
California is the home state of star foreign player Aaron Haynes. He says he loves it when the team goes back to his home state. He stresses the importance it has on team chemistry.
“Training in California is great. The Koreans are extra motivated to receive the training in America. We would train a couple of times a day and we would scrimmage too. After all that we do some team bonding like going downtown LA or going to see a movie or something. I try and take a few of the guys out to lunch with me but they usually like sticking to the Korean food. But a couple of them will come with me for lunch. It’s a good time all-around,” says Haynes.
The SK Knights have also been innovative in keeping up with the trend of technology behind the scenes. They are one of the only teams (that I’m aware of) that have been able to integrate a sophisticated video scouting system that can be used during games.
“You know with having video as an assistance it helps so much. During halftime, especially, I can explain something 100 times but when they actually see it right in front of them it just makes the explanation process so much easier. I think it helps them mentally more than anything,” says coach Moon.
Unlike Samsung, LG or Mobis (Kia), SK (the company that sponsors the SK Knights) is a company that is rather unknown to most foreigners. In Korea, SK is most known for its telecommunication success but look deeper within the company and you can find that it’s a conglomerate of very important markets such as construction, chemical productions, oil, and energy sector. The company mixes all of these assets to create a giant, successful company.
The SK Knights base their identity no different than its corporate sponsor. Their main asset, Aaron Haynes is rather unknown to most foreigners but here in Korea he is the best foreign player in the league. The SK Knights have accumulated various players that champion their own position (Kim SunHyung at point guard, David Michaels as a defensive stopper, Park SangOh as the utility man, Kim MinSoo as the bruiser). And when these players, playing the position they play, playing the role they play at the highest level it becomes fascinating. It really forms a true identity to who the SK Knights really are; a combination of highly skilled players coming together as one and playing 40 minutes of high-tempo basketball.
So what does it take for the SK Knights to win a championship? Well according to Haynes it’s all about sacrifice.
“We are pretty much a family, starting from the pecking order all the way down to the players. A championship this year would be huge for everybody. It’s going to take a lot of focus and sacrifice from each and every one of us. From the first five to the next five guys on the bench all the way down. It’s going to take a huge amount of focus. Especially when in the playoffs, attention to details is key. We are still growing as a team, but at the end of the day we need to stay locked-in and focused from the first guy to the last.”