Not unlike many basketball fans, Tom Hankins used to scoff a bit at some aspects of the G League product.
“From a distance, I didn't realize just how good the players were until I was there on a daily basis,” said Hankins, who today will be announced by the NBA's Indiana Pacers as the head coach of the Mad Ants, their Fort Wayne-based G League team.
Hankins, 54, a longtime college coach, spent last season with the Pacers as an assistant coach for player development. Among his duties were working with Naz Mitrou-Long and Brian Bowen II, who spent much of the season with the Mad Ants under two-way NBA contracts.
“A lot of people look at the G League or even the NBA level and say, 'They're not playing any defense.' Well, they couldn't be more wrong. They're just so talented offensively and they make it look easy,” said Hankins, who was 64-53 as the head coach at Central Oklahoma, a NCAA Division II program, from 2015 to 2019.
“They have the ability to spread the floor (in the G League) and leave the rim open. And then the rules are different with the defensive three seconds. It's a lot different game. But at the end of the day, you've got to defend, you've got to rebound, you've got to guard your man and you've got to take great shots.”
Hankins replaces Steve Gansey, whose contract expired Oct. 31. Gansey was 123-120 in the regular season and 1-3 in the playoffs over five seasons, not including 35 games as an interim coach in 2011-12.
“Tom brings a wealth of experience from many years in the college ranks,” Mad Ants general manager Brian Levy said through a Mad Ants spokesperson. “His proven track record of developing players was only further amplified by his recent role in working with Brian Bowen and Naz Mitrou-Long. Having spent time with Tom this last season, I am confident that he will continue to cultivate talent and provide great value for the organization, both in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.”
Hankins said he was at 15-to-20 Mad Ants games last season and behind the Pacers' bench for 75% of their games before their season shifted to a bubble in Orlando, Florida. The Mad Ants were 21-22 and one game out of a playoff spot with seven games remaining when the pandemic halted the season.
This G League season, slated to start about Feb. 8, will also be in Orlando with 18 teams playing 15-game seasons, much fewer than the usual 50-game seasons. Eleven teams have opted out.
The top eight participating teams will qualify for a single-elimination playoff.
Hankins, who has been working with new Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren, a former G League coach, said the Pacers are still discussing their goals for the G League season when it comes to balancing the importance of winning games with developing players' skill sets.
None of the Mad Ants' roster has been announced, though the team has two second-round picks in today's draft. It's expected that Bowen and rookie Cassius Stanley, who are on two-way contracts, will be with the Mad Ants.
Hankins, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a high school teammate of Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers' president of basketball operations.
Hankins played collegiately at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and Northeastern State. He was an assistant coach at East Central High School in Tulsa five years then an assistant at Oral Roberts from 1998 to 2012, bringing him often to Fort Wayne for games against IPFW. From 2012 to 2015, he was associate head coach at Southern Illinois.
He's the seventh head coach since the Mad Ants' founding in 2007 and second since the Pacers bought them in 2015.
“It's extremely exciting. I'm super excited,” Hankins said. “I've coached basketball a long time and always wanted to have the opportunity to coach at the professional level. I got the opportunity to be a player development guy and learn a little bit about (pro basketball) last year. This is an opportunity to be a head coach, a part of the NBA and the G League. I'm extremely fortunate, blessed, lucky, however you want to say it, but I'm even more excited.”