- Ben Sullivan is an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks.
- Sullivan began as a video intern with the San Antonio Spurs, despite having no NBA background, to becoming a respected and praised shooting coach around the league.
- Sullivan is now in a critical role with the Bucks, helping a team that shoots more three-pointers than almost anyone else in the league while working with Giannis Antetokounmpo, an MVP candidate whose one weakness is shooting.
Ben Sullivan didn’t even know what a video intern was when got a call in 2012 from San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Ime Udoka telling him to interview for the position.
Sullivan, then an assistant coach at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, knew Udoka from the local hoops scene. Although Sullivan was interested in advancing his coaching career, the NBA wasn’t even on his radar.
“I didn’t even know what that [position] was when I got the call,” Sullivan told Business Insider. He told Udoka he’d interview just because it felt like the right thing to do.
Sullivan approached his fellow coaching colleagues and asked them about the position.
“Every single person was like, ‘You need to do that job. Immediately,'” Sullivan said. “‘Whatever you have to do to go get that job, do it.'”
Sullivan interviewed with the Spurs and landed the job at 28 years old.
The internship kicked off a surprise career for Sullivan, who had played professional basketball internationally but did not have many ties to the NBA.
Seven years later, Sullivan is an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and has impressed at every stop he’s made.
He’s now at a fascinating intersection with the Bucks, in a pivotal role as a shooting coach. The Bucks are an offensive juggernaut who rely on the three-point shot more than almost any team in the league. And yet, they are led by an MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo who has just one weakness – he struggles shooting.
With Sullivan’s help, the Bucks have become one of the NBA’s most dynamic teams. He is trying to help bring them to the next level.
How Sullivan got his “Master’s degree in basketball”
On the Spurs, Sullivan worked under incredible tutelage – Gregg Popovich, Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown, Chad Forcier, Chip Engelland, and more.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an intern or a coach if you’re in an environment working around talented, hard-working people who are really good at what they do and really know what they’re doing – iron sharpens iron,” said Forcier, now an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies. “Everybody gets better because of it.”
“When you do a video internship job, especially in San Antonio, it’s like getting your Master’s degree in basketball,” Sullivan said.
Forcier and Engelland ran the team’s video intern program and assigned interns to specific coaches. Sullivan got appointed to Engelland, who is highly regarded as one of the league’s best shooting coaches.
Sullivan describes a two-year “whirlwind” with the Spurs. He learned the ins and outs of the Spurs program, from everyday tasks to assisting with scouting reports, analytics, working one-on-one with players, and more, all while the Spurs made back-to-back Finals runs, winning the championship in 2013-14.
More importantly, he worked closely with Engelland.
Sullivan said he learned everything about teaching from Engelland. “I took so much from him. I just can’t ever really repay him, to be honest with you.”
“He just observed, which is always good,” Engelland told Business Insider.
Sullivan graduated from video intern to a coordinator job in player development (he forgets his exact title). He impressed the Spurs staff – notable in one of the most well-regarded organisations in all of sports.
“He’s someone who continued to establish and increase his value to the Spurs … You could just tell he was growing in the right direction,” Forcier said.
“I think he made a great impression on all of us,” Budenholzer, now the head coach of the Bucks, told Business Insider. “Just another one of those guys that came through the Spurs’ video room that was really, really good.”
Budenholzer was impressed enough with Sullivan that when he became the Hawks head coach in 2013-14, he asked Sullivan to interview for an assistant coach job. Budenholzer wouldn’t get Engelland out of San Antonio. If he couldn’t get the master, he’d get the apprentice.
“There’s nothing like an internship with the best,” Budenholzer said.
“He was ready to help a head coach, help a team, and help the players,” Engelland said of Sullivan leaving the Spurs in 2014. “And I’m sure he’s gotten better.”
Sullivan’s career arc continued in Atlanta. He drew praise from veteran players like Kent Bazemore and Kyle Korver for his work while the Hawks became one of the league’s best offenses. As an assistant coach, Sullivan continued to learn more about the NBA as his responsibilities grew.
The Hawks made the playoffs three straight years, but could not get past LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. At the end of the 2017-18 season, the Hawks and Budenholzer agreed to part ways.
Budenholzer then landed the head coaching job with the Bucks, pitching an improved defence and a more modern offence built around the team’s rising star in Antetokounmpo. He needed a shooting coach; Sullivan was available.
Creating space for the star who’s learning to shoot
During a summer retreat in Wisconsin, the same idea kept coming up among the Bucks’ new coaching staff: get Antetokounmpo more space.
Antetokounmpo might be the single most dominant force when he gets downhill and attacks the rim. Spacing the court as much as possible would create a pick-your-poison scenario for defences: let Antetokounmpo feast at the basket, or send help and leave open shooters.
The Bucks had some shooters on the roster already, but GM Jon Horst went to work finding more. He added two floor-spreading big men in Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez. He made in-season trades for George Hill (a Spurs alum) and Nikola Mirotic, yet another sweet-shooting power forward.
Lopez and Mirotic, in particular, thrive at a specific skill – deep threes, several feet behind the line.
“There’s only a few players in the league that are effective shooters as you get kind of in those deep, deep ranges,” Horst told Business Insider. “We have two of them – Niko [Mirotic] and Brook. It’s not accidental.”
“If somebody drives it, where’s the help coming from? Has to come from all the way out,” Sullivan said.
If there’s a player besides Antetokounmpo who best represents the Bucks’ success this season, it might be Lopez. The seven-footer has gone from a traditional, back-to-the-basket center to one of the most lethal three-point shooters in all of the league. Lopez has taken and made more three-pointers than any player listed at seven feet or taller, according to the NBA’s stats site. His 512 total attempts rank first on the Bucks and 17th in the league.
“It’s been pretty awesome to see his transformation,” Sullivan said, noting how different Lopez’s role is now compared to three years ago.
“It’s a different mentality to approach the game, say, ‘This is my job, this is what I do. I shoot threes. I space the floor. I guard the rim.’ That’s his job. You gotta give all the credit in the world to Brook.”
“[Ben’s] been incredible,” Lopez said, adding: “He’s just been great at going over film with me, getting on the court, and just getting a lot of reps in and just imparting his knowledge and what he sees out there. He’s very wise when it comes to that.”
Lopez and the rest of the roster have been empowered in the Bucks offence.
“[Sullivan] says let it fly,” said Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon. “We get a lot of reps up in practice, shooting threes … He wants us to shoot the ball with confidence every time we have an open look.”
Sullivan and the Bucks’ most significant challenge is getting Antetokounmpo into that same territory. For as dominant of a scorer as he is, he struggles from three, shooting just 25% on three attempts per game.
It’s not as if he doesn’t work hard at it. Sullivan said Antetokounmpo works on his shot “all the time,” as he does the rest of his game. In fact, it’s Antetokounmpo’s work ethic that encourages Sullivan.
Sullivan said he used to hear “whispers” of Antetokounmpo’s notorious work ethic. So driven is Antetokounmpo that the Bucks have literally locked him out of the gym, according to ESPN.
“You hear little chatter like, ‘Giannis has kinda got that work ethic like Kobe, Jordan.'” Sullivan said, two minutes into his first workout with Antetokounmpo, he was blown away.
“You get here, and you see it first hand, and you’re like, this dude, he really works hard,” he said. “He really works on his game. It was one of those rare times where the hype actually maybe even undersold it a little bit.”
Sullivan and Antetokounmpo began re-shaping the 24-year-old star’s shot this summer. To Sullivan, the key is getting a consistent motion that is comfortable. Sullivan’s lessons from Engelland have come into play in his work with the Greek star.
“You have to find a shot that’s comfortable for each individual,” Sullivan said. “It’s not comfortable for Giannis to shoot like Steph Curry. That’s not a shot that you would wanna mimic … The trick for me and Giannis is to work together to find the best shot for him.”
Sullivan said he had been impressed by Antetokounmpo’s progress already. He believes, one day, Antetokounmpo could become an “elite” shooter. Now he has to keep going.
“I like the form. I like the structure. I like what we have in place. It’s just gonna be a little bit more time, just grooving it out, year after year, repetition and hard work.”
More than just a shooting coach
The current version of the Bucks may be good enough to win a championship, even with Antetokounmpo limited as a shooter. Sullivan noted that Antetokounmpo’s lack of a jumper hasn’t exactly slowed him down.
“He averages 27 points per game. It’s not like teams are letting him have 27 points.”
Horst told Business Insider in February that he believes the Bucks can contend now.
While there are big-picture challenges ahead of Sullivan and the Bucks, they choose to keep a narrow scope. Sullivan’s time with the Spurs is apparent when he talks about the team’s goals.
“Our focus is on getting better every day and improving as a team, working on our habits, working on ourselves,” Sullivan said. “If you dig in and get in the trenches and you have that mentality of, ‘I’m just gonna try and take it day by day and get better every day,’ then like, I really believe that kinda stuff will take care of itself.”
Horst praised Sullivan, calling him “tremendous” and vital to the team.
“Ben is an assistant coach – he’s not just a Giannis coach, he’s not just a shooting coach,” Horst said. “He brings value to Bud and his staff and to our whole product … I think he’s a really good young coach that has a bright future.”
Sullivan said he’s still so astonished by making it in the NBA that he doesn’t consider his future in the league. Will he remain a shooting coach? Does he have higher ambitions? He said those thoughts sometimes pop up during offseasons, but during the season, he’s focused on his goals.
Those goals are improving the players he works with every day.
“I just think that players that get to work with him are lucky because he cares,” Engelland said. “He has their best interest [in mind]. Although he can be tough on them, they will get better. It’s obvious from his track record that he’s doing that everywhere he’s been.”
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