Hapoel Tel Aviv has made its mark in continental play this season, but the Reds have company as just one of the newcomers making waves in their debut season in the EuroCup.
Paris Basketball, also playing in the European competition for the first time, will be challenging for the top spot as it visits Israel to take on Hapoel on Wednesday night in what will most certainly be a clash for the ages.
However, it won’t just be a battle on the court between the players, the gladiators for their respective teams on either side. It will also be a super encounter on the sidelines between Tel Aviv’s European-tested tactician Danny Franco and Will Weaver, who joined the French squad this season after a number of years of rich NBA and international experience. Weaver has helped make Paris one of the most talked-about teams across the continental basketball world.
Just before tip-off, The Jerusalem Post sat down with Weaver to get a deeper understanding of the Paris project and what has made him the right person at the right time to steer the ship. We looked at how he began his career as a coach along with some of the stops along the way – which saw him work with a very young Kevin Durant – his acumen as a coach that can get the best out of his players as well as how he views his own first season in Europe.
“There’s the basketball piece which is a ton of fun and the group is learning a bunch together,” Weaver began. “We are making strides this year by playing in two competitions after last season where the club played only once a week. In both the LNB (French League) and EuroCup, we’ve won some games which is gratifying. I’m very fortunate to be able to have my family with me on our third continent with the opportunity to explore Europe.”
Paris Basketball is a relatively new team, having been founded in 2018 and only making its first-division debut in the 2021/22 season. In essence, this is only the club’s second campaign in France’s top league, but it has made massive strides in having an effect on the way basketball is being played and viewed in one of the world’s capitals, Weaver explained.
“What Paris Basket is doing as a club is exceptional here in France. We are in one of those places where I know how difficult it is to build up a club with all the resources. We are building a foundation and this was attractive to me to go along with a new style of play and a brand new staff, which is something that I appreciate from having been in the G-League and Australia. We are all dreaming of what it can be."
“This opportunity, where I am trusted with players who are young and not come in to build a team with lots of 30-year-old veterans, is great. We have lots of guys who were drafted in the NBA as well as guys that had a cup of coffee in the NBA and there is a lot of ambition and energy about the entire project.”
Will Weaver's story
Weaver worked as an assistant coach over the past decade for three NBA franchises –the Philadelphia 76ers, the Brooklyn Nets and the Houston Rockets – and was also the head coach for the Nets G-League team as well as for the Sydney Kings in Australia. The bench boss was also the finalist for the top job with the Oklahoma City Thunder and was considered a lead candidate for the New Orleans Pelicans, but despite being so close to one of the most coveted positions in the basketball world, he felt moving to Paris was the right career.
“It speaks to the quality of opportunities. I’m grateful to be recruited to come and do this work here and what I did in Sydney. These are not positions that typically become available. I loved working and competing against the best in the NBA and if you want to be a great head coach one day you have to get in those reps which is what I’m focused on. If an NBA team will trust me, they’ll find me.”
In the EuroCup, Weaver’s club has gotten off to an excellent 7-3 start, while in the French domestic league, Paris has surged since November after a rough beginning to the season where the coach was still awaiting permission to sit on the bench. But once all of the bureaucracy was straightened out, Weaver’s team is looking like just that, a team that he has molded and in his vision.
“The thesis was about versatility and the preseason was about putting together the team with the two leagues in mind. We are fortunate to have the experience to build a team with the capability of beating good teams which we are interested in doing here in Paris. But there is also a delayed gratification to that work. We were tripped up by some problems, but the groundwork of building the roster and the size, the mix of young and old and the depth, the players deserve a lot of credit. Now that I have been behind the bench for some time, the staff and players see the fruit of that work. We are playing differently than other teams and we are healthy now as well. Now with my coaching they were able to see what we are building.”
Weaver didn’t start playing basketball until he was 14 years old, but due to the fact that he grew up during the Chicago Bulls era when they were on a TV Superstation WGN all over the United States, he fell in love with the sport and found out very quickly what his life’s calling was going to be.
“I was much younger and my dad was a big basketball fan, but by being a part of a team, I found energy while competing alongside other people. I volunteered for a school team and after a few practices, I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Along the way, Weaver has learned from many experiences, but one that left an indelible mark on him was his time in college, where he saw just how international the game of basketball really was.
“The moments that stand out for me were working at the University of Texas and seeing the quality of the teams and the guys who played overseas when they returned to the school. I understood that there was high-level basketball in China, Europe and other places. There were guys like that who continued to feed my hunger. That time at Texas was massive and I came to appreciate the game even more.”
During his time at Texas and working with the Longhorns, Weaver was fortunate enough to find himself with a very raw and young Kevin Durant who spent the 2006/07 season in college. Little did anyone know that the same Durant would be a two-time NBA Champion, MVP, 12-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year and named as one of the greatest 75 players in the league’s history.
“He is an incredible human being and has formed his own road and has driven his own career. His humility is second to none and he didn’t even know how good he was. We didn’t know that eventually he was going to become an MVP, NBA Champion or Olympian back then. He showed up just like any other teenager away from home. Playing one-on-one, throwing the ball off a wall and hitting the hoop, he just loved basketball and was excited to be with other guys playing the game or by himself, that is what stood out to me.”
Weaver has impacted many professional basketball players over the course of his career, including Jae’Sean Tate who he coached during the 2019/20 season with the Sydney Kings. After that campaign, the forward moved to the NBA and signed with the Houston Rockets and after two years with the club, Tate had his contract extended for an additional three seasons in what was a multi-million dollar deal.
“I’m incredibly lucky that to have so many first-hand relationships with players and front-office members that I never could have dreamed about the success some players could have had. Whether it’s now-Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn or former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie or current Paris president David Kahn, when you are around these types of people, you understand where they came from and how interesting their stories are.”
“Jae’Sean wanted to chase a dream and he was nervous that he was turning down big contracts to come and play for us in Sydney. But Jae’sean and his agent believed he would be able to come to us and become a better player and get what he needed to take his game to the next level.”
In addition to having been the head coach of the Kings, Weaver has also worked with the Australia National Team as an assistant while also having had the opportunity at times to serve as the interim head coach, which was a helpful piece as it aided in him being the coach he is today. With the Kings, Weaver led the club to its first league finals appearance since 2008 in his only year with the team but saw the fruits of his labor pay off two seasons later with a championship.
“The time I had with the Australia National Team helped me appreciate where I am now in France and I’m lucky that this experience is helping me solve the puzzle. It started with the owner of the Kings, Paul Smith, and what he wanted to achieve. I had to be honest as to how I could help as well as what I was less confident in. We brought a great group to help build something and they won the championship last year and most colleagues from when I was there are still part of the team.
“In France my confidence is higher, Eric Schwartz and David Kahn are exceptional people and they are true to their word. They want to build something that can last and give opportunities to young players. The key is to compete and understand your priorities because sometimes you can get lost with 3,000-4,000 priorities instead of just three or four important ones.
Weaver has worked with many players and due to his creative and forward-thinking approach has seen many success stories. Some of those may be in the NBA while others may be in Europe, Australia or beyond. But one factor always seems to be the biggest reason why some will be in one place or another and that is luck.
“The number one reason is luck and it scares all of us how much luck plays in all of our lives. Timing, the situation that you’re in, contracts, misaligned incentives and there are also a lot of really good basketball players on this planet. Contacts, timing and health could the dice have them coming up to play in Israel or at Madison Square Garden. The more you coach the more you appreciate it. A player wants to get a role in the NBA and keep that role as there will always be someone trying to take that role from you. It’s no different for coaches.”
Hapoel Tel Aviv will obviously be a tough opponent as Weaver is already aware of since their first meeting in Paris ended in a 100-86 victory for the Reds in the second game of the season. However, this time around both teams will have a number of new faces available which will make the game even that much more intriguing. But while offense always plays a role in the outcome of a game, defense may well be the deciding factor for Weaver and his charges.
“The first time we played we didn’t have a number of players and they are with us now. Playing on the road and traveling is draining and can be a challenge, but we love competing in EuroCup. The zone defense that Hapoel used was effective in the first game and we will be better prepared for that. We also have to take care of the basketball, taking care of it is critical. Jordan McRae, JP Tokoto and J’Covan Brown have a lot of athleticism and to defend them we will have to be focused.”