The Next Step - a closer look at RASTA Vechta
VECHTA (Germany) - With a name like RASTA Vechta, it's pretty clear that our Basketball Champions League newcomers from Germany are willing to do things differently. A club named after Bob Marley was always going to catch the eye, but when they finished 4th in the German BBL last year, in the season after being promoted from the Pro A, the men from Vechta caught the eye for all the right reasons. Now more than halfway through the BCL Regular Season, RASTA Vechta are locked in a three-team tie for 3rd in Group B, with a very realistic chance of making the Play-Offs in their first season competing on the continent.
We spoke to Head Coach Pedro Calles about the way they do things in Vechta and his own journey to lead one of European basketball's biggest surprise packages.
At 36 Years old, you are not only the youngest Head Coach in the BCL this season but also the youngest in any of the three previous seasons. What is the story behind your coaching career starting at such a young age?
"I have played basketball since I was 6 years old, but at the age of 18, it was time I decided on whether to keep playing basketball or to go to university and get a degree. Partly the decision was due to the fact that I wasn't sure I was good enough to make a career as a player, but even at this stage, I had it in my mind to be involved with basketball from the sideline more than on the court playing. So I decided to take a sports science degree in Granada. By 23 it was clear that I wanted to be a coach."
It's not only unusual to be a Head Coach in Europe at such a young age, but it's also unusual for a coach in Europe (or any country for that matter) to successfully become a Head Coach without a professional playing background. For Coach Calles, however, there was never a doubt in his mind that the professional game was where his path would lead.
"Teaching basketball is my passion to start with, but even more so in the pro game. I have always enjoyed pushing boundaries and improving standards. The pro game was just a better fit for me because it allows me to be more demanding with the standards I can expect from the players and the program."
A Spanish Coach starting their Head Coaching journey in Germany is certainly a path less traveled. What brought you to Germany?
In 2011 I ended up as a Head Coach of Extremadura in LEB Silver, the 3rd Division in Spain but I had actually started my career as a Strength and Conditioning (S&C) coach. In the summer of 2012, Stefan Koch the Head Coach of Artland Dragons was looking for a strength coach. So I actually started as an S&C coach. It was then the following year when Tyrone McCoy was promoted to Head Coach and he promoted me to take more responsibilities with video, scouting, drills, and player development work."
We are a small city and we know that this club is very important for the city, so we need a culture in the team and the club that enables us to keep this relationship strong.
Whilst it is the norm to read about Head Coaches in the NBA starting their careers in the film room, in Europe, there is often no such thing as a film coordinator. Assistant Coaches will regularly fulfill a variety of roles as clubs often don't have the budget for coaches to specialize in one area alone. From S&C to video, to scouting, and also to player development workouts, Calles has a broad range of coaching experience to call on. In his case, this has clearly been an advantage more than a hindrance to his development.
"In the 10-15 years that I have been working in Basketball coaching, I have to say that video has helped me tremendously, as has the work I did on the court doing workouts. I have always felt as a coach that I want to see the whole picture and that I need to learn from every corner to get better. "
How did the move from Artland Dragons to RASTA Vechta come about?
"In 2015 Artland Dragons dropped to 3rd division for various reasons. Vechta is a city very close to Quakenbrück where Artland Dragons are based. At that time they (RASTA) were in Pro A (the 2nd division in Germany) and they hired Andreas Wagner as the new Head Coach, he was the guy that brought me to Rasta Vechta as an Assistant Coach."
From arriving at the club as the Assistant Coach in 2015 to Head Coach in 2018 would be considered by many in coaching circles to be a rapid ascent. What enabled your career to develop so quickly?
"Everything in my development started with, first of all, working hard. I was working every day to be the best assistant to the Head Coach, the best coach for the players and the best person for the organization. In the summer of 2018, the club approached me about the future and my role as the Head Coach of the organization. I spoke to my family first and the timing felt right."
The timing certainly seemed to be right. In his first season as Head Coach, Calles guided RASTA Vechta to a 4th place finish in the German BBL. This was followed by reaching the Semi-Finals of the Play-Offs and a 4th place finish again. Calles won BBL Coach of the Year in the process. Even for a club as bold as RASTA Vechta and a coach as ambitious as Pedro Calles, this kind of outcome was clearly beyond even their wildest pre-season targets.
"I don’t think even our highest expectations were close to what we achieved last season. I think, first of all, a lot of credit has to go to my staff and the players we had last season. What they did together was something incredible and it will stay for a long time in the memory for a lot of people in Vechta. The only targets we ever set were to put the best possible team together on the floor and to set the mentality of the culture we built."
The way that we play is very high-energy and demanding, it requires a very strong mindset.
Achieving success quickly makes for an exciting ride, but also brings new challenges. Not only are RASTA now challenged with maintaining a position in the Play-Off hunt domestically, but that 4th place finish also brought the possibility of playing in European competition (the BCL). The demands of playing twice a week and traveling across the continent were feared by many in Germany to be a step that the club wasn't ready to take. For Calles and Rasta Vechta it was a challenge they could meet if they trusted the culture of the club.
Even after achieving that (4th place), when the topic of playing international competition (BCL) was on the table, it wasn’t clear that we would be able to do it. We can’t forget where we come from, two years ago we were playing in the 2nd division in Germany and in one season everything changed. This has meant that we have had to change slightly as a club in our standards, to meet the extra demands, but what we are not changing is the culture and philosophy of the club.
How can you best describe the culture and philosophy you are working to build at the club?
"Our culture is just about working to get better every single day. We are a small city and we know that this club is very important for the city, so we need a culture in the team and the club that enables us to keep this relationship strong. This starts with understanding that as a small club, with a small budget we need to focus on developing players to reach the next level. It’s very important that we work smart to find the right character in the players. The way that we play is very high energy and demanding, it requires a very strong mindset. "
The sequence in the video below from Gameday 9 vs Pau-Lacq-Orthez, is a great example of that demanding, high-energy style of play. The video starts with RASTA pressuring the ball fullcourt, then in the halfcourt, they were fighting over screens, hustling to stay in front, and harassing with active hands. 20-year-old Phillip Herkenhoff (#14) hedged the ball screen then sprinted back to recover and get the steal. Finally, on the offensive end, we see RASTA's Point Guard, Jordan Davis (#1) complete the sequence by making a backdoor cut and throwing it down.
This relationship between building a style of play that fits the recruitment profile, and also has that synergy with the fans, is clearly something that Calles sees as a key foundation of the club.
"For the last two years at Rasta, the way we are playing basketball, I have had to go for mobile players that can cover a lot of ground and run up and down. This is also down to the budget because when you are looking for size, skills, and character, you are looking for a player that I can’t afford. In this club, we don’t have the position of a Sporting Director and my staff and I need to take care of the future of the squad. As a club, it's vital that we keep a map for the type of players we want to have at the club."
Can you expand on that map and talk about the recruiting process?
"If you start looking at recruiting in the summer, you are already behind. What I try to do is invest time into the recruiting process the whole year-round. We focus on the types of skills we need for each position and the type of players we need for our philosophy of playing basketball."
To emphasize the point further, Coach Calles spoke about how the profile of players they are able to recruit shapes their defensive schemes.
"An example is on the defensive end. If I have a mobile big man that can guard the pick-and-roll by hedging, do I need to bring in a more traditional rim protector, or do I bring in another mobile 5-man so that we have one solid way to cover the pick and roll?"
Kamari Murphy is a perfect fit for the fullcourt system at RASTA Vechta
We have already seen in the clip above with Phillip Herkenhoff at 6'10" (2.08m) hedging the pick-and-roll, but whether it's Herkenhoff, Kamari Murphy, or Michael Kessens at the center, we can see that Calles and his staff have opted for a player that gives them the ability to hedge the ball screen and play fullcourt basketball.
"We want a system that is about playing offense on defense. I believe you can affect the game more on defense and we want our opponents to be thinking about us. It’s true that it opens up a lot of space, but we want to play defense using the whole court and for the full 24 seconds in order to dictate the game."
How would you describe RASTA Vechta basketball on the offensive end?
"We want to play an attractive and also an efficient style of basketball. We always try to play to the players' strengths. If you have oranges, you have to get orange juice, and if you have apples you have to get apple juice."
When talking about building an offensive system, Coach Calles was keen to emphasize the balance between the player development that is such a huge part of the club's culture and building a style that fits with what the players can actually do.
"I think it’s a big mistake when you want to change your players. Always you want to have player development and improve players but every player has something they do well and you have to play in a way that maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses."
This philosophy has clearly been effective. Thus far this season Vechta have scored at 114 points per 100 possessions which ranks them 4th in the BCL.
With this season's roster, which strengths did you start building your system from first?
"I always start building my system from players that understand the game. IQ for me is on top of players with specific skills. If we want to play team basketball, we need players who - in the flow of the game - are capable of reading and reacting. After that, perhaps spacing is the most important concept in our offensive game."
This concept of building around the players' IQ in order to achieve a team basketball concept is yielding positive results. Vechta are also ranked 4th for Assist Percentage, with 72% of their field goals coming from an assist.
"Spacing for me is a dynamic concept, it’s not a static concept. If you treat spacing as a stationary concept - the way we play basketball nowadays - it’s not going to give you great looks every time. With that being said I obsess with the corners in our spacing. And corners mean corners, it doesn’t mean a meter above the corner."
When studying the film on the way Coach Calles has this RASTA team playing, it's easy to find examples of the obsession with corners. Every possession you will see RASTA fill both corners in transition and look to push passes ahead to the corner. That is, however, fairly common across the BCL. For RASTA the use of the corners is much more than that.
Watch the video below and notice their concept of using the player already standing in the corner to "Pin In" and screen for the player replacing them. This is a great example of dynamic vs static spacing.
Backdoor cuts from the corner are also a staple part of the RASTA diet in Vechta. Coach Calles' men are experts at searching out both corners and finding that moment of distraction to cut behind a defender's eyesight.
Perhaps the idea most unique to Calles and RASTA Vechta is the concept of attacking the strongside corner defender when teams try to shrink the floor. When faced with Vechta's spacing, teams often try to negate it by playing several steps higher than the corner defensively. This RASTA team not only wants to stretch the floor by filling both corners, but they are also determined to force teams to respect that space.
Can you talk about your roster this year and the players the system is built around?
"I don’t like to talk about individual players. For me, it is about the team but if we are talking IQ we are also talking leadership and our captain Josh Young is a fantastic leader for our team."
Young is having the kind of season that defies the fact that he was recruited to RASTA Vechta after four seasons in the German Pro A. 12.9 points, 3.7 assists and shooting 43% from behind the arc, are the kind of numbers you would expect from the league's biggest name recruits.
Josh Young has developed into one of the BCL's most productive guards
Calles was also keen to point out that Young is far from being the only player on the roster that has taken the step up from a lower tier.
"All the players I brought this season came from the second division in the country they were playing. Max DiLeo is also another player that we brought to our club from the Pro A. He is one of the guys that data and stats don’t tell us a lot about what he brings. His mentality is one of the reasons he is always among the leaders for deflections and hustle plays. Video, chemistry, and feelings tell us a lot about him."
Steve Vasturia came to Vechta from the Spanish LEB Gold after his rookie year in Berlin didn't pan out and Ishmail Wainwright was another find from Nurnberg Falcons in the German Pro A. Even Trevis Simpson - who was brought to the club to bring some experience of continental competition - arrived in Vechta from the Italian 2nd tier.
"He (Simpson) was one of the guys with experience playing in continental competition. He played with his Finnish club (Kataja Basket) in the FIBA Europe Cup several years ago. For me, it was important that we recruited a player that knows about travel and playing two games a week."
Simpson, of course, has been catching the eye from the very first time he stepped on the floor in the BCL....
Would it be fair to say that Jordan Davis is one of the players from outside your normal recruitment profile?
"With Jordan Davis, I have to say that he is a completely different player to what we have had in his position before. He has made a big difference since he came. He is a dominant player with the ball in his hands, he can create 1v1 going to the basket. We are constantly looking to find ways within the team concept to give him the situations to create an advantage."
Davis certainly has been dominant. The American guard's rookie season stalled slightly in Manresa but since arriving in Vechta he has put up an impressive 22 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists. The action in the video below is perhaps the best example of Calles finding ways to adapt Davis talent to the RASTA team concept. "Veer screens" (false ball screens) are a regular feature in Calles' system (often employed to create separation on the ball or for a screen away). For Davis in the clip below, all the Veer needed to do was empty a double gap on the perimeter and his talent did the rest.
No conversation about RASTA Vechta could be complete without discussing the fans in the RASTA Dome. Coach Calles had already alluded to their importance when he spoke about the club's relationship with the city.
"I have been working in this club since we moved from Pro A to BBL, but also when we dropped from BBL back down to the Pro A. They never turned their back on the team. I have huge respect for these fans because no matter the results they support and respect the team."
The atmosphere in the RASTA Dome has been loud from the very first game against Anwil Wloclawek but Calles was keen to point out that for all the noise they create, the fans in Vechta also create a respectful environment.
"I have to say the atmosphere they create in our Rasta dome is different from anything we experience anywhere else. They are supportive but they are also respectful to other teams and I think this is the best way to support the team in modern, professional sport."
Up next for RASTA Vechta is the crucial visit of Hapoel Jerusalem to Germany. This is the kind of fixture that those fans in Vecta could have only dreamed of in 2018, and now here they are, not only playing clubs like Hapoel Jerusalem but also playing with the kind of confidence that could see them pick up another famous win in their hunt for the Play-Offs.