LAS VEGAS — Jama Mahlalela has been with the Warriors for less than a year and his influence already inspired a laudatory epithet.
The Jama Effect.
Front office staff and coaches coined the term after witnessing something special during draft prospect workouts. During the “2:30 drill,” a solo shooting and running exercise that tests prospects’ skill and conditioning, everyone noticed players who had worked with Mahlalela were scoring higher than the rest.
It was no secret why.
“He’s just a high-energy, loving-life guy,” Kirk Lacob, the Warriors’ executive vice president of basketball operations, said. “And he emanates that. And he’s able to communicate.”
The Jama Effect has spread throughout the organization. Hired from the Toronto Raptors in a coaching staff shakeup last offseason as an assistant and director of player development, Mahlalela was instrumental in transforming players such as Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II into essential parts of the Warriors’ championship run — all while helping develop Golden State’s crop of young players.
“Every day, guys are excited to get to the gym to see what Jama has prepared for everyone,” Payton said.
That was more than enough for Mahlalela, 41, to earn a promotion to the front of the bench to help replace former assistant coach Mike Brown next season. Mahlalela will be a chief of staff, of sorts, with more in-game responsibilities, including crafting substitution patterns and drawing up special teams plays — think out-of-bounds and end-of-game plays. This summer, he’s also head coach of the Warriors’ Summer League team in Las Vegas. All while maintaining his player development duties.
The work Mahlalela does usually functions well behind the scenes — a good coach will typically go unnoticed. But he’s made his way boldly to center stage, potentially putting his name his on the short list of NBA head coaching candidates.
What does the Jama Effect feel like? Players say he’s an expert communicator. Decision makers say he has a knack for simplifying complex analytics that turn players from good to great.
“He’s very forward-thinking,” Lacob said. “He’s not reactive, he’s proactive about things. I don’t want to say we’ve never had somebody like that, but he’s a different breed from any coach we’ve had.”
Mahlalela says it’s simpler than that: He sees the best in people.
“I assume people have the best intentions all the time – my wife gets mad at me for it all the time,” he said. “That allows me to view the person and situation and environment in a positive way.
“I’ve just always done the job I’m doing the best I can.”
One of Mahlalela’s first promotions came early in life. While studying at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he took a summer volunteer job for the Toronto Raptors — his hometown team.
His job: Mix the Gatorade.
“I would pour the perfect portion and mix that thing to make the best Gatorade I could,” he said. “I did that job as well as I could, and they asked me to take the next job.”
Mahlalela’s resume grew fast. Four years after graduating college and taking an assistant job at the University of Toronto, he was named the director of basketball operations for NBA Asia. He did that job for five years, then returned to Toronto to take an assistant coaching job with the Raptors in 2013. Starting in 2018, he spent two seasons as head coach of the Raptors’ G League team, the 905, before rejoining the NBA bench as an assistant.
It was with the Raptors that Mahlalela established himself not just as a hard worker, but at the forefront of the NBA’s analytic revolution. He gained a reputation for developing Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet into top players.
“We felt we were ahead of the curve,” Mahlalela said. “We had a larger analytics department than most other places. We were sort of advanced in some of the ways we were looking at the game.”
When the Warriors decided to shake up their coaching staff after falling short of the playoffs in 2021, head coach Steve Kerr voiced a desire to lean in more on analytics.
“He told us that he wanted something a little different than what we had last year,” Lacob said. “Someone analytically inclined and organized. He stopped there because he didn’t know what that looks like necessarily. He didn’t know what he was asking for. We brought him Jama.”
The Warriors’ 2022 title was won a few ways. First, by the talent and chemistry of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Second, their supporting cast stepped up. Mahlalela’s fingerprints are all over Wiggins’ and Payton’s rise.
Wiggins’ All-Star selection and career-best 3-point shooting numbers were nudged, in part, with Mahlalela’s encouragement. He showed Wiggins back-end data through NOAH Basketball, an analytics-based program that showed Wiggins that his best shot location his is just about anywhere beyond the arc. All Wiggins had to do was move away from the difficult mid-range shot and search for catch-and-shoot 3s.
“Anyone can pull up numbers. Anyone can use them to try to get their point across,” Lacob said. “But the ability to do it in a way that actually means something to other coaches and players, he’s really good.”
Similarly, a defensive savant like Payton needed to find his comfort zone offensively in order to stay on the court. Mahlalela and Payton worked to help his pick-and-roll abilities his and hone his corner three efficiency. Payton said working with Mahlalela made his confidence his skyrocket, helping him parlay a shaky 15th man roster spot into a huge free agency deal with Portland.
“When you see it go in, you gotta be excited to shoot the next one,” Payton said. “Working on my shot made me excited for games and gave me confidence to be able to shoot those.”
In Summer League, Moses Moody has been working on his rim finishing. Moody acted primarily as a catch-and-shoot player during his rookie year, but the numbers show he can be a more impactful player if he raises his rim finishing efficiency a few percentage points. Analytics tell Mahlalela and the coaching staff that improvement there will give the Warriors a competitive advantage. Moody’s only responsibility is to figure out how to get there.
So he’s been watching film on Boston’s Jayson Tatum, one of the league’s top rim finishers, in search of a few adjustments. Mahlalela helped him translate complex analytical information into a tangible basketball task.
“He’s very communicative, that’s what I appreciate most about him,” Moody said. “He’s willing and able to communicate. We work out together every day.”
Kerr has said openly he needs right-hand assistants to translate analytic information. It’s why the team was thrilled to have Kenny Atkinson return after considering an offer to become the Hornets’ head coach. It’s also why Mahlalela will have a more prominent role next season.
The promotion also makes Mahlalela more visible for hungry teams looking for their next head coach.
“Steve doesn’t believe in hiring people that he doesn’t think will have a coaching future,” Lacob said. “You never know when you first hire someone. Now that we’ve worked with (Mahlalela) for a year, we have a better understanding.”
Head coaching again — this time at the NBA level — would be a dream come true for Mahlalela. For now, he’s focused on excelling at the task at hand.
“When you pinpoint only one direction, you lose everything that’s out there,” he said. “Would I love to be a head coach? Sure. Hope it happens at some point. But I’m going to do this job as best I can.”