10 - 12
February 2023
Kevin Burleson Rio Grande Valley Vipers
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Rio Grande Valley Vipers pack some international experience for FIBA Intercontinental Cup trip

TENERIFE (Spain) - They won the NBA G League title twice in the last four years. Now the Rio Grande Valley Vipers are set for international glory, flying to Tenerife, Spain with a number of well-known names,  both in the USA and internationally, on their roster.

Need European experience? Okay, count on Josh Reaves, former Besiktas Icrypex star in the Basketball Champions League, who also played for Tofas Bursa in Turkey.

Count on Moustapha Heron, who played in the British Basketball League, then moved to Hungary and Iceland. Count on Shawn Occeus, who spent a year with Phoenix, but not in Arizona - it was in Germany, with Phoenix Hagen in the ProA.

Count on coach Kevin Burleson. Back in the day during his career as a player, Burleson was the floor general for teams in Germany, Turkey, Romania and Egypt.

"I believe our experiences overseas will help us prepare for each game. It will help the team understand the rules, the different officiating style, and the pace of the international game," the Vipers coach said ahead of the FIBA Intercontinental Cup.

Burleson only took over in 2022, but he already knows what the Vipers are all about. It's not just about developing the players for the NBA, it's also about getting them to the next stage while having the right attitude towards the game of basketball, and the approach that translates into winning games.

"The FIBA Intercontinental Cup is a perfect chance to keep building winning habits, and to compete at a high level. It would be great to win both games, but I’m more concerned about playing the right way and continuing to grow and improve," Burleson explained.

The NBA G League champions will go up against Sao Paulo in the Semi-Finals. The Brazilians are the winners of the BCL Americas, a gigantic club with a rich history. If the Vipers make it through to the Final, they will face either the BAL champions, US Monastir, or Lenovo Tenerife, the hosts and two-time BCL champions in Europe.

"Preparing for international teams can be difficult because their style of play is different. It’s going to be important for us to compete and execute at a high level on both ends of the court," the 43-year-old playcaller said, when asked to look forward at those different challenges.

There are two players that stand out among the many familiar names on the Rio Grande Valley roster. The first is Willie Cauley-Stein, a center who has appeared in 422 NBA games in his career, averaging a career-high 12.8 points per game back in 2017-18 when he was with the Sacramento Kings; the second is Cassius Stanley, the high-flying guard who was in the NBA Slam Dunk contest back in 2021.

Willie Cauley-Stein and coach Burleson during a Vipers practice session

Cauley-Stein is still just a 29-year-old with a lot of basketball in front of him. Stanley is 23, looking for another shot in the NBA, after 33 games with the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons.

"Willie brings veteran leadership, rim protection, playmaking, and is a calming presence on the court that his teammates rely on. Cassius brings an exciting style of play that energizes his teammates and the fans. He’s a very explosive player who is hard to defend because of his ability to get to the basket. I’m lucky to have both players," Burleson said.

Lucky sounds about right. With these two, the Vipers are all about three-point shooting and offensive rebounding, ranking top five in both of those categories in the NBA G League. They won three straight games, building up a good rhythm ahead of their flight to the Canary Islands.

However, the schedule will become a bit hectic. Three more games next week, then picking up frequent flyer miles to Europe and back, and getting back to their usual duties to end February.

The best way to fight the jet lag? Bringing that beautiful FIBA Intercontinental Cup trophy back to the USA for the first time since 1974, when the Maryland Terrapins defeated Italy's Ignis Varese in the Final.