Milwaukee Bucks

Q & A with Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst

JH: After you are an NBA All-Star, the Most Improved Player in the league and a second team all-NBA selection, the days of sneaking up are gone. So, for him to talk about that as a goal is more than fair. I’m happy that Giannis is that confident. Last season, you had all your pieces together for a total of eight minutes — the game in which Khris Middleton returned from his hamstring surgery was the game in which Jabari Parker tore his ACL again. How is Parker progressing?

JH: Physically, mentally, he is doing tremendous. His body looks fantastic. In terms of what we think Jabari will come back as, and I think Jabari believes, he will come back better, faster, stronger. If you saw him now, you would believe that.

How does that impact our season? We know going in we won’t have Jabari for a significant part. But like we did without Khris at the beginning of the season, we were able to weather that storm. There’s a storm. Jabari is a huge piece. But we think we can weather it. Parker went down in early February. Do you have an estimate for when he’ll be back?

 JH: For Jabari and the Bucks, this is not about this year. This is about a 22-year-old kid who is one of the best young talents in the league, and making sure he comes back physically in the right way. On the subject of young, you’re 34. So, are you ahead of schedule, are you right on schedule or did you even have a schedule for this career opportunity?

JH: I never had a schedule in mind. But since I started working in the NBA, I had a dream of ending up on top of a basketball operations and had a goal to run a franchise. My approach has always been to be the best at what you do, in your current role. Excel at it, embrace it, and then when other opportunities present themselves, people will look to you. I’ve done that every step of the way, and I’ve gotten opportunities to advance.

Although I’m 34 years old, this is my 13th season working with an NBA team, from starting as an intern all the way to being general manager of a franchise. So, I do have quite a bit of experience in the league. Right, so how was it that you could afford to work for the Detroit Pistons for two years without getting paid?

JH: I had been an intern for about a year with the Pistons during my senior year at Rochester [Mich.] College [where Horst played four years on the school’s USCAA team, with national titles in 2004 and 2005]. I was just getting college credits. [After graduation] I got a job at FedEx Ground and loaded trucks from about 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every morning. Then I went home, showered and showed up at the Pistons’ practice facility about 9 a.m. and worked till about 2 p.m. That’s what I did for another 12 to 14 months till I was basically dead.

That’s when John Hammond said “Hey, we’re going to pay you $7 an hour for 30 hours a week, even though you’re going to work way more than 30 hours.” I was like, ‘Yes!’ That was all I needed. But about three or four days before John approached me, my manager at FedEx told me he was moving on to manage the daytime shift. So, I got offered a $45,000 job to manage the night shift on the dock. I thought about it for a couple days. While you worked with the Pistons (2005-08) and the Bucks, how did you not get psyched out by the odds against your career path?

JH: I never even thought of it. I had an opportunity to work every day next to Joe Dumars, John Hammond and Flip Saunders at the time. I thought “When would I ever get to do this again?” Do you feel a lot of eyes on you now. C’mon, we’ve got former NBA All-Stars aspiring to this type of job, career basketball folks 10 and 20 years older than you. Is it daunting to feel you’ve got to prove yourself?

JH: I think you’ll learn about me, I don’t stress out too often. I’m very even-keeled. I don’t worry about things I can’t control. I’m realistic, so I understand with the ebb and flow of a season, I’ll probably feel those pressures more. But at this moment, I’m not thinking at all about it. Do you see any advantages of having this job at your age?

JH: Maybe a level of energy, though I’ve seen people in this type of position who have more years to their name than I do. But the NBA is ever-changing. For instance, when I first started, cap guys were not a thing; everyone had an outside counsel that worked on the CBA and basketball offices were not that in tune with the cap. That’s why I got an opportunity. Shortly after that, analytics became a big thing in our sport and that’s why those people got opportunities.

My point is, with my youth, I think I’m really an open-minded, collaborative person. Not that older people aren’t, but I think it’s a strength of mine. I think that will help us find “the next thing” – what’s “the next thing” that NBA teams are going to find to have competitive advantages? Just like Jason has a young staff and they’re constantly trying to figure out, what’s “the next way” to play basketball? What’s “the next way” to get a competitive advantage on the floor? There are people in your position who go back 35 years, for instance, Pat Riley in Miami dealing with Danny Ainge in Boston. Coming in as a new guy, without those old relationships, how do you break in?

JH: You do see deals get made between people who have connections, but at the end of the day, if someone wants to discuss a player on our team, they still have to call me. The players are what drive the conversations. If a free agent wants to land on your team, the agent has to call you, whether he knows you or not. They have to call you because you’re in that position. So I don’t see it as a huge barrier. Is it helpful that you aren’t the only new kid on the block? We’ve got Koby Altman taking over for David Griffin in Cleveland and Scott Perry moving into a whole new world in New York in Phil Jackson’s void.

JH: Whether they’ve been in their current positions for 10 or 12 years, at one point they were the young person who got hired. So I’ve had [Thunder GM] Sam Presti reach out to offer words of wisdom. Or [Portland’s] Neil Olshey or [Phoenix’s] Ryan McDonough or [Denver’s] Tim Connelly, guys who at one point were doing this job for the first time. So there is some safety in the fraternity that you’re part of. With all due respect, people will be watching to see if you have the heft to say “no” to Jason Kidd or to the owners who are signing your paycheck. How you address those concerns?

JH: Obviously, ownership is ownership. Jason Kidd is our coach. They’re going to be involved in everything we do. But in taking this job, we talked about these things. Ultimately, I’ve been hired to run the basketball operations for the Milwaukee Bucks, to have the final say and to make the final decisions. I’m going to operate as such, and I have their support in doing that. The only way you can really set aside those concerns is by living it every day and watching the transactions unfold. Any sense of feeling intimidated or awed by this moment?

JH: It’s not intimidating to me. It’s humbling that you get to have that type of authority and decision-making. It’s also energizing. And then – intimidating is not the right word for me, maybe it’s angst – there is that piece that says, “OK, I’ve made that decision, let’s see how it works.” Like a Tony Snell contract [four years, $46 million]. You sign him, you say “Here we go. We believe in this guy, it’s the right thing for this organization.” That happens with trades, that happens with draft picks. Now my name is associated with those things. That’s something I’ve never experienced. So today, not a whole lot of angst. As the season unfolds, we’ll see how that goes.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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