Hawks Talon GC Head Coach Wesley Acuff Talks 2K, Hawks, and More
Wesley Acuff has long been a fan of basketball and video games, but for much of his life, had no avenue to connect the two professionally. So he waited. After graduating from the Art Institute of California in Los Angeles with a bachelor’s degree in filmmaking, Acuff moved to Atlanta to work at Turner Sports, where he spent 11 years as an editor and producer for NBA TV and the NBA’s website. When the NBA started the 2K League in 2018, Acuff, an avid gamer and basketball fan, was intrigued. He tried out for the league and qualified as one of the top 250 players in the world, but just missed the cutoff to make a roster. With a wife and a son, Acuff’s ability to pursue a career in gaming was limited, so he stayed in Atlanta, hoping the Hawks would eventually get into the gaming market.
“I’m really engulfed in the NBA 2K League, so I was already watching every team to see what positions were announced, what teams were joining the league,” Acuff said. “So I watched it daily and just tried to find any new information I could on that.”
In 2018, the Hawks unveiled Hawks Talon GC, which would join the 2K League for the 2019 season. Acuff applied and interviewed for the job, and in November of 2018, left Turner to become the Head Coach and General Manager for Atlanta’s 2K squad. “I put my hat in the ring,” he said. “From there it all just fell into place for me.”
The upcoming season will be his -- and Hawks Talon’s -- second in the 2K League. Much like its NBA parent, Acuff’s team is building from the ground up, with a ball-dominant guard spearheading a spread offense. Last season, Talon GC finished 18th out of 21 teams with a 5-11 record. This offseason, they acquired Michael Diaz-Cruz -- known as “BP” -- who finished second in MVP voting last season and, like Trae Young, has a penchant for working in the pick-and-roll and launching audacious off-the-dribble jumpers. “There are similarities between his and Trae’s game,” Acuff said. “They shoot a lot of 3s, make a lot of 3s, and he’s a very impactful player.”
But, in the same way Lloyd Pierce approaches coaching the Hawks, Acuff wants his team to be able to lean on its defense despite an outwardly offensive identity. “We’re gonna win games on the defensive side of the ball,” he said. “We’ve gotta spend a lot of time getting our defensive chemistry together, and then everything else should fall into place for us.”
The regular season was scheduled to begin on March 24 before being postponed, so Hawks Talon GC is currently competing in the NBA 2K League’s ‘Three For All Showdown,’ which continues with a matchup against Wizards DG in the Round of 16. This week, Acuff chatted with Sports Illustrated about his team’s success in that tournament thus far, Hawks Talon’s rise in the 2K League, and the future of the league itself.
Interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Sports Illustrated: Hawks Talon is in the middle of the “Three For All” 3-on-3 tournament right now. I admittedly have very little expertise on Esports, so walk me through what that’s been like for you guys and what lies ahead.
Wes Acuff: This is being treated like our preseason right now. It’s really exciting. Basically the league is putting this showdown on where we have influencers, people from other sports, celebrities, ex-NBA players, and we’re all mixed in there together on different sides of the bracket. Yesterday was our debut, and we played Team Savage, which had an NFL player [Derrius Guice] on it, and we played Knicks Gaming right after. So for us, we went out there and we were able to get two series wins and advance to be able to play on Thursday. We’re just waiting on the rest of the bracket to come out so we can see who we match up against tomorrow night.
The biggest thing I’m curious about is how the strategy and tactics in 2K compare to what you might see in an NBA game. Are y’all running a lot of plays and different coverages and things like that? Or is it a little bit more freewheeling than actual basketball?
It’s basketball, so that doesn’t change. We’re playing the same sport, so the concept is the same: play defense, get stops, get buckets. So that’s pretty much the same. The difference is you deal with video-game mechanics -- animations, different mechanics on the game that require you to have some stick skills to string combinations together. So that’s kind of the main difference. You can still draw up situational plays and still need to do clock management, so in a lot of ways it’s the same as the regular sport. From the electronic aspect of it and the mechanical aspect of it, that’s pretty much the big difference.
The Hawks are one of the younger, more up-tempo teams in the league, and their style is very much built around one specific player. Is there any effort on your end to try and pattern your team’s style after theirs?
We know that we have a culture here in Atlanta, especially at the Hawks, that we’re trying to bring to the table. In doing that, I was able to land a guy that’s a very impactful player. His name is BP, he was the runner-up last year for MVP in our league. And so we made a trade for him this offseason. There are similarities between his and Trae’s game -- they shoot a lot of 3s, make a lot of 3s, and he’s a very impactful player. So while I don’t try to build my team exactly like the Hawks -- I kind of get the guys that I think are gonna work for us in the sport that we play -- there are still some similarities between some of the things we both have going on.
That stood out when I watched some of your highlights. BP shoots deep 3s and sort of dominates the ball, which leads my to my next question: how would you describe your system? You mentioned some of the mechanical challenges of this being a video game, but what are the general concepts that guide the team?
Very similar [to the Hawks]. We’re coming off of a rebuild and we’ve got a completely new team, minus one player who played for us last year. But the way that we’re planning to approach this and to practice is very much the same: put the ball in BP’s hands, spread the floor, and let’s see what offense we can create out of that. The main thing I’ve been trying to get them to focus on is: we’re gonna win games on the defensive side of the ball. We’ve gotta spend a lot of time getting our defensive chemistry together, and then everything else should fall into place for us.
What kind of relationship does your team have with the Hawks’ players or coaches?
We’re all family and we’re under the same brand, we’re in the same building, so it’s all love. I think there are some things that in the future are gonna hopefully allow for there to be mixing of everybody, but right now we’re just locked in in our facility when we were able t be in our facility, trying to get better and get ready for this season. But things happened so fast where we had to shift to remote play from home. So we haven’t been in the office much lately.
What has that been like for you guys? I’d imagine that because you can play 2K online, it hasn’t been as hard to make that transition away from the facility as it’s been for other athletes.
That’s the silver lining for us. It is virtual, it is video games, so we have been able to at least continue to play. But it’s been a huge adjustment for us. Going from being in person and having that energy and just being in there together and figuring things out, to now everybody’s doing it remotely and from home, it’s been a huge adjustment. But we’re making it work, because at the end of the day, at least our sport allows us to be able to do this remotely, so we’re happy for that.
What are your expectations for this 2K Players Tournament that the NBA is putting on. Do you know anything about these guys’ 2K chops?
I know a few of them play. I don’t want to make predictions or expectations, I just want to throw my support out there for Trae. I’m hoping Trae can go out there and get some W’s and get some wins and bring some home, make Atlanta look good.
For people who may have never watched the 2K League, take me through what you’re doing during a typical game. Where are you standing? How are you communicating with the players? How similar is it to what someone like Lloyd Pierce would be doing during a Hawks game?
Exactly like you explained, except we prepare in advance what the schemes are gonna be, what plays we need. I’m pacing back and forth, I’m very much involved in the game. We’re all on headsets communicating with one another, so they can hear me, and I can even walk up on stage and talk to them during timeouts and we get to huddle up during quarter breaks, stuff like that. So the strategy is always to be communicative, but I’m always letting my guys go out there and play. This is what they do, this is what they’re good at, and that’s why they’re here. We try not to overcoach them, and let them get out there and do what we planned on and then just be that guiding force when the time is right. So it’s very much just like regular basketball.
What kind of future do you see for this league? It’s obviously pretty young and your team is even younger than the league itself. Where do you see this going as the audience for it in the U.S. grows?
I think we’ve gotta look beyond the United States. I think just having Gen.G join our league -- the team from Shanghai -- has shown what this league is capable of doing, having our first international team. I think that right there is case in point of what this league is able to do. Because it’s a video game, because it’s remote, it’s able to grow in places that we could only have hoped for.
Hawks Talon GC takes on Wizards District Gaming on Thursday at 8 p.m. in Round 2 of the Three for All Showdown. Fans can watch the streams of the NBA 2K League Three For All Showdown on Twitch and YouTube at 8 p.m. tonight. Hawks Talon GC’s games will be streamed live on the club’s official Twitch channel.