“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
The NBA Developmental League is full of opportunistic players, hungry at the possibility of playing for an NBA team. They are the unwanted, the unknowns, and the undeniable veterans looking to get back in the mix. They are collectively searching for the same thing while working towards a team’s goal of winning each night, a virtually impossible feat. Whether a team is looking to add to its roster a role player, or supplant it with a temporary fix, the D-League has everything a team needs to help take its squad to the next level, and the future of the game resides here.
Fact: 120 current NBA players have D-League experience, that’s nearly one-third of those currently playing in the league (including those sent on assignment). What it says is the D-League is producing quality talent as players are allowed to foster in an NBA format with scouts just a short distance away, able to view their potential roster additions just a few feet away at times (as opposed to scanning YouTube for various clips of players performing overseas and then deciding if they want to send a scout to watch someone in person).
The benefits of having talent so close to home allows players an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have. With 14 of the 17 teams in the D-League having a sole affiliation with a single NBA team, it shows the value teams are beginning to place on having a minor league system at the their fingertips.
Fact: Of the eight teams represented by a single Western Conference team, six of them are playoff bound if the season ended today, including the top three teams (Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City). The winning tradition starts at the D-League level, and it’s no coincidence those teams that value their developmental ability are flourishing in the Association. Those teams with poor records (mostly in the horrible Eastern Conference) reflect in their D-League affiliates as well, with only two of the six teams in the Eastern Conference with single affiliates earning playoff spots (Miami, Boston)
What does the D-League do? First, it provides NBA teams the ability to assign players to their D-League affiliates to give them valuable playing time they might not otherwise see with their team. How does someone expect a player to improve if they aren’t given an opportunity to perform under the team’s system with significant minutes? The D-League affords teams that opportunity, and while it’s rare to see a true superstar emerge from the D-League, it’s great for role players to find their niche on the court and make contributions with their NBA team.
Consider this — without the D-League, scouts wouldn’t have been able to see Jeremy Lin get quality minutes with the Reno Bighorns, where he averaged 20 points a game. It allows general managers and other top team officials to take a chance on a player that couldn’t get a second look otherwise. Lin went undrafted and was signed by the Golden State Warriors before being cut by the team before the start of the 2011 season.
Chris Andersen was the first player ever called-up to the NBA from the D-League after just playing two games in the 2001 season with the Fayetteville Patriots. Matt Barnes found time in the D-League after playing for UCLA and going undrafted. Matt Barnes found his place in the D-League playing for the same Patriots in 2002 after being drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies and traded to the Cavaliers with Nick Anderson for Wesley Person. Barnes was cut in training camp and didn’t see his first playing time in the NBA until 2004.
Second, it allows teams to implement their system at the minor league level, thus expanding their benches beyond the maximum 13 players if needed. It’s easier to acclimate a player to a system they are familiar with as opposed to signing a free-agent who is unfamiliar with the team’s rotation/scheme and needs to be worked in via practices/playing time. The D-League makes that transition much easier for those players looking to earn their keep.
Just how is a player called-up to the Association? The Developmental League owns nearly all the players’ contracts, with the biggest exception coming from players assigned to the D-League via the affiliate rule before the season begins.
Players invited to an NBA team’s training camp but are cut are allowed to be assigned to a team’s D-League affiliate. A “Thanks, you’re not quite there yet, but we’d like to keep an eye on you” message. Each NBA team can assign up to three players to its respective affiliate. Those D-League rights are then owned by the NBA team. It does not mean, however, that team teams own their NBA rights, which is why Seth Curry of the Santa Cruz Warriors was signed by the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this week.
Even if there isn’t a D-League team in your area, you can always visit their YouTube Channel and watch all the games live. Like any other sport, some teams are much more exciting to watch and you can follow your favorite team’s affiliate. You can also view the team’s top prospects by visiting their homepage at nba.com/dleague and see which players are likely to earn a call-up in the near future.
Like Dewayne Dedmon of Santa Cruz, who was called up initially by Golden State earlier this season, but then cut after just playing with the team for six games. He currently leads the D-League in rebounds (16.4) and currently has 10 consecutive double-doubles for the team. Dedmon, 24, has only been playing organized basketball since he was 18. The D-League allows Dedmon to continue working on improving his game and learning an NBA system at the same time.
“If he keeps playing like that, he won’t be here for much longer,” said Santa Cruz Warriors coach Casey Hill after Dedmon put up 13 points to go with 18 rebounds against the Idaho Stampede on Dec. 22. All it takes is one team to give someone an opportunity.
The Developmental League is a place where the NBA can implement rule changes on the smaller stage before applying them to their own. One of those rules is the playoff format the D-League uses.
Since there are only 17 teams in the D-League, 8 teams make the playoffs. Instead of simply being seeded first-through-eigth like the Eastern and Western Conferences, the D-League does it a little bit differently. Out of the eight teams that make the postseason, the top seed gets to choose its first-round opponent, then the second seed does the same until all teams are matched accordingly. This is a great idea that rewards those top seeds for finishing out their season rather than being simplistic. Maybe that number four seed just suffered the loss of its star player for its postseason run.
It’s also a place where teams can implement strategy to verify it’s plausibility before it’s used in the NBA. The Rio Grande Valley Vipers (11-2), an affiliate of the Houston Rockets, for example, have virtually eliminated the mid-range jumper and live either inside the paint or the three-point line, nothing in the middle. They currently average an insane 45.6 three-point field-goal attempts per contest. They make 17 of those shots on average, nearly one-third more than the next-closest team (Los Angeles D-Fenders make 12 three-pointers on average a night). In comparison, their NBA affiliate Houston shoots the most three-pointers in the NBA at just over 26 attempts per contest. It’s an opportunity for Houston to play with offensive schemes/plays in the D-League and see what works and what doesn’t.
With Dwight Howard in the mix, it seems appropriate for the team to try and spread the floor as much as possible to open up the middle for the big man. After all, anything inside the three-point line is worth the same amount of points, regardless of distance. Is this a trend that will continue with other teams in the NBA? It’s hard to say, but with Houston making strides with its top D-League team — which saw significant contributions from the likes of Patrick Beverly last year — the potential is there for Rio Grande Valley to repeat as NBDL champions.
It’s all about opportunity for these players, and all it takes is one team, one general manager to take a calculated risk on a player to give them that opportunity they’ve been dreaming of. A journey of fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing in the NBA. I see a D-League in the future where each NBA team has its own affiliate, providing more players the chance to prove to themselves, and the naysayers that they can make it to the next level.