The Bright Future of Development: Understanding the NBA D-League, Its Usefulness, and Its Future (Part 2)
As we explored in Part One, the D-League has become a bigger part of how NBA teams develop their young players. With unlimited assignments under the most recent CBA, teams have been able to use the D-League with more regularity to get young players more playing time and experience. In turn, the quality of play in the D-League has risen, which has resulted in players being more willing to accept the D-League as an opportunity rather than a demotion, particularly once players go back on a second assignment.
“I just think the time I was down there I just had a lot of fun and just got to play,” Mike Scott said. ”I wasn’t playing a lot of minutes here. I’m not going to lie, the first time I went down there I was disappointed. I was like, ‘Why am I in the D-League? I shouldn’t be here,’ but I learned from it, and the second time I went down there I was excited to go and just play. Just actually play basketball and I had a lot more confidence when I got back here.”
Getting assigned players to commit to playing in the D-League and having them view it as an opportunity to better themselves still takes some convincing. However, as Wes Wilcox — Atlanta Hawks Assistant GM — explains, the experience can be invaluable to a player not just for their development, but as an opportunity for them to show NBA personnel people their value.
“We don’t use the term ‘send down,’ we use the term ‘assign,’ because it’s truly that. It’s not a demotion. In many ways, it’s an investment in their careers, which is a great opportunity for all players. We tell guys all the time, as a personnel guy in the NBA, as a scout, we get to see nine players a game as a team, maybe 10, so we might see 20 players in a game. We don’t get to see players 11-15 very often, and most of those players are either veterans on expiring deals and near the end of their career, or they’re young players. So, we get to see young players play in Summer League or on assignment, and for young players, if they don’t get to play, NBA teams don’t really get to know who they are. We know what they were in college, but we don’t know the evolution of that player. So the assignment of that player, to them, means a great deal.”
Players have begun to recognize the value of the D-League for their careers by seeing the success of many players that have spent time early in their career.
“Guys, they’re getting picked up from the D-League, getting contracts,” Scott said. “Now, after being down there twice, I don’t see it as a negative thing. You’re down there to get better, develop your skills and just play.”
There are plenty of examples of players that have parlayed their D-League success into NBA contracts. The Hawks’ own Shelvin Mack spent time with the Maine Red Claws during the 2012-13 season scoring 20.1 points per game with 7.7 assists per game in 23 appearances before finally catching on with the Hawks late in that season and landing a contract through this season.
Just this week, the Hawks called up James Nunnally from the Bakersfield Jam and signed him to a 10-day contract. Nunnally was in his second season with the Jam and was averaging 18.2 points per game and shot 41.5% from three prior to being called up. Nunnally’s success in the recent D-League Showcase in Reno, helped solidify him as one of the top prospects in the D-League. The Hawks, looking for another shooter with length on the wing, were able to see Nunnally exhibit his skills with the Jam and called him up.
Amir Johnson, currently of the Toronto Raptors, is one of the best, and earliest, examples of a player that took advantage of his assignments to the D-League. Johnson played 40 games in the D-League in his first two seasons after being drafted by the Pistons in 2005. In those 40 games Johnson averaged 18.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in 32.1 minutes per game. Despite playing only 163 minutes in 11 NBA games over those first two seasons, Johnson was able to cash in on his terrific D-League play to earn a three-year contract extension after the 2006-07 season.
The Houston Rockets have become one of the best NBA franchises at using their D-League affiliate — the Rio Grande Vipers — to develop players, staff, and system (which we will explore more in Part Three). On the player development side, Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley, and Donatas Motiejunas all are beneficiaries of the developmental system the Rockets and Vipers organizations have created together.
Speaking with Jones — the Rockets fifth leading scorer who has started in 30 of the 35 games he has appeared in this season — he echoed the sentiments of Scott and other players that playing time was huge, but went further in explaining the unique partnership between the Rockets and Vipers.
“It was great, just being able to play. Being a rookie in this league can sometimes mean you don’t get the opportunity to play. You gotta make the best of what you can to get better and still learn. Just coming up [to Houston] when I can to watch my team or actually play, just helped me. Down there [with the Vipers], being able to use what I learned and being able to use all of the things that my teammates taught me, what I needed to work on, it meant a lot.”
Asked what he benefited from the most with the Vipers — whether it was playing time, skills development, or system development — Jones thought he gained something in all three areas.
“I think it’s all of the above. Conditioning, staying in shape. Staying ready for when your opportunity appears. Being able to get better when it comes to playing and learning what you need to work on, and being able to get more feel for the game or the way your team plays. That’s what I got to do.”
For a single-affiliate like the Vipers, who run an amped-up version of the Rockets’ offense that is dedicated to shots at the rim and corner threes, the system development is an added advantage that multi-team affiliates do not have. For Scott and other Hawks that have spent time in Bakersfield, learning the system is not an option, but there still is plenty of value for them when assigned.
“I just wanted to get down there and play,” Scott said. “I didn’t care what the system was. It was a totally different system than what we were running here — completely different plays– but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to play.”
For a multi-team affiliate like the Jam, the relationship between the NBA club and the D-League affiliate is crucial to ensuring that the player is getting the instruction and developmental opportunity they need to succeed.
“The relationship is probably the most important,” Wilcox said. “We have a unique relationship with Will Voight, in Bakersfield, because he worked in San Antonio and has a long-time relationship with Danny and Coach Bud. I have a relationship with Will because of my time in the D-League and scouting…He’s been a great partner in helping us achieve our developmental agenda. We may assign guys with their three criteria or three objectives to work on, and Will and Bakersfield have really been a great partner. It’s only been a positive, and maybe our situation is unique, but I know we have a good one.”
The Hawks’ successful partnership with the Jam can be best evidenced by Scott’s success this season, emerging as a key contributor for the Hawks off the bench after struggling to find playing time last season. The Hawks are hopeful that they can experience similar success with their assigned players this season in Jared Cunningham, Dennis Schröder, and John Jenkins.
However, for Jones, playing for a single-affiliate had tremendous benefits for his development. The relationship between the Vipers and the Rockets is obviously very close, and, as he said, the attention he received and constant feedback was critical for his rapid development.
“Well, me only playing for one team and one situation, I think it benefited me a lot. I got a lot of attention. I got visits from my general manager and coaches very frequently and they let me know that they cared. It helped me out a lot. I was back-and-forth [from Rio Grande to Houston] often. Learning here, then being able to use what I learned down there. Guys watching to see if I’m learning. Everything was just a lot of detail and a lot of care from the organization on how much they watched me and monitored me.”
As discussed in Part One, there are significant benefits to having a single-affiliate, but also plenty of challenges in acquiring one. The model used by the Rockets — similar to the Spurs, Thunder, and others — where they have a tight relationship with their D-League affiliate and have a consistent message to players whether on the NBA club or D-League club has proven to be exceptionally effective in helping to develop players 11 through 15 on the roster into contributors.
If the NBA is moving towards expanding the D-League and more teams add single-affiliates, then there is a model in place for how to successfully use the D-League to a teams’ advantage and help make young prospects stuck at the end of the bench into helpful rotational players quickly.
[Stats courtesy of nba.com/dleague and basketball-reference.com]
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty Images