The Bright Future of Development: Understanding the NBA D-League, Its Usefulness, and Its Future (Part 1)
Since its inception in 2001, the NBA Development League has gone from a fledgling league of eight teams to more than doubling in size to become a 17 team league with 14 teams with single NBA affiliates and three with multi-team affiliates that divide up the other 16 NBA teams. The Hawks are among those 16 teams that share an affiliate, as they share the Bakersfield Jam with the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers.
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This season, the Hawks have used the Jam more than in any previous season, assigning Jared Cunningham, Dennis Schröder and John Jenkins to Bakersfield on multiple occasions. Since Danny Ferry took over as the General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations, the Hawks have been much more active in using the D-League as a developmental tool. Last season, both of the Hawks draft picks, Jenkins and Mike Scott, spent time in the D-League, something that has paid dividends this season as Scott has become an important role player this season after getting very few opportunities with the Hawks as a rookie.
The Hawks’ front office and coaching staff have many years of experience working in the D-League and as partners with affiliate teams. It was during Ferry’s tenure in Cleveland that the Cavaliers purchased the Canton Charge as their single-affiliate team, and they also worked closely with the Erie Bayhawks prior to acquiring the Charge. Hawks Assistant General Manager Wes Wilcox was heavily involved with both the Bayhawks and the Charge as he was integral in building both of those franchises.
Assistant coaches Taylor Jenkins, Quin Snyder and Darvin Ham are all former D-League head coaches. Snyder and Jenkins were both coaches of the Austin Toros, the Spurs’ D-League affiliate, and Ham served as an assistant and head coach for the New Mexico Thunderbirds, a multi-team affiliate that eventually was purchased and relocated as the Canton Charge.
The experiences of the Hawks’ coaching staff and front office personnel in working with the D-League is one of the main reasons that the Jam has become a bigger part of the team’s development plan for their young players. Speaking with Ferry, Wilcox, Jenkins, Snyder and Ham, they all spoke highly of the D-League and felt their experiences were extremely beneficial in their career development and pointed to the D-League as a useful tool in the development of players and staff.
The first part of this look at the D-League will explore the value of the D-League from a front office perspective in terms of player evaluation and roster development, the differences between multi-team affiliates and single affiliates, and where the D-League is headed. Part two will look at how the changing perception players have of the D-League and how they benefit from their time in the D-League. Part three will examine the D-League as a tool for staff and system development.
The D-League has transformed dramatically from 2001 to the present, as it has taken on a bigger role as a true developmental league in recent years because more teams have used their affiliates more frequently in assigning players.
“The D-League has evolved quite a bit in its history,” Ferry said. “It started off just as a minor league where you would scout. From there, it’s become more and more of a tool for player development, for coaching development, for staff development. For, also back to team development now, for putting in systems, being able to function, work for your guys and do that. It’s gotten more and more integrated into the fabric of the larger NBA teams. Obviously some teams have really been very aggressive with it; the San Antonio’s, the Oklahoma City’s, the Lakers have been aggressive in trying to find that edge that the league can possibly get.”
The number of players assigned by NBA teams to their D-League affiliates has increased tremendously since the new CBA was instituted. In the new CBA, there are unlimited assignments teams can make, which has allowed teams to send as many eligible players (players with 0-2 years of NBA experience) to the D-League as they would like and send them on multiple assignments, and it also opened up the possibility for rehab assignments for veteran players (players with 3+ years of NBA experience) so long as the player and team agree to the assignment.
The expanded assignment opportunities have allowed teams to use the D-League more frequently as a development tool for their young players. In the 2012-13 season, the first year of unlimited assignments, the D-League saw a record 184 assignments of 58 players. In the 2011-12 season, when the number of assignments per player was set at a maximum of three, there were 62 players assigned to D-League affiliates. The most assignments prior to the new CBA had been 39 in 2010-11, and, since assignments began in 2005-06 after the league restructured into affiliate programs, the average had been ~30 players assigned per season. Of the recent assignees to the D-League, there have been many, like Scott for the Hawks, that have played major roles in the NBA this season.
The Thunder and the Rockets have been two of the more aggressive teams in recent years in using their D-League affiliates, the Tulsa 66ers and Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to develop assigned players. Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas all made multiple trips to the Vipers and have played big roles with the Rockets this season, while Jeremy Lamb was assigned to the 66ers on a number of occasions and is now the Thunder’s fifth leading scorer.
As more teams assign young talent to the D-League, the competition has improved, making it a more viable option for scouting other talent other than just assignees. As Wilcox explained, the D-League has different levels of players that personnel evaluators can look at, which provides a unique opportunity for scouts.
“There’s four levels of players in the D-League. In the D-League you have the developmental player, the next best player that’s going to make an impact in the NBA. Shelvin Mack, great example of a developmental player that turns into a rotational NBA player. You have, what we deem, is the plug and play NBA veteran. The guy you know can play in an emergency situation tomorrow night. Where the developmental player may not be ready, but you have more confidence that a guy with four years or five years of NBA experience, you can go and put him in the NBA game immediately in an emergency situation.
So you have the developmental player and the emergency player, and then you have the assignment player. It’s a great place to see assigned players, like we’re talking about. This is roster spot 11-15. It’s a great opportunity to see these young kids. That fourth area, is really an emerging area of the D-League, and that’s draft eligible players. There’s currently three in the NBA D-League this year that are available in the draft. When we go to the D-League, it’s a very broad spectrum of players. That also creates a great evaluation environment, because you may have an 18 year old in the draft playing against a 27-year old NBA player versus a lottery pick or a first-round pick. So the level of player you get to see is really unique, and it’s, to us, a fruitful evaluation environment.”
This diversity of players at different levels of development and skill level makes the D-League a different scouting environment compared to international basketball or college basketball. For NBA teams, the D-League and international basketball leagues offer different developmental opportunities, with different benefits and concerns in their usability as a developmental tool and scouting tool.
“In Europe you’re usually looking at draft prospects, or you’re looking at potential NBA players at the end of the year and those guys are typically under contracts that they may be able to get out of but most often they can’t,” Wilcox said. “So, looking at it from an international versus D-League component, they’re very different, but both very valuable.”
The Hawks have used both the D-League and the ACB in Spain this season to help develop their young players, with draft picks Mike Muscala and Lucas Nogueira both playing in Spain rather than joining the NBA team this season. The Hawks’ other draft pick, Dennis Schröder, came to the NBA this season, but has split time with the Hawks and the Jam. The decision to send a player overseas or to add him to the team’s roster is, as Ferry and Wilcox both said, is decided on a case-by-case, weighing the benefits of each league for the player with the team’s roster limitations.
“I think that both are very strong and can be very useful,” Ferry said. “In Mike [Muscala] and Lucas’ [Nogueira] situation, being able to play against men, being able to play in the ACB, there’s real pressure in those games, drama in their seasons. Where as the D-League is more of a call-up league. Player development league. Doesn’t come with the same pressures. There’s more games, the season flies. Your teammates are random, but it is here and you’re playing American basketball with American rules.”
The challenge for the D-League in getting closer to the level of international basketball is building stronger, more consistent competition. As a “call-up league,” D-League team rosters fluctuate constantly, which makes it difficult to create the team continuity that leads to a more consistent level of basketball. Wilcox explained how that roster turnover is the most difficult challenge that faces D-League teams in trying to construct their team.
“One of the unique things about the D-League, is the turnover of the roster, and the lack of control of the roster. So, players can leave because they get called into the NBA, players can leave because they get bought out to Europe, and you can make trades. There’s a waiver wire process where you can add to your team, and you can add to your team, that you can’t control, with assignment players. Even if it’s a direct 1-to-1 affiliate, or if you have multiple affiliates.
In building a D-League team, you are constantly trying to prepare for the call-up, for the assignment – which is the developmental agenda – or the loss of a player internationally. As well as trying to make trades and improve your team. In our experience of a building D-League team, a winning environment is important. In order for it to be a realistic developmental opportunity, games have to matter, possessions have to matter. You certainly want to put one of your young players, in not only an environment with a great culture and hopefully a similar system and belief, but also one where games matter. So, in our view, the D-League is very valuable in the development of players, the development of staff, and the assessment or the scouting component of players and the same staff as well.”
Creating this consistency that is needed for a more competitive team is easier with a single affiliate club, whether the team is under direct ownership by the team or operates under a hybrid model — where the team is its own private entity but only has a single NBA affiliate, i.e. the Idaho Stampede and Portland Trailblazers. The league’s steady expansion has resulted in 14 single-affiliate clubs, including the newest D-League team, the Delaware 87ers (owned by the 76ers). The biggest advantage to having a single-affiliate over a multi-affiliate D-League relationship comes down to control, of the system and the overall organization’s philosophy.
“In Cleveland and Canton, we truly built a staff of people on both the business and basketball side,” said Wilcox. “Sticking with the basketball side, our focus was on finding someone who would be willing to install our system and our four philosophical beliefs. Then, build a team that was largely competitive, but also about the developmental agenda of Cavalier players…Building a staff was just an extension of what we would hire for our NBA club is what we wanted to hire, and hopefully we would hire someone in the D-League that had NBA potential.”
The ability to control the construction of the roster as a single-affiliate, particularly when the NBA team owns the D-League team, is a huge benefit because the team can ensure, as Wilcox said, that the D-League team’s roster will be constructed with the NBA team’s young players in mind. The D-League team’s roster can be built so that the NBA team can assign its young players without causing too much roster turmoil.
Along with roster control, a single affiliate can have more control over the system that the D-League team runs.
“I think you can better develop your team systems and your player development in a 1-to-1 system that’s in your region,” Ferry said. “When you share a team for example, they’re not going to be running your offense, they’re not going to be using your language. So there’s definitely a strong advantage, in my mind, to having a single affiliate in your region.”
That strategic advantage allows young players to seamlessly transition from the NBA team to the D-League team without having to worry about different terminology or playing in a different system. This allows the player to develop within the team’s system, rather than just developing general basketball skills, as is usually the case on a multi-team affiliate.
“It was about building guys’ skill sets and developing them the best that you can,” Ham, who’s D-League coaching experience was entirely with a multi-team affiliate, said. “We would install simple, NBA sets. We had our post-ups, pick-and-rolls, things they were doing in the NBA, offensively and defensively. On defense we’d work on team defense. We would watch what was going on and would try to make sure what we were doing was what was current in the NBA.”
As Ham points out, the multi-team affiliate’s biggest disadvantage is not being able to really install a full system. Instead, their focus was on developing players’ basic skills and introducing them to basic NBA concepts, which are important but not as beneficial for the assignee as being able to run the same system as the NBA team.
Along with being a better developmental tool, single affiliates have an added advantage in an NBA team’s knowledge of the rest of the D-League, which creates an advantage for finding personnel.
“When you have a D-League team, it’s a unique opportunity because not only do they build an infrastructure to raise your NBA players, but you also have a better understanding of the D-League market because you’re competing against them, talking to the other executives, the other coaches, and following games a little more closely because you’re in it,” Wilcox said. “You’re invested in it. So that was an additional advantage for us.”
The advantages of having a D-League team as a single affiliate are clear, but getting a single affiliate team has plenty of challenges. The most pressing difficulty in acquiring a single affiliate, for the Hawks, is the absence of teams in the Southeast region. The key to having a successful relationship with a single affiliate, in Ferry’s mind, is having that affiliate in the NBA team’s region.
“There’s certainly challenges,” Ferry said. “One, there’s not enough teams right now. That is I think the biggest challenge, and then finding a team in your region. We’re assigning players to Bakersfield, which is not ideal, but there’s not a team in the Southeast. Miami’s assigning players to Sioux Falls, so it’s less than ideal as it relates to being able to get a player back quickly and having that true connectivity. You know, from distance alone, it just makes it a challenge.”
The expanded assignment opportunities under the new CBA make it easier to assign players for a shorter stint and bring them back quickly if need be, but without a team in the NBA team’s region, that is not easily done. The biggest issue facing the expansion of the D-League, particularly in the Southeast, is adding enough teams.
“[An NBA team or a private owner] has to buy a franchise,” Ferry said. “They want teams in pods. They want a few teams in a region to make the travel work out.”
The future of the D-League is the addition of more single-affiliated clubs. The biggest hurdle facing that next step of getting closer to every NBA team having it’s own affiliate, whether by owning the team or being part of the hybrid model, is the need to create pods of multiple teams in a region for travel purposes. To do that, multiple teams would need to be invested in purchasing their own teams, or there would have to be a group of private owners willing to add a group of teams in the Southeast region.
Those that I spoke to are optimistic that this is the direction the D-League is headed with more 1-to-1 affiliates and a larger role as a developmental tool for non-assigned players looking to make it in the NBA.
“The future of the D-League is bright,” Wilcox said. “I would expect the league to expand at some point, and the league is very open about the goal of a 1-to-1 affiliate program. That concept is very exciting. I would also expect that this new frontier of draft-eligible players in the D-League to expand as it becomes a viable option for young players. The future is very bright on the potential for 1-to-1 affiliates for the entire NBA, and for the potential draft opportunities that the D-League may provide.”
“I think there will be more [D-League] teams [added], which in turn it will create more 1-to-1 type affiliation,” Ferry said. “I think that’s good, it’s a good thing for basketball. It’s a good thing for the league. The rules in the last CBA have opened up a little more, where there’s unlimited assignments. There’s rehab assignments that can happen, that I think are smart, valuable things that a D-League team can bring.”
“I really love to see every team get their own single affiliation, be it them buying or them doing a hybrid model, however they have to do it, but I’d love to see them get their own D-League team,” Ham said. “I think that would increase the salaries that those guys make, cause there’s some quality players and it’s a quality league in my opinion. Also, international. Some type of international bridge where more guys from Italy, Russia, Spain, and from abroad come out and do what they need to do. First and foremost, 30 teams, man. Everybody needs to get a single affiliate.”
“If you look over the last one or two years, the more call-ups we’ve gotten, but even more-so we’re getting more assignments, and that just shows the value the D-League has in NBA teams’ eyes,” Jenkinssaid . “I think eventually it will get to 30 to 30 [D-League teams to NBA teams]. It’ll take some time, but I think that’s where it is headed.”
The D-League is in a constant state of change. On a team level, rosters are continually changing through call-ups, international signings, assignments, and trades. As a league, there is a lot of change in how NBA teams are using their affiliates and pushing for more single affiliations. As more D-League alumni make their mark in the NBA this change and growth will continue, and the D-League is on the verge of the next step towards becoming even bigger.
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[D-League facts and stats courtesy of www.nba.com/dleague/]
Photo by Jack Arent/NBAE/Getty Images