By Brian Spencer
The NBA D-League is a good thing that has the potential to be a very good thing for professional basektball in the United States. We want to see it thrive, expand, succeed. Unfortunately, like most people, we rarely get to see anything from these games beyond the brief late-night highlights on NBA TV. ESPN and Fox Sports barely touch it, which means that casual b-ball fans barely even know it exists.
Enter writers like Steve Weinman, the thoughtful wordsmith behind D-League Digest who’s helping introduce the D-League to a wider audience and revealing its teams, players, and coaches through comprehensive coverage and analysis on the everyday happenings in the NBA’s still-developing minor-league system. The guy knows his stuff, and in the wake of the recent D-League Showcase in Boise, we’re fortunate to have a two-part Q&A with him here on Empty the Bench.
Let’s get to it… stay tuned for Part II.
Empty the Bench: I read a report that said NBA executives left this year’s D-League Showcase in Boise saying it was the worst crop of talent they’ve seen yet. What’s your take?
Steve Weinman: I saw that line from Marc Spears as well, and truth be told, I’m not sure what to make of it. As someone who followed the D-League peripherally in previous seasons and has become much closer to it over the last 2 years or so, especially now that I’m covering the league on a regular basis, I’m not I’m the best person to compare the overall talent distribution between this year’s Showcase and previous ones.
But what I do know is this: the executives I spoke to certainly sounded positive about the way the D-League is moving. With the Rockets’ use of the hybrid model in Rio Grande Valley, GM Daryl Morey and his crew from Houston have been very involved in bringing in the players there, and Morey said the situation with RGV has been fantastic from his perspective.
Between Morey and other executives I spoke with, there was plenty of chatter about an expansion of the D-League’s role and a desire to have NBA teams hold player rights outside of their 15 roster spots. One would think some of that excitement would have been tempered if the player crop were all that uninspiring.
None of that, however, is meant to dispute Spears’ report. One of the great things about the Showcase is that it simply crawls with team staffers, and I don’t profess to have had a chance to speak with all of them. Marc is a terrific reporter, and I have no doubt he talked to plenty of sources on this. Still, I didn’t leave the conversations I had with the same vibe that he did.
As for what my own eyes tell me about this year’s group of players, I think there are several players around the D-League capable of being at least fringe NBA players right now if the roster spots become available, and a few youngsters who will be at that point before too long as well. Speaking of which…
ETB: Spud Webb, the President of Basketball Operations for the new team in San Francisco that debuts next season, recently said he thinks there are “four or five guys [in the D-League] that are pro players.” Name the four or five guys you feel have the best shot at not just getting called up to the NBA, but making an impact and sticking around.
Weinman: Anthony Tolliver would be the easy front-runner for this list, but let’s rule him ineligible since he received his second call-up of the season last week, this time to Golden State. Tolliver is a do-it-all big man who posts up, crashes the glass, and defends, but can also handle the ball a little bit and shoot from the outside. Love watching him play.
Of players currently in the D-League, Mike Harris from Rio Grande Valley (he of the recent 48-24 performance) already received one call-up this season (to Houston) and will likely be back sooner or later. He’s a bruising forward who loves to bang around inside, pounds the glass (8.9 per game this year in the D-League) and is also developing his offensive arsenal from mid-range and beyond. The big question for Harris right now is position: playing in RGV’s three-guard lineup, he’s played something of a big-man role at times this year, and he’s been successful at it, but he’s also just 6-6. Whether Harris has the quickness and whether he will develop the outside game to be a successful small forward remains to be seen, but he does too many things too well to not get another good shot to stick in the Association.
Carlos Powell of Albuquerque is a terrific offensive player who can score from inside and out, and isn’t a liability at the defensive end either. In our last edition of the Randy Livingston Memorial Call-Up Rankings, hosted at Ridiculous Upside, I was the only one of four panelists to rank the southpaw as low as second on the list.
Sitting on top of that call-up rankings list before Powell usurped the top spot was Dontell Jefferson from Utah. Widely expected to fill the Jazz’s need for a backup point guard before some late-breaking concerns about the health of his knees led to Idaho’s Sundiata Gaines getting that call (and please remember to go ahead and ask the Cleveland Cavaliers how that one turned out), Jefferson is a 6-5 point guard with the skills and size to play both backcourt spots. He’s a dynamic slasher who also scores from the outside, gets to the foul line with regularity, and distributes the ball unselfishly. His height, length, and quickness allow him to defend ones and twos, and that would allow an NBA team to use him to cross-match defensively if need be.
While four people does not a complete list make, and there are several other guys who deserve to be in this discussion – Rod Benson (Reno) has been around and offers size and defense (though I’m not enamored with him), Morris Almond (Springfield) is a super-dyanmic scorer who we’ll get to later, Mustafa Shakur is doing a terrific job in Tulsa, Dwayne Jones (Austin) has NBA size and eats up offensive boards, and I’m sure there are a few noteworthy folks I’m omitting here to boot – I’ll stray a bit from the beaten path with a personal favorite for my final selection here: Rio Grande Valley’s Antonio Anderson.
He may not be at the top of the call-up list right now, and he has slumped through January after earning performer-of-the-month honors in December, but Anderson’s versatility makes him really promising. He’s a 6-6 off-guard by trade, but he handles the ball plenty for RGV and is a terrific passer. In fact, Vipers brass believe he’ll even be able to get a spot at the next level as a second or third-string point guard.
That’s not to mention that the guy who garnered all sorts of defensive accolades during his collegiate tenure at Memphis has made a successful transition to the D-League game at that end of the floor as well. AA needs to become a more consistent outside shooter, but his mid-range game is already improving, and he’s just a smart decision-maker on the floor. I’m buying him as a permanent NBA player within the next two seasons.
Much more from D-League Digest’s Steve Weinman after the break…
ETB: What’s holding Springfield Armor (and former Utah Jazz first-round pick) Morris Almond back, and does he still have a shot to be anything more than a 10-day contract player in the NBA?
Weinman: It feels weird to say that Morris is in a tough spot considering that the guy leads the D-League in scoring and can do just about anything with the ball in his hands. But the truth is, he is.
Almond is a tremendous scorer who doesn’t have any glaring-enough-to-keep-him-out-of-the-league-on-its-own flaws, but he also isn’t enough of a standout at any other facet of the game to get called up on that alone. Since NBA teams don’t call up D-Leaguers to be go-to guys, it’s hard to figure out where Almond fits. Can he be dangerous enough simply off catch-and-shoots and in transitions for his scoring to translate to the NBA? Even if so, aren’t there other guys who aren’t as explosive scorers that might be better at filling that pure shooter role?
I’m not sure of the answers to those questions, which I explored in a bit more depth over at D-LeagueDigest this week, but I do feel strongly that Almond has too much talent to not get another longer look.
ETB: What, if anything, can be done to get more locals to embrace their D-League franchise and actually show up for games?
Weinman: I really believe that it’s about staying the course at this point. Some things just need time. The league is only in its ninth season, and both the talent in the league and as a result its importance to the NBA continues to grow. If teams continue to provide fan-friendly environments at affordable prices, blitz the social media world, and promote interactivity with the fans as much as possible, I think the basketball will begin to sell itself.
As more of these players experience even a small degree of success at the NBA and more solid college players who might have otherwise gone overseas stick around to play in the D-League, fans will increasingly buy into a league where they know they may be seeing future NBA players up close, as well as several guys they may have followed closely in college.
Maybe I’m being a bit idealistic here, but we’ve seen minor league baseball work all over the country with the same formula: fun for the whole family, bargain prices, players who might one day be Major Leaguers. I’m willing to believe that with time, basketball can at least move in that direction.
That’s not to say that there aren’t changes that could be made to improve the D-League: an improved salary structure might draw more talent, which might draw more fans; more single-team affiliations in secondary regions of NBA teams might appeal more to fan bases; amending the CBA to allow players returning from injury to serve the equivalent of baseball’s rehab assignments in the D-League could garner a few extra big crowds a year, and the list goes on. But the primary factor is time: the league really is still in its relative infancy.
ETB: Should every NBA franchise have its own affiliated team in the D-League, like MLB does with the minor leagues?
Weinman: Ideally, absolutely. The primary goal of the D-League is–and I know this comes as a real revelation–player development. To that end, having players in a situations where they are learning and playing in the systems that they will be stepping into should they reach the NBA simply has to increase player readiness to step in and be contributors right away at the next level. Especially when one considers how little practice time NBA teams get during the season due to packed schedules and travel days, it’s difficult to pick up a bunch of unfamiliar sets. Further, I expect that if the leagues ever reach a one-to-one ratio, we’ll have already seen amendments to the CBA providing for NBA teams to hold rights to non-assigned players on their affiliates.
All that said, like every other part of sports, the D-League is a business, and whether it’s economically feasible to maintain a 30-team league, I honestly don’t know. As I wrote in a piece on exactly this topic last week, look down the benches of every D-League team and decide how many of those players you think have a legitimate shot to make the NBA… and then consider that getting to 30 teams would require nearly doubling the player pool. That’s a tall order.
But as referenced in that piece, Dan Reed and Chris Alpert feel strongly that talent dilution won’t be an issue, that as the league continues to gain prominence, it will attract greater talent that might have otherwise played overseas (or perhaps in college). If that proves true going forward, and the league can find enough markets that would support a minor league team anywhere near as well as the folks in Portland, Maine, etc. have, terrific.
From a basketball standpoint, I’d love to see it happen. Maybe it will be possible, business-wise; maybe not. Either way, we have a long ways to go on that front as it will be a gradual process.
That wraps up Part I of ETB’s interview with D-League Digest’s Steve Weinman; stay tuned for Part II. In the meantime, be sure to get your NBA D-League fix over at D-League Digest.
Recommended Reading at D-League Digest:
– Guest Post from Springfield Armor’s Tre Whitted
– Chatter on the D-League’s Place in the Global Hoops Landscape
– DVR Focus on Reggie Williams
– Checking in with the Head of the Class in the D-League
– Ruminations from a Weekend in Springfield