A decade has passed since the NBA established its own minor league with the sole purpose to develop the bottom layer of the pro talent and turn them into future stars. As the D-League approaches its second decade of existence, the purpose of the Developmental League may still be unknown or misunderstood by much of the public. Just like with the NFL, why have a farm system when the NBA gets a fresh crop of college standouts year after year? A college freshman can be the star of the show at a city near you before his 19th birthday.
In the NBA, if someone has to go through a development league to gain the capability to reach stardom, was he ever meant to be a star? The jury is still out. The D-League has produced a multitude of NBA players, but stars? When it comes to producing household names, the best the D-League has to offer is a 6-10 “crazy-ass white boy,” tattooed from head to toe who blocks, rebounds and calls himself “the Birdman.”
“When scouts come in and watch, they’re looking for guys who can come in and be role players,” D-League veteran Anthony Harris said. “That guy usually scoring 30-40 points a game, that’s not the guy they’re really looking at,” Harris said. “They have that guy already. They need a guy who can be a good practice player.”
It does seem inconceivable to think that when then NBA commissioner David Stern established the D-League a decade ago, he envisioned a farm system that solely develops role players. It’s not like there is a shortage of high scoring players in the D-League. In January of the 2013-14 season, Pierre Jackson scored a D-League record 58 points in Idaho but still has yet to so much sniff the hardwood of an NBA area. A month later, Manny Harris was sent back to the D-League by the Los Angeles Lakers and scored 56 points in his first game back as a member of the Los Angeles D-Fenders, which is ironic because in the D-League there is no defense.
If a player truly wants to make it from the D-League to the big league, he would be a point guard, because when it comes to point guards, the D-League does just that; develop. There are many examples of point guards making it from the D-League to the big league. Will Bynum went undrafted in the NBA Draft but 5th overall in the D-League draft, where he turned a 2005–06 NBA Development League Rookie of the Year award winning season into a stint with the Golden State Warriors. He went on to play two years overseas, was the point guard for the Detroit Pistons 2008-14 before being traded to the Boston Celtics. C.J. Watson started his professional career in Europe after going undrafted in 2006. After a high scoring season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2007-08, Watson signed with the Warriors and is currently with the Indiana Pacers after six NBA seasons. Jeremy Lin made a couple D-League stops before becoming “Linsanity” in New York. He is now the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers.
It may seem beneficial for players in the D-League with an NBA team logo attached to their name, but not likely the case with those not attached to an NBA roster. An NBA rookie can get paid about a half a million dollars and that will still carry over to D-League assignments. D-League players without an NBA affiliation get paid up to $25,000 a year with housing and road food allowance. It’s a wage similar to that of a college athlete, only the $25,000 is put into tuition. That’s a fraction compared to a professional basketball player overseas in Europe and Asia.
So instead of going to the University of Texas and playing basketball in front of 16,540 fans for free education and an option to go to the NBA after a year, they should go play for the Austin Toros of the D-League for an annual salary of $20,000 and play in front a maximum on 8,500?
Then there was a time when the D-League was supposed to be an alternative for high school players who want to play pro basketball and didn’t want to spend a year in college. Latavious Williams was supposed to be the trailblazer by going to the D-League straight out of high school. After playing a year for the Tulsa 66ers, Williams was drafted by the Miami Heat in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft, but he never made it to the American Airlines Arena. He stayed in Tulsa for another season until finally taking his talents to Spain.
In reality, the only reason he ever went to the D-League from high school in the first place was because he was at risk of being academic ineligible due to his high school grades. Now there is no one playing in the D-League out of high school because college or overseas are better routs to the NBA and if anyone goes to the D-League straight out of high school, it’s because they were incapable of going to college and too young for life in another country.
Either way, they’re on their own.
“The biggest adjustment is being on your own in the real world,” D-League veteran guard Robert Hite said. “It’s not like college where there’s a set plan laid out for you and a regimen to follow daily. At the pro level, it’s all about basketball but then you have to learn how to manage your time. You have to keep yourself productive and get better on your own.”
“Just adjusting to a different role throughout the course of the season,” D-League veteran Lance Hurdle said. “One night you could play 48 minutes and the next night you won’t play. It’s just how the league is. You have to be mentally prepared entering the D-League season because roles change.”
With the small crowds, the small wages and the uncertainty of one’s role in a given game, the NBA D-League seems like basketball’s purgatory in which defense and team basketball is thrown to the wayside all in the name of everyone getting as many points and shots as possible so they can one day reach the NBA.
“It can do that,” Hite said. “We all want to make it to the pros and you would like to get numbers. All you can do is go out there and play the best you can and the way you’ve always played your game, then leave the rest in God’s hands.”
That’s where Mark Cuban wants star players to be after high school? Go to a place for a small salary play in a small place with no exposure with the occasional NBA TV showcase? Go to a place where winning doesn’t matter and it’s back to a more reckless version of AAU basketball? After a decade of experimentation, the NBA D-League is not quite ready to be the ideal domestic alternative to NCAA basketball as the primary farm system of the NBA.