The NBA Development League season opener is still more than a week away, but the rumblings have already begun about player movement from the NBA to the D-League. Multiple sources reported that Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson expects rookies Devin Ebanks and/or Derrick Caracter to spend some time in the D-League this season. “I expect to move them around a lot, but not until Andrew comes in,” Jackson said. “We’ll have to have that full roster right now.”
The Lakers are one of the few NBA teams to own their own D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders. However, the D-Fenders are on a one-year hiatus with plans to return and play in a new, separate venue in 2011-12. As a result, the Lakers and L.A. Clippers are sharing an affiliation with the Bakersfield Jam this season. If the Lakers send either rookie to the D-League, he would play for the Jam.
Bynum is expected to return to practice as soon as this week and could be back on the court before the end of the month. The D-League season tips off Nov. 19 for the Jam. Neither player is likely to be in a Jam uniform opening night, but Jackson’s comments suggest that they will don one at some point this season.
In Bynum’s absence, Caracter has played more than Jackson and the Lakers anticipated to start the season, playing as the fourth big man in a rotation that includes starters Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom as well as veteran reserve Theo Ratliff, who was signed as a free agent this offseason. But Caracter playing more than expected does not equate to him playing a lot. Though he’s appeared in six of L.A.’s seven games, Caracter has played just 39 minutes total. Ratliff has played 57. Meanwhile Gasol and Odom are number one and two in minutes played for the Lakers so far with 284 and 248 minutes played, respectively.
If Caracter isn’t playing much now, he’s unlikely to see much action once Bynum returns to shore up the league’s best front line. When you factor in Bynum’s health issues, there’s no guarantee that the Lakers won’t need to rely on Caracter for some minutes come playoff time. But if he’s spending all season on the bench, it’s tough to call his number with confidence in May or June. So it would make sense for L.A. to give him playing time in the D-League sooner rather than later, enabling him to develop his game at the pro level.
Ebanks has had even fewer opportunities on the court this season, appearing in just three games for a grand total of 26 minutes. The athletic forward is stuck behind veterans Ron Artest and Matt Barnes, not to mention Luke Walton, who recently made his 2010-11 season debut after recovering from a hamstring injury.
Some people have compared Ebanks to a young Trevor Ariza, a tantalizing prospect to Lakers fans who watched Ariza turn a stellar 2009 playoff run into a big free agent contract from the Houston Rockets. (Ariza was later traded to the New Orleans Hornets.) They have similar athleticism, similar games, and they even look alike. But in addition to perimeter defense and running the floor, Ariza’s biggest contribution to L.A.’s championship run two seasons ago was his ability to stretch the defense with 3-point shooting. Ebanks, on the other hand, shot 3-30 from 3-point range last year at West Virginia. He hasn’t attempted one from distance in the NBA yet, but is just 2-10 overall from the field.
If he gets time in the D-League, I would suspect Jackson and the Lakers staff will attach a note to the Jam staff about working on the outside jumper. It still might not translate to more minutes this season because of the talent the Lakers have on the roster, but if Ebanks can improve that aspect of his game, he could be an effective role player in the future a la Ariza.
The biggest reason not to send the Lakers rookies down to the D-League is the time lost working in the Triangle Offense. With the D-Fenders, the Lakers had more control over what their D-League affiliate did. With the Jam sharing allegiances, the Lakers don’t have the same level of control over what the Jam runs and how they utilize the players sent to them.
It’s going to be a balancing act for the Lakers, weighing the pros and cons of playing time in the D-League versus instructional time with the Lakers coaching staff and Lakers schemes. With Jackson seemingly in favor of getting the rookies some time in the D-League, expect it to happen at some point, but expect the stints to be short and staggered so that Caracter and Ebanks don’t lose touch with Lakers’ team concepts as they work to develop individually.