An Assignment By Any Other Name: The Good, The Bad, and The Pointless

Updated: December 3, 2010

Jonny Flynn, Terrence Williams, and Rodrigue Beaubois are three of the most unique assignment cases in NBA Development League history. All three assignments happened this week.

It’s been that kind of season for D-League assignments. The 2010-11 D-League season tipped off 15 days ago. Already, 14 NBA players have been assigned to the D-League. Twenty-four were assigned all of last season, and the record of 32 was set in 2008-09.

Jonny Flynn will don the #10 jersey for the Sioux Falls Skyforce tonight in his D-League debut against the Iowa Energy. Flynn is on assignment to rehab a hip injury that has kept him out of action since April.

As exciting as the record-setting pace of player assignments has been, the nature of the assignments is the real story. The D-League began the assignment system in the 2005-06 season. Historically, assigned players have primarily consisted of late first-round or second-round picks who blended into their D-League surroundings with minimal fanfare.

This year’s early wave of assignments has been different. Some of the players fit that typical mold. Soloman Alabi, Gani Lawal, Hassan Whiteside, and Craig Brackins are not household names at this stage of their careers. But assignees have also included the likes of lottery selections like Patrick Patterson, Ed Davis, and Cole Aldrich.

Still, three player assignments stand out from the pack as unique case studies. Flynn, Williams, and Beaubois each was assigned to the D-League for a very different reason. Those reasons?  I’ll label them simply as The Good, The Bad, and The Pointless.

The Good
Flynn, the sixth overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft, will make his D-League debut tonight for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, affiliate of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Fanhouse’s Scott Schroeder said Flynn’s assignment could be “the most important assignment in the league’s 10-year history.” Flynn’s situation is unique because he is returning to the court in what is essentially an injury rehab performance.

If successful, it could open up a new world of possibilities. According to the current NBA/D-League assignment rules, only first- and second-year players can be assigned to the D-League. However, the use of the D-League as a rehab location for injured players—young and veteran alike—could be an issue discussed in the new collective bargaining agreement that is up at the end of the season.

A key factor in the Flynn assignment is his openness and eagerness to put on the Sioux Falls uniform. Returning from injury, Flynn makes it clear that he simply wants to play the minutes in a live game situation and get back to form. When asked whether he thought other players would welcome that opportunity if they were in his situation, Flynn responded affirmatively, “I don’t see why a player would not want to do that. You’re probably going to go down and play a larger amount of minutes than you would play in the NBA in your first game back from an injury. Just having the chance to go out there and play free and relaxed, there’s a big difference in being able to play in a game compared to just doing something in practice when you’re trying to get something accomplished.”

Flynn and the Skyforce will take on the Iowa Energy tonight at 8 p.m. The Energy come in at 5-1 with a talented roster that includes Phoenix Suns assignee Gani Lawal, former Thunder guard Kyle Weaver, former D-League MVP Courtney Sims, former Utah Jazz call-up Othyus Jeffers, and point guard Curtis Stinson, who was a 1st-team All-D-League performer last season.

The Bad
Ignorant and uninformed fans often misread the “D” in D-League as a grade equivalent. If you get a D on a test in school, it’s a bad thing, so the talent level in the D-League must be bad. It’s faulty logic on so many levels, but I’ve heard the same joke enough times to know that many people just don’t know/care that the D actually stands for Development.

Apparently, some of those people work for the New Jersey Nets, the same Nets franchise that seemed to “get it” when they announced a single affiliation partnership with the Springfield Armor, which will begin next season. The recent assignment of Terrence Williams to the D-League was a slap in the face—not to Williams, who clearly has room to develop, even if it’s primarily in terms of maturity as a person—but to the NBA Development League, what it stands for, and the many individuals who are invested in it personally and professionally.

Matt Moore said it better than I can: “The problem here is not Williams’ specific assignment. It’s the issue of using the D-League as a punitive measure, which goes against the spirit of the league, what’s best for the Armor, and what’s best for the Nets.”

The language of the D-League is all wrong. Getting sent DOWN to the D-League is a phrase that I’m guilty of using myself. The idea of the D-League assignment as a demotion is wrong. More accurately, it’s not telling the whole story. A player assignment is a small piece of the big picture. In reality, it (should) signify a team’s commitment to helping a young player develop. It’s an investment in an asset. It’s a way to help a player get better. It’s not a demotion. It’s more like on-the-job training or a hands-on seminar with industry experts. It’s a chance for young players to get their feet wet playing the NBA style game rather than watching it from an NBA style bench.

To his credit, Williams manned up and helped the Armor win his D-League debut 116-112. He played just under 40 minutes. Though he shot just 5-19 from the field, he did record a triple-double, adding 15 rebounds and 13 assists to go with his 16 points. Hopefully Williams can make the most of a bad situation, developing some good habits and turning the Nets’ negative view of an assignment into something positive.

The Pointless
Look, I’m obviously a pro-D-League guy. (I’m more Cole Aldrich than Ed Davis). But I think the D-League has enough positive momentum going for it right now that it could do without assigning players for “marketing support.” Unfortunately, that was the reason given for the Texas Legends’ decision to assign injured guard Rodrigue Beaubois. Marketing gimmicks are fine for at-the-gate giveaways, halftime entertainment and—everyone’s favorite—the timeout T-shirt toss/T-shirt cannon. But in regards to assigning players for namesake only? Please, spare us the false advertising.

With more teams using the D-League now than ever, expect several more assignments to be announced this season. Most of them will likely be of the more traditional variety. But don’t be surprised if another team decides to give one of these new forms of assignment strategies a whirl.

Do you think others will follow Flynn’s injury rehab model? Should teams use the D-League as punishment like the Nets? Is there any reason to assign a player like Beaubois who isn’t going to play for the affiliate? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *