If not the best month of the year on the basketball calendar, March is very close. It begins with March Madness and the start of the NBA playoff push and at its conclusion begins to transition into NBA Draft talks. Of course one of the hot topics each year around this time and well into the spring is how certain college stars will translate to the pro game – or rather, can they?
It’s an annual debate between college fans and followers of the pro game, how can player A who averaged 14 points be a more valuable commodity as a pro prospect than player B who averaged 20? Obviously there’s more to it than that, but there is typically a level of disconnect between the two games, they’re simply different. So what does all of this have to do with the D-League?
For all of the confusion the NBA Draft can create for some college fans, the same can be said for D-League call-ups. It may still be pro basketball, but it isn’t the NBA, so statistical production isn’t always the best indicator of who projects out as the best option for a team in the League. Consider that of the top 20 scorers in the D-League who qualify for the scoring title, only five have received a 10-day contract from the NBA this season. That means nearly twice as many call-ups have occurred outside this group (with Dakota’s Chris Johnson accounting for two of them).
As is the case for stars entering the draft out of college, so much of making an NBA roster is about potential and role. On paper Iowa’s Courtney Sims seems to be the surest thing in the D-League for a call-up. A former league MVP, a two-time All-Star MVP and among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding, the 6-11 veteran seems like a safe bet for a 10-day contract. Why then has the less productive Chris Johnson been signed by both Portland and Boston this season while Sims continues to ponder his pro future with the Iowa Energy? Simply put, Sims doesn’t project out well in the NBA. He isn’t very athletic, lacks the necessary strength to bang with NBA frontcourt players and doesn’t have the versatility to play away from the paint at either end of the floor. Johnson for all of deficiencies as an NBA player presents a significantly more athletic and versatile package and can fill the role of weak side defender and pick and pop big man. It’s the case of lower level production versus NBA functionality. Sims has the former, Johnson the latter.
Then there’s the question of the scorers, the guards that put up the impressive numbers. Where is the line of distinction drawn between those that make the cut and those who come up short? Trey Johnson – the D-League’s likely scoring champ – was called up earlier in the season by Toronto and has spent time in the past with Cleveland as well. Dar Tucker on the other hand is a near 20-point scorer as well, so why does he fail to attract even the faintest degree of interest that Johnson does? Size certainly plays a role in this comparison as both players are scoring guards. At 6-5, Johnson is closer to the prototypical two-guard build, while Tucker at 6-3 is closer to that of a point guard. Then there’s the skill set and efficiency questions. NBA scouts aren’t impressed by big scoring numbers in the D-League simply because these players receiving call-ups aren’t going to be go-to options at the next level. Producing at a high rate while doing so in an efficient manner is what will turn some heads.
Johnson has scored 25 points per game this season while connecting on over 50% of his shot attempts as a jump shooter – something that has been documented on this site before. He’s managed to show the ability to hit from anywhere on the court at the D-League level, in catch and shoot situations and off the dribble. The combination of these factors makes him a serviceable bench option in the NBA. Tucker on the other hand shoots a respectable but not spectacular 45% from the field, while proving to be an average jump shooter at best, struggling to score efficiently off the dribble. An undersized two-guard who can’t create shots off the dribble efficiently against D-League defenders does not project out well at the NBA level, even if he is scoring 18-20 points a night.
There are exceptions to every rule of course. Every year we are witness to a handful of players who develop into pro players despite not fitting the stereotype of their position. It’s doubly hard for players in the D-League though. Many have already been bypassed in the draft once for one reason or another, be it lack of skill development or potential. Some, like Johnson, develop to the degree that they intrigue a team (or two) to take a chance. Others like Sims have reached their ceiling and it doesn’t get any higher than elite D-League performer.