September 19, 2005 was the date that brought the NBA Developmental League into the “modern era” because that was the moment that the NBA and NBA D-League really connected as one unit by allowing the NBA teams to assign their rookie and 2nd-year players to the D-League. Before that D-League players like Chris Andersen or Matt Carroll were able to be called up to the NBA for a 10-day contracts, but at that time there really wasn’t much of a kinship between those two leagues because there was no way that the D-League could be used to not only improve the teams but improve the individual players on the team. These non-lottery picks really could only improve their craft during practices when the D-League was just sitting there in front of their eyes.
By 2005 the D-League was only in their 4th year so they were still wet behind the ears. You would think it would take a while for NBA teams to really get used to the idea that they could assign their young prospects down to the Developmental League. Even though it took most teams awhile to really grasp on to the D-League, the Portland Trail Blazers immediately grasped onto the new rules by sending their #6 pick Martell Webster down to the Fort Wayne Flyers. Many other teams put their toes in the D-League water including the Grizzlies sending down Hasheem Thabeet in the 2009-10 season when was he was drafted with the 2nd pick just a few months earlier in the 2009 draft. While I talked about some major prospects being sent down to the D-League, the teams really didn’t take advantage of that opportunity until the 2011-12 season because a rule that was apart of the NBA’s Collective Barganing Agreement that stated that the NBA franchises could assign veteran players with their consent. A team that immediately took advantage of that was the Dallas Mavericks when they sent the struggling Lamar Odom and Yi Jianlian down to work on their games.
In that season the amount of NBA call-ups increased from 32 in the 2010-11 season to a record-breaking 67 assignments in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season. After the record-breaking season, the D-League and the NBA made another move that would help out both the young players and the league after they ruled that players in the first three years of their NBA careers could be assigned to the D-League any amount of times. A prime example of that would be the Thunder who have already assigned and brought back both Daniel Orton and lottery pick Jeremy Lamb to the Tulsa 66ers three times in the span of less than a month. Another great example would be the Portland Trail Blazers who just sent Victor Claver to Idaho after the Blazers had him in the starting line-up the previous night against San Antonio. You just have to look around the D-League to see what kind of impact that these NBA prospects are making.
For example, the likes of Tyler Honeycutt (Sacramento), Kevin Murphy and Tony Wroten (Utah) have been members of the Reno Bighorns since the start of the D-League season. While the Bighorns are struggling with a 2-5 record, the assigned players have been productive with the team. A better example would be Lakers guard Darius Johnson-Odom who has been a great player with the D-Fenders and helped form probably the best backcourt duo in the entire D-League right now with Courtney Fortson.
DJO currently is averaging 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game while energizing an L.A. team that has been a little disappointing sitting at 4-4 when you take a look at the talent level that they currently have. We’re less than a month into the D-League season (writing this article on Dec. 16), and there’s already been 34 players assigned to the D-League, which is over half the amount of the amount of assignments that shattered the all-time record. The league has its strongest class of players in league, enabling NBA assignees to compete against more talented players, which of course helps these NBA players progress their games. Players like Fab Melo and Kendall Marshall who were both 1st round picks in June have both struggled in their D-League stints because these D-League players work hard, especially when they’re matched up against an NBA player. They want to prove to the NBA scouts that they have what it takes to make it in the NBA. The stats of these assignees are not going to be as impressive because the overall skill level of the D-League has drastically improved this year but the lessons and the battles the NBA players have or the lessons they learn will help them when they make their way back to an NBA rotation.
I really do believe that these NBA executives understand this because of the way they now work the D-League around the schedules of these kids, offering them as much time on the court as possible even if they play on an NBA court one night and then get shipped off the next night to play with their D-League affiliate. The relationship between the NBA and the D-League is as strong as ever, but I still think there’s one way to make it perfect. To steal from Major League Baseball, I think the D-League could be used to “rehab” an NBA player coming back from injury. For example, Steve Nash will be making his way back to the NBA court soon, but why would the Lakers actually have to wait to see if he can play when they can just send him to the D-Fenders and let him get his feet wet before sending him back to the NBA. In fact, earlier today, the New York Knicks assigned an injured Amare Stoudemire to the Erie BayHawks.
I know it sounds a bit insane but it really doesn’t hurt either the D-League or the NBA to have their players play a few games with their affiliate until they’re 100 percent ready to come back and also allow these small town fans to get to see the best of the NBA play a game or two in their own hometowns. With all that said, as both an NBA and a D-League fan I get excited when I see a tweet or a Google alert about a certain NBA player going to the D-League because I get this weird feeling that I get to watch these prospects play in the Developmental League before they go back to the NBA and become these heralded stars and I think it’s pretty spectacular.