D-League’s Future is More Assignment Players

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Updated: December 19, 2016

The NBA D-League is designed to prepare players, as well as coaches and staff, to move up to the NBA. Since the rapid expansion of the league in the past few seasons, NBA teams have started to become more involved, sending their younger players down on assignment to their D-League affiliate. Usually these assignments aren’t there for very long, which doesn’t help the player develop as much as it could. That should change next year when the new collective bargaining agreement goes into effect.

One of the new elements in the CBA is the addition of two-way contracts, which allow NBA teams to sign players with an agreed upon salary if they’re on the NBA team, and a different salary if they’re on the D-League team. This allows teams to sign players with the full intention of playing them in the D-League.

Young players need game action to fully develop their game, and the more playing time they get, the faster they can grow and eventually contribute in the NBA. Playing time in the NBA can be hard to get for a majority of young players, so a season-long D-League assignment can really benefit them.

Currently, 10 NBA teams are keeping some of their young talent on assignment for an extended period of time. Let’s call an “extended assignment” a player who has played in 50 percent of the D-League team’s games (through Dec. 16), regardless of how many times they’ve been assigned and recalled. Draft-rights players are not included.

  • Demetrius Jackson – Maine Red Claws (Boston Celtics)
  • Bruno Caboclo – Raptors 905 (Toronto Raptors)
  • Fred Van Vleet – Raptors 905 (Toronto Raptors)
  • Aaron Harrison – Greensboro Swarm (Charlotte Hornets)
  • Chris McCullough – Long Island Nets (Brooklyn Nets)
  • Malachi Richardson – Reno Bighorns (Sacramento Kings)
  • Skal Labissiere – Reno Bighorns (Sacramento Kings)
  • Josh Huestis – OKC Blue (OKC Thunder)
  • Ivica Zubac – LA D-Fenders (LA Lakers)
  • Derrick Jones, Jr. – NAZ Suns (Phoenix Suns)
  • Dejounte Murray – Austin Spurs (San Antonio Spurs)
  • Cheick Diallo – Austin Spurs (San Antonio Spurs)
  • Chinanu Onuaku – RGV Vipers (Houston Rockets)
  • Kyle Wiltjer – RGV Vipers (Houston Rockets)

Some patterns jumped out when this list came together. All but three of the players have been assigned to their team-owned D-League franchise, which shows that teams with ownership of their D-League team are more willing to keep a player on assignment longer. Three players were late first round draft picks in 2016, and four were second round draft picks. Huestis and Caboclo were both late first round draft picks in 2014, and McCollough was a late first rounder in 2015. Harrison was undrafted in 2015, and Wiltjer, Van Vleet, and Jones Jr., were undrafted in 2016.

Nine of those 14 players are rookies, which is promising for the D-League and for the NBA. With the addition of two-way contracts next season, there won’t be as much of a negative stigma around the second round of the NBA Draft, or going undrafted. Teams will see more value in those picks and other players, as they can assign them to the D-League with minimal risk. From a player’s point of view, you will not get your guaranteed contract, but your odds of playing in the organization have significantly increased, and you can go into training camp with not a whole lot to lose. You can earn a full NBA contract, or earn a two-way contract and time to develop and make the NBA team in the future.

As great as all that sounds, it remains to be seen how players, general managers, and most importantly, agents, will handle two-way contract negotiations. If you’re drafted by or in negotiations with a team, you could look at their history of how long they’ve assigned players to the D-League, and could ask for a higher salary at the D-League level if they tend to keep players assigned longer.  Compare that to other teams who have their players on shorter, but more frequent D-League assignments, giving them more time at the NBA level, thus earning the higher NBA salary. This could affect the ability of teams to sign late-rounders and fringe players to these two-way contracts, especially if those players have a multitude of options, with other NBA teams, or internationally.

I believe the NBA will become even more involved in the D-League, and truly use it for its namesake, developing young players. In its history,  the D-League has largely been successful finding players and developing them in hopes of an NBA team calling them up. Two-way contracts should see the D-League shift from a call-up focus to an assignment focus, or find a balance between the two. With outside ownership groups dwindling and more NBA teams owning their D-League teams, the number and length of NBA assignments could certainly increase. This would be great for the NBA, great for the D-League, and great for the players.

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