Poking Through The Cracks: The D-League Is Rapidly Growing From The Ground Up

Since the NBA D-League’s inception in 2001, it has been picked on, ridiculed, looked down on and tossed aside like old news. Only eight teams existed then; a surefire difference from the 17 we see now. Players who competed night in, night out in the NBA’s minor league weren’t treated with respect; rather, the general consensus was that if you were in the D-League, you’re holding onto a childhood dream, one that is still within your grasp yet still so far away for it to be realistic. It was false hope, and this idea that it was a means to an end wasn’t a reflection many shared. Plenty of players were one-and-done’s, spending one or two seasons stateside until fleeing for a more lucrative offer overseas (not the outcome many expected when they embarked on their journey for a shot in the NBA). Call-ups were a luxury only few experienced — only eight players were called-up in the league’s inaugural season — and NBA teams weren’t bending over backwards to establish single affiliations for the betterment of their future.

It was a nice thought, though, having a league dedicated solely for players that want to make something of their unique talent but just aren’t quite there. No matter what the numbers reflected, it has always been an opportunity to play in front of NBA executives and scouts — the idea being that it is the fastest path to the NBA. However, the results didn’t make it a viable option for many. It wasn’t set up like the MLB’s minor league, and the combination of low salaries and poor travel conditions made it just a pit stop in the heated race of this crazy basketball race that we drool over on a nightly basis.

Some of those problems still remain. Salaries are split into three low tiers ($25,000, $19,000 and $13,000); playing overseas is, financially, still a much better option; even with the expansion the league has seen over the years, the travel is still grueling (it’s normal for teams to take long bus rides to get to arenas, and when they do fly, it’s commercial); and many outsiders still see assignments as demotions. Nevertheless, as a whole, the league has grown leaps and bounds over the last few seasons, and sure enough, the creases are starting to get ironed out of this crinkled shirt.

The narrative and perception of the D-League has undergone a major change thanks to a number of reasons:

  • 36 players earned 49 call-ups in the 2013-2014 season, a record-breaking number.
  • Six players who spent the past season in the D-League are now eligible for the draft this summer: Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Aquille Carr, P.J. Hairston, Cleveland Melvin, Norvel Pelle and Elijah Pittman. Out of the six, at least two are expected to hear their name called on draft night.
  • There are tons of success stories that have burst through the gates over the years, such as Rafer Alston, Will Bynum, Avery Bradley, Danny Green, Jeremy Lin, Amir Johnson and Gerald Green.
  • Every D-League game, barring the Finals, is now streamed live on YouTube for anyone and everyone to watch.
  • Attendance grew by 5 percent this season to 1,181,404
  • 62 players were assigned to the D-League this season, including 10 2013 first-round draft picks.
  • 33 percent of all NBA players now have D-League experience. 79 of those 149 players made an appearance in the 2014 playoffs

This isn’t the same league it used to be — that’s clear. Most importantly, it’s not a shameful ordeal to be in the D-League anymore. Just this season, the Pacers’ first-round pick, Solomon Hill, asked for an assignment to their affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, instead of riding the bench. Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum willingly spent four days with the Idaho Stampede to rehabilitate a foot injury that sidelined him for six weeks. The Houston Rockets assigned their second-round draft pick, Isaiah Canaan, and undrafted rookie, Robert Covington, to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers for the majority of the season. Canaan turned into a rotation player by the season’s end and Covington walked away with the D-League’s Rookie of the Year honors. The Rockets also found themselves a diamond in the rough, Troy Daniels, this season, who kept their season alive by hitting a game-winning three in Game Three of their first-round series against the Blazers. (He credited the D-League for giving him the confidence to step up in that situation).

Out of the 17 teams in the D-League this season, 14 had one-to-one affiliations, and each benefited from that relationship in some way. Not every team is on the same level yet — the Rockets, Spurs and Thunder continue to set the pace, using it as a means of developing young talent, finding overlooked players and experimenting with new systems — but some of the reasons for that are out of their control. For the Atlanta Hawks, not having a team in the Southeast region has put their hopes of having a single-affiliation on hold. The Dallas Mavericks, on the other hand, are lucky enough to have the Texas Legends within 30 miles of their arena, allowing them to funnel players back-and-forth as they please. But the interest is in place, and the expectation is that each NBA team will soon have a one-to-one D-League affiliation.

The D-League’s reputation was built on being a springboard for NBA gigs, but it never used to serve those opportunities on a silver platter. There weren’t many call-ups going around, and without that unique selling point, there was little to offer that teams hundreds of miles away couldn’t. However, that has changed dramatically over the years. Call-ups have skyrocketed,which is something that has kept many from packing their bags and heading overseas, and the perception from players has undergone a huge change, from assignments being a demotion to an opportunity to expand ones game. It is more of a traditional farm system, and the hope is that it will continue to grow. We’ve seen what it can do for young prospects, undrafted players and veterans looking for another chance, and as more and more teams establish single affiliations, there will undoubtably be more feel good stories to come.

Stats gathered from the D-League’s official site.

Scott Rafferty