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A Coach’s Perspective on Summer League and the D-League

Image by Ardonik via Flickr

Image by Ardonik via Flickr

The Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues are but one part of a larger effort started back in 2001 with the formation of the National Basketball Development League, which would be rebranded as the NBA D-League in 2005. Summer League is simply the most condensed form of developmental basketball available to the public.

After recently speaking with Red Viper/Rocket Isaiah Canaan about his path towards the NBA, I was interested in the thoughts of someone who’d been with the D-League for a longer stretch of time, to learn more about the larger effort. Enter Texas Legends Director of Player Personnel Travis Blakeley.

Blakeley also happens to be a very old friend and former teammate from middle school and high school (shout out to Coppell High School!). He was more than happy to expound on developmental basketball, and with four years of experience, he had much to say about where the D-League has been and where it’s going.

“I think it provides an atmosphere that allows players that want to play in the NBA to develop an ‘NBA game,’” Coach Blakeley said. “If you go and play overseas the game is entirely different.”

Current Maverick Summer Leaguer Jackie Carmichael is a good example. Carmichael spent the last season playing in the ACB League, and his adjustment issues overseas are a prime example of why Blakely believes in the D-League. “[Carmichael] struggled in Bilbao… Not just to get minutes, but at times he wasn’t quite sure of his role.” Carmichael played for the Maverick Summer League squad both this year and last, getting reserve minutes but making an impact. Blakeley thinks Carmichael is the type of player who could benefit from building his game in the D-League.

Blakeley emphasized the flexibility of the D-League as one basis for its appeal, particularly for younger NBA prospects. While there are mature prospects, “you have other guys who are younger, less experienced, who’ve been insulated because the college lifestyle provides a schedule…it’s regimented.” Blakeley says the Legends have learned to provide structure consistently and that helps bridge the gap between college and professional life. 

He was quick to point out how much he’s learned over his past four years. “Each year it gets easier, but each year you have different things that pop up,” Blakeley said. Through a process of trial and error, the Legends have built up a structure for the players that’s flexible enough to work with players who have different needs.  

Recent Charlotte draftee P.J. Hairston is the most obvious example: according to Blakely, the Legends had never received that much media coverage outside the start of our season when we announce the coaching staff and roster.” The challenge became reinforcing the day to day structure for the rest of the roster.

When asked about preparing players for possible roles with the Mavericks, Blakeley said a major emphasis is put upon the D-League organizations to mirror their NBA affiliates in terms of what they teach and run, citing recent success stories of Chris Douglas-Roberts and Justin Dentmon. “Dentmon played limited minutes,” said Blakeley, “but if you asked the Maverick coaching staff, they’d confirm he knew a lot of the system already. He simply may not have been talented enough to stick, but he wasn’t a hindrance.” Preparing players to know what’s being ran at the next level is a major goal of D-League coaches.

Blakeley has been in his position for around four years, and his tenure seems unique given the changing landscape of the D-League. The Legends have “had three head coaches in four years, but that’s primarily by design.” Blakeley then cited himself and two other Legend coaches who have been in their positions for the past two and a half years. “We’ve also had instability with some personnel due to growth and that’s the whole point of the league; it’s not just for players.”

As an evolving league, Blakeley has a couple of opinions on how to improve the D-League. “First, I’d like to see roster expansion to 12 players from just 10.” Currently, rules allow a roster of 12 players but a maximum of 10 non-NBA players. If, for example, the Mavericks sent three players to the Legends for a developmental stint, the Legends would have to cut a member of their D-League roster to keep the overall roster to 12 men. Blakeley believes “there are enough talented players out there to fill the roster.”

Blakeley also believes the D-League must find a way to change it’s salary structure to make it more appealing to more talented players.  “Every team’s budget line is different… until we reach a one-to-one relationship with every NBA team having a D-League affiliate, it will be a struggle to change the salary structure.”

“Could you imagine if (class of 2014) Emmanuel Mudiay came to the D-League instead of going overseas?” asked Blakeley. “That would be incredible.”

It has only been in the last few years where NBA prospects have thought of playing overseas as a viable alternative to the NCAA, and Mudiay is the most recent example of that phenomenon. But with all the structural and developmental benefits the D-League offers, it may soon provide a more appealing alternative.

The big challenge for the NBA D-League is building towards each NBA team having their own developmental affiliate, but it’s also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to continue to build towards becoming a viable minor league that serves as the best path for players to reach the NBA, not just a viable one.

Kirk Henderson