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October 2, 2012
Evolution of the NBA's Feeder Circuit

by Bradford Doolittle


Player development was just not a term you used to hear much in reference to the NBA. The league had a feeder circuit all right, but it was called the NCAA, and it produced a steady supply of three- and four-year college players with relatively polished skill sets and mature bodies. Sure, you'd run across the occasional big man "project" and once in awhile, a player would bubble up from the Continental Basketball Association, but for the most part the proving ground for players was the ACC (or Big Eight, Pac 10, etc.) and the only requirement was to catch the eye of NBA super scout Marty Blake.

Things changed when Kevin Garnett was at the vanguard of the groups we now refer to as preps-to-pros and one-and-done players. These raw, athletic marvels wowed NBA talent evaluators with irresistible upside, but also lugged with them immense risk. For every Garnett there has been a Jonathan Bender or a Darko Milicic. For every Kobe Bryant, there's a Korleone Young or a Dajuan Wagner.

The NBDL -- the D-League -- was born out of the chaos in 2001, filling a void left when Isiah Thomas swung his personal wrecking ball at the CBA. At first, it was just another independent minor league, a place for guys to play for peanuts when they couldn't stick on an NBA roster. As the NBA continued to swing and miss on young players, it became apparent that there was something missing, a kind of finishing school for players with unbridled ability, or a proving ground for guys that the scouts missed the first time around.

Part of the problem was the difficulty in projecting the growth of 18- and 19-year-old players. But it's also the question of developing the skills of a player who has the talent, but not the polish, to earn NBA game time. Only the elite talents like LeBron James or Kevin Durant are able to sharpen their teeth in big-minute roles in the NBA. Everyone else learns by watching, or they don't learn at all. Or at least that was the case until the D-League was established as a still under-utilized resource for NBA teams.

"It's been for good for me to see guys like (Lou Amundson and Mike Harris) to find their way into the NBA," says Timberwolves player development assistant Shawn Respert, who spent two years working the league offices of the D-League. "I can say that their success has come from some of the things we've tried to incorporate and utilize in the D-League."

There was an undeniable economic impetus behind the growing importance of the minor league, which of course caught the attention of David Stern. To cite just one example, Bender produced 3.8 Win Shares, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and for that he was paid nearly $31 million over eight NBA seasons. His first two seasons in the league were in the years immediately prior to the formation of the NBDL, and he played a total of 704 minutes for the Pacers. What if he had played 3,000 minutes for the Roanoke Dazzle? Would things have been different? Could the Pacers have recouped some of their considerable investment?

One league official there would be "absolutely" fewer draft misses if elite talents were allowed to log extended minor-league development time, and added that it's going to take time for teams to realize that the expectation level that accompanies high draft picks is less important than a player being allowed to develop on the court in game situations. That's the dynamic Stern sought when in 2005, he announced an expansion of the NBDL.

"The absence of a firm-footed, successful development league is something that has gnawed at me over the years," Stern told reporters at the time, adding, "I hope our development league ultimately will be a place where youngsters could be assigned in their early years in the league."

Soon thereafter, the NBDL was re-branded as the NBA Development League or, simply, the D-League. Stern moved the D-League's offices to New York and streamlined the operations between the two circuits. Before long, the D-League became a version of the proving ground long envisioned by Stern, with the number of call-ups increasing on an annual basis. Last season, a record 44 players found their way from the D-League onto an NBA roster.

"We offer the fastest path to the NBA, and I have numbers to back that up," says Dan Reed, the energetic young president of the D-League. Indeed he does have plenty of numbers to back up his enthusiastic advocacy of his league:

  • There were 120 players with NBA D-League experience on NBA rosters at the end of last season. That represented 27 percent of all NBA players.
  • There were 60 players from the D-League on playoff rosters.
  • Through last season, 166 players have earned call-ups and including players who have been tabbed more than once, there have been 270 instances of a player being promoted from the D-League.
  • It's not just players. Over 30 NBA coaches honed their skills in the D-League, as did one general manager -- New Orleans' Dell Demps. Also, every referee hired by the NBA since 2002 has spent time in the D-League.

Reed is quick to cite the D-League's operational integration with the NBA as the factor that no other league in the world can match. The D-League still doesn't pay as well as many foreign leagues, but it's hard to argue Reed's point. The D-League's evolution has kicked into high gear over the last couple seasons, a period in which seven NBA teams have developed single-affiliate relationships with D-League franchises. During the 2012-13 season, 11 NBA teams will have one-on-one affiliations with a D-League franchise, leaving the other 19 teams to share the five remaining franchises.

The Houston Rockets became the first team to develop the hybrid model of D-League affiliation, in which they have a dedicated relationship with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his staff has total control of all basketball operations for the Vipers, but business-side operations remain the domain of the Rio Grande-based ownership of the Vipers.

"You learn about players, learn about coaches and try new ideas," Morey says. "When we looked at that the hybrid model, it gave you upside without any of the downside. The minor-league team is way more knowledgeable about their market than we are."

And you can count on the trend continuing, especially given the cost-benefit ratio. When the Celtics announced a single-affiliate relationship with the Maine Red Claws that will begin this season, it was reported that the overhead will cost Boston around $220,000, or about half the minimum salary of a second-round draft pick. More and more teams are going to jump onto this bandwagon.

"We have several other NBA teams interested," Reed says, referring to the trend towards single affiliation.

There is still a ways to go, but the evolution is well under way. Stern and his quorum of NBA owners cast a vote for the D-League during the last round of labor negotiations by expanding the relationship between the leagues. Beginning last season, veteran players could be allocated to the D-League, whether to rehab an injury or to work into shape. Starting this season, any player with less than three years of experience can be sent down as many times as his parent club desires. Yet, there is still something missing.

Remember when Hasheem Thabeet was assigned to the D-League in the 2009-10 season? He became the highest-drafted player to be allocated to the minors and it was widely viewed as a demotion. While some players, such as former Sixer Craig Brackins, have actually requested D-League assignments just to get minutes, the stigma of being "sent down" is a paradigm that even Reed admits needs to be overcome. What would help is for a player like Thabeet -- who put up big numbers in his limited D-League stints -- to use that experience as a springboard towards fulfilling the potential that got him drafted so high in the first place.

"We're still waiting for the unpolished guy to be sent to the D-League and really take off based on his D-League experience," said one league source, who added that he doesn't see Jeremy Lin as an example of that.

For that white whale to be speared, NBA teams need to better use the structure in place. Utah's Enes Kanter played just 13 minutes per night as a rookie, but didn't log any D-League time. Neither did Tobias Harris, who at the age of 19 put up a 14.2 PER in just 479 minutes for the Bucks and got everybody excited about his potential. Yet he spent most of the season watching Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Delfino from the Milwaukee bench rather than logging 30 minutes per night for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

"We think that in time, it will be the norm rather than the exception for young players to spend developmental time in the D-League," Reed says.

For that to happen, you have to give each team equal access to the league. When you consider the way the D-League has evolved, it's apparent that we could eventually be looking at a baseball-style architecture. Some of the features of that arrangement might include.

  • Each team will have a dedicated affiliate that has geographic proximity to its NBA parent club. When the Golden State Warriors became the fourth team to purchase a D-League franchise of its own last year, it allowed the established Dakota Wizards to play a final season in Bismarck, North Dakota, then moved it to nearby Santa Cruz for the 2012-13 season. Indeed, all the single-affiliate D-League franchises enjoy geographic proximity to their parent teams. It's a trend.
  • Teams will have roster exceptions that will allow them to leave players in the D-League for months at a time, or even a full season, without having to summon prospects to fill roster gaps that crop up due to injury spates. This of course will have to be collectively bargained.
  • The current 10-day contract arrangement that teams use to get through the season will be replaced by a call-up system similar to baseball. The D-League affiliate will be a mixture of prospects and fringe veterans, all of whom are operating identical offensive and defensive schemes with the same terminology of their parent clubs. This will be the pool of talent from which teams get through the inevitable roster shortages caused by an 82-game season.
  • There will be a collectively-bargained mechanism that protects a team's affiliate players. Currently, even teams with single affiliate relationships only control allocated players working under NBA contracts. Other players on their affiliate can be snapped up by other NBA teams, a point of contention for those who lose players they've discovered through the acumen of their scouting department.
  • If you're going to allow teams to stash players in the D-League, you've also got to provide an avenue to prevent NBA-worthy players from being trapped at that level, so you'd see something similar to baseball's Rule V draft.
  • An expansion of the NBA draft to three rounds could occur. Currently, you could easily trim the draft back to one round and no one would really blink an eye. However, if you have a fully-mature affiliate system in place, teams would leap to scout and draft assets that could be evaluated and developed in its own program.

Is the end game going to resemble some version of this? Well, Reed thinks we're clearly headed towards a 30-team, 30-affiliate structure. However, he declined to place a timeline on that process, saying it's not going to happen overnight, and emphasizing that the D-League is focused on "steady, sustainable growth over time."

Indeed, it's not going to happen right away, not with 19 teams still trailing behind the trend. We're not going to see a 14-team expansion of the D-League next year. However, it seems inevitable that the circuit will someday grow into that "true minor league" that Stern envisioned less than a decade ago. The process is well underway.

"That was David Stern's idea," Respert says. "We absolutely want to make sure that teams have an equal amount of resources to draw from and a factory, to be able to produce the things that they need to ensure the success of their franchises."

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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