Sunday Musings: Fixing the NBA D-League


As I sat down to watch the NCAA Final Four matchup between Kentucky and Wisconsin on Saturday night, I was hit with a reality that many of these players will soon understand.  For the vast majority of these players, this is the pinnacle.  This is likely the biggest week of their basketball careers and it’s all downhill from here.

These two teams are the cream of the crop.  There are more than a handful of professional prospects on the floor.  But the NBA player development system is broken and unless you are a lottery pick that finds the right situation, your chance for long-term success in the league is minimal at best.  Even lottery is a crapshoot.

The bust label is waiting to be smacked on every young player, and the Sacramento Kings are very aware of this issue.  Last season, Ben McLemore’s name came up.  An athletic juggernaut, McLemore came to the league with the equivalent of one year of real high school ball and a single year at Kansas.  His understanding of the game of basketball is rudimentary at best.  His success and failure hinges solely on his God-given abilities while he is given a crash course in Basketball 101.  McLemore’s improvement in Year Two is encouraging, but the third season will likely define his ceiling.

He isn’t the only young Kings player who has struggled with the transition to the NBA game.  Derrick Williams is still just 23 years old, yet he’s hardly thought of as a prospect any longer.  In the right system, Williams can be a highlight-reel dunker, but he has struggled to learn the finer nuances of the game that would cash in on his second overall selection status.

Nik Stauskas has already heard the bust murmurs. Meanwhile, former Kings lottery pick Jimmer Fredette, who was in town on Friday night, is hanging onto his NBA life by a thread.  This is the harsh reality of the NBA game.  You have so little time to prove your worth before the window on your career begins to slide closed.

Some players taken in the draft just aren’t NBA regulars.  That happens all the time.  But for some of these young men, the failure lies in the NBA’s inability to develop talent or create a true minor league system.

To date, the NBA D-League is a joke.  It has become a place where the NBA fringe players like Jordan Hamilton or Quincy Miller can keep in shape awaiting their second or third chance at stardom, but for the other players, it is a low-budget experiment that preys on the dream of someday becoming an NBA player.

During this season, the Sacramento Kings threw all caution to the wind when they brought in Division III assistant coach David Arseneault Jr. to run the Reno Bighorns.  The results have been mixed.  The Bighorns missed the playoffs, but five players from their roster have received an NBA call-up.

Are David Stockton, David Wear and Sim Bhullar true NBA prospects?  Only time will tell.  But what we do know is that Arsenault’s system can highlight specific skills in a player that may appeal to an NBA franchise.

Reno is the perfect example of why the NBA D-League system is broken.  Early in the season, undrafted rookie Brady Heslip was averaging 24.5 points per game, while hoisting up 12.8 3-pointers per game and connecting on 44.3 percent of them.

Meanwhile, Stauskas a renowned 3-point shooter and eighth overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft, was in Sacramento losing all confidence.  It’s not an NBA-style system, but isn’t there a chance that Stauskas could have found success in Reno?  Could that success have carried over to the Sacramento Kings?

Heslip walked away from the D-League, taking a contract overseas that will pay him so much more than the NBA’s minor league system allows.  He left, because there is no guarantee in the D-League and you play for pennies on the dollar.  But what if there was a glimmer of hope?

In a league that can’t shake the reality of its failure to develop players, what if the NBA actually promoted its minor league system?  What if it pulled something from Major League Baseball and allowed the equivalent of the September call-up?  Starting March 1, the league could expand team rosters to 18 players, allowing up to three players to get a sniff of the big show.

This system would allow playoff-bound teams a deeper bench to rest stars.  It would allow struggling teams the opportunity to get a look at some fresh faces.  And it would allow the D-League an opportunity to present talented players with a reward system.

The hope would be that NBA teams would invest more time and energy into their affiliates.  Maybe teams would even show more faith in shuttling their struggling prospects back and forth to work on their game.  There is no guarantee that it would work, but as of today, the D-League is struggling to find a real place in the landscape of professional basketball.

The NBA needs to find a better way to develop talent.  In theory, the D-League is that system, but it has been a failure to date.  It’s time to reevaluate the ties between parent club and affiliate and make them stronger.


James Ham

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