Can the D-League Raise the Skill Level of NBA Players?

Hasheem Thabeet, the #2 pick in the 2009 draft, spent some time on the D-League's Dakota Wizards last season. His play since then has shown a lot more promise.

The NBA has some of the greatest athletes in the world, but asking many of them to hit a midrange jumper is like asking Charles Barkley to keep his opinion to himself, it’s just not going to happen. Many of today’s young players are coming into the league with serious deficiencies, but instead of sitting on the bench watching their more skilled teammates play, these players are finding themselves in the NBA’s Development League. It is here where they can hone their skill set and work their way up to where an NBA coach can trust them on the court.

A prime example is Anthony “Smush” Parker, who was signed in 2002 as an undrafted free agent by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He didn’t develop enough to impress the Cavs who failed to re-sign him after the 2002-2003 season. In the 2004-2005 season he signed with the Pistons where he basically sat on the bench. After only 11 games he was released. Smush quickly signed with the now defunct Florida Flame of the D-League, and after four games he was picked up by the Suns who signed him to consecutive 10-day contracts. After that stint, Smush found himself back with the Flame where he flourished into a more versatile player.  

Smush played shooting guard at Fordham College, but at the point guard position in Florida, he averaged 19 points, 9 assists, and 3 steals per game. He also logged over 36 minutes a night, a drastic increase from the 6 minutes a game he averaged with the Suns. Smush improved so much that Phil Jackson brought him to the Lakers where he played in every game over the next two seasons. After flailing about for three seasons, Smush found and developed his game in the place that was designed for that very thing.

NBA teams now have an option other than cutting an unseasoned player.  Now they can send them down to the D-League where they are coached based on their skills or lack thereof. Their NBA parent team can spend a limited amount of time with each player working to develop lagging skills. So instead of languishing on an NBA bench with little help or hope of improving their game, many young players are now thriving in a situation that helps them become complete players. Devin Brown, Eddie Gil, Jordan Farmar, and Rafer Alston, are just a few of the recent players like Smush who have benefited from their time in the D-League. This is beneficial to both the players and the team, who can hold back a player until he’s ready for the level of play in the NBA. For players like Kwame Brown who bounce from team to team and have never really improved their game, it might be too late for the D-League. But for young ballers such as Hasheem Thabeet of the Memphis Grizzlies, the D-League can be an invaluable tool used to maximize potential. Thabeet is raw, but many believe there is lots of potential there, and they believe the D-League can further develop that talent after having two weeks with him late in his rookie season.

The D-League, the official minor league system of the NBA, started operations in 2001. The idea is for teams to use this venue to help bring along young players. In the past, players who weren’t lottery picks and were talented but flawed, were either sent to the wolves or relegated to the bench. Neither is an ideal situation for a young vulnerable player. But in the D-League, a player can be taught specific skills while playing ample time. This allows a player to apply the skills as he’s learning them. This also allows the parent team to see that he will not revert back to being an unpolished player once they hit the court. The team can also see the actual development of certain skills that the player was lacking when he was drafted out of college.

Contrary to what many people think, college is not a place where a basketball player’s weaknesses are addressed and worked on. Instead, it is a place where strengths are highlighted, and players are allowed to do what they do best. By rule, college coaches are allocated very little time to practice, and it shows in a lot of cases. There isn’t enough time to help players develop, and coaches simply don’t know how long they’re going to have a player on the roster. Most college players who are perceived to have NBA talent leave college before finishing their 4 years of eligibility. So with limited practices as well as limited time spent with players, college coaches are left to work with what talents the players have already developed. This means that many of these players typically go into the NBA raw and rough around the edges.

Getting drafted into the NBA can be bittersweet for many young ballers. It’s there that for the first time their skill sets are accurately assessed. Players are suddenly being told that they have multiple areas in which they need to develop. These often include but are not limited to: shooting motion (including set, in motion, foul shooting), passing (including two handed, bounce), footwork, hand speed, court vision, and ball handling. While working on these shortcomings, the players must also learn their team’s system and their role within it. NBA systems are much more complicated than those used in college, and players must learn them quickly in order to contribute. Teams such as Boston, LA, San Antonio and Utah are well known for their systems, which have the capacity to expose not only the opponents’ weaknesses, but also those of the players within the system. It is because of this that players must polish their games before they expect to see much playing time in the NBA.

In a few weeks, NBA teams will begin cutting players who aren’t quite ready to play at the highest level. However, more than a few of these players will work on their deficiencies and evolve into legitimate NBA talent. But talent alone won’t cut it; the NBA is also concerned about off-the-court behavior. Problems away from the court contributed to Smush’s shortened NBA career  D-League players not only have to work hard, they also have to keep their noses clean. That is why the D-League itself is evolving to better service the NBA.

In the D-League, players just don’t play and try to work out the kinks. They are also mentored by former players such as A.C. Green, Thurl Bailey, and Norm Nixon. Behavior both on and off the court is emphasized. Rules are also stressed. In fact, the NBA recently made a couple of rule changes in the D-League that mirror international rules. The overtime has been reduced from 5 to 3 minutes, and the goaltending rule has been changed so that once a ball hits the rim it can be swatted or snatch away. Young D-Leaguers will become used to these rules, and if the rule changes are made in the NBA, the players fortunate enough to make it there will be used to the new rules. Of course the main focus is still talent development, and while some will buck the odds and make it to the NBA, many players simply don’t have the goods to ever land on an NBA team.

The fact is that the majority of D-Leaguers will never play in the NBA. Some will play overseas, some will just fade away. They will have at least had the opportunity to try. A few however, will rise above and see their dream fulfilled, and when they do the NBA as a whole will improve. They will have young, polished, and well-rounded players who fans can root for both on and off the court. The 2010 D-League draft will be held on November 1, and a new class of hopefuls will see their dream begin.


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