High stakes for young players in the D-League

Even if there is no NBA season, the D-League will play a full season.  This may be the most significant D-League season ever due to the NBA lockout. The stakes for players on the bubble, newly drafted rookies and young players already under contract are exceptionally high. They need playing time. They have systems to learn. They cannot afford to waste a year. Instead of cursing the darkness that is the NBA lockout, Spurs fans should pay attention to the lights up north in Austin as the D-League Toros prepare for the 2011-12 season because there is the real possibility that what happens in Austin this season will profoundly reverberate in San Antonio.

We could see San Antonio Spurs first round draft picks Kawhi Leonard, Cory Joseph and last year’s first round pick, James Anderson as well as Danny Green and De’Sean Butler, in a Toros uniform playing in the D-League this season.  It’s not certain yet what the relation will be between this years’ NBA draft crop and the NBDL, and it’s more complex for players like Anderson and Butler and Green who are already under contract—but if all five could play for the Toros this season it would be a huge win: A win for them, for the Toros, and certainly for the Spurs.  Whenever the NBA season resumes, these young guns would be in playing shape and would know each other and the rather complex Spurs system. That’s a win for everybody. Well, perhaps not for Richard Jefferson, but that’s another story.

But even if some high-powered lawyers step in and declare that players under contract (like Anderson and Butler and Green) can’t play in the NBDL, or this rookie crop cannot play in the D-League—what happens in Austin is still very important if you are a Spurs fan. I don’t think the casual Spurs fan has an appreciation for how significant the D-League is. Since I am but a mere writer, perhaps someone else with greater credentials than I, can make the case for why the D-League matters.

Current Suns GM, and former Director of Scouting for the Spurs, Lance Blanks has a high view of the D-League.  Here is Blanks’ take on the Developmental League and its value to young players:

“I’m a huge fan of the minor leagues. The best experience is naturally playing. If the guy is sitting around in the environment of a NBA team vs. getting playing time in the D-League, I don’t think it’s even close where he reaps the most benefits.”

Put simply: It’s better for a young player to get actual playing time in a teams’ system in the D-League than to sit on the bench and not play while on the active roster of an NBA team.  During a lockout season, wouldn’t you rather see Leonard, Joseph, Anderson, Green and Butler learning the Spurs system and getting invaluable playing time with the Toros as opposed to waiting a half a year or worse, a full year, to get back on the floor in a Spurs uniform, trying to figure it all out?  And who is to say that some other player on the Toros roster doesn’t have a breakout year and become the next D-League success story?

There are great success stories that come out of the D-League.

Stories of players assigned to the league by their NBA team, and players in the league called up by an NBA team. Here are some names to consider:  Rafer Alston, Louis Amundson, Chris “Birdman” Anderson, Matt Barnes, Chuck Hayes, Mikki Moore, Smush Parker, and Bobby Simmons were all players called up from the D-League who have enjoyed success in the NBA. Other notables: JJ Barea, Brandon Bass, Aaron Brooks, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Marcin Gortat and Martell Webster were all assigned by their teams to the D-League during their first or second season.  That’s a pretty solid collection of players.

The relationship between the D-League and NBA works for players and for teams. It’s worked for the Spurs in the past. Jason Hart, Devin Brown, and Ime Udoka all contributed to the Spurs past successes and all were D-League players. Pop and R.C. are definitely interested in what happens in Austin—as a Spurs fan, you should be too.

In June 2007 the Spurs purchased the Austin Toros and an exclusive relationship between the two teams was established. During that time, there have been some names you might remember who have played for both the Toros and the Spurs: Darius Washington, Ian Mahinmi, Marcus Williams, DerMarr Johnson, Malik Hairston, Alonzo Gee and Curtis Jerrells immediately come to mind.

Where are they now? There are stories of success, and stories still being written.

Malik Hairston. Played last year in the Turkish league for Montepaschi Siena. Injuries and a surgery set him back for most of the season, but he returned to finish the season strong, averaging 15 pts and 5 rebs in the playoffs.

DerMarr Johnson. Recently released by the Wizards but signed by the T-Wolves.
Keith Langford. Plays in Russia and averaged 18 pts per game for BC Khimki last season.

Marcus Williams. Plays in China for Zhejiang, and averaged 30 pts in 42 minutes of play per night last season.

The candidate for most interesting journey? Darius Washington. The combo guard was granted citizenship in Macedonia where he is plays for the national team and is known there as Darius Vašington. He also plays professionally in Italy for Lottomatica Roma where he average 13 ppg last season.

Curtis Jerrells is playing in Turkey. Jerrells came close to being a Spur during his tenure with the Toros. He was the last cut the Spurs made during his rookie season as an undrafted FA, and was called up a few times. Jerrells plays for BC Partizan Belgrade where he’s won the Serbian National Championship and the Serbian National Cup.

Alonzo Gee is a great success story. The athletic and explosive 6’6” shooting guard/small forward found the perfect context with the Cavs this year. He averaged 8 pts; 4 rebs per game in 40 games, starting 29.  Gee should be reliable role player for years to come. He simply needed playing time, time he couldn’t get with Jefferson on the roster.  I was a big Gee fan and am happy for him and his breakout year.

Ian Mahinmi certainly has experienced success. The 6’11” 240 lb athletic center finally started showing glimpses of becoming the player the Spurs drafted, unfortunately for Spurs fans, he showed those glimpses while playing for the Mavericks.  Injury riddled while with Spurs, the Spurs had to make a decision as to whether the seemingly always injured Mahinmi was worth re-signing. With Splitter coming over, Ian was deemed expendable. After the playoffs this season, there were times I wished the Spurs had both Ian and Splitter on the floor against the Grizzlies.

Ian’s 48 min averages for the 2010-11 season? A very healthy 17 pts 12 rebs.  He averaged 8 minutes per game over 62 games with the Mavs. In the playoffs he averaged 5 minutes, 2 pts and 1 reb. But perhaps Ian’s defining moment came in the crucial game 6 against Heat, with the outcome of that game still very much in doubt he grabbed a critical rebound in the closing seconds of the 3rd quarter and sunk a buzzer beater that energized the Mavs. Miami never recovered.

Ian is only 24. He will continue to develop. He will never be the next David Robinson, despite physical similarities, but he will be far more productive than Hasheem Thabeet who was selected number two overall in the 2009 draft, was sent to the D-League by the Grizzlies and is now the problem of the Houston Rockets.  Ian along with Gee are Toros success stories—there are more success stories to come.

So with the lockout looking like it’s going to be a war of attrition, you might want to start familiarizing yourself with your Toros. What happens in Austin doesn’t stay there. What happens in Austin will impact the future of the San Antonio Spurs.

*please note during the NBA lockout, no teams can contact players under contract and cannot play in the D-League.