Justin Dentmon, along with Team USA running mates Lance Thomas and Leo Lyons, will lead the top-ranked Austin Toros this season.
The NBA Development League season tips off on Friday night with seven games, highlighted nationally by the Canton Charge hosting the Iowa Energy on NBA TV, meaning that it's probably about time I start to talk about the D-League season in earnest.
My original plan was to compare all of the teams to Ernest movies, but since there were only nine movies made featuring Mr. Worrell, the next two days will instead be simple power rankings. These power rankings will be split into two columns -- the first being the stronger Western Conference -- so everyone has something to read during their Thanksgiving-shortened work week.
1. Austin Toros
The Austin Toros have a lot of continuity and, with just two weeks of training camp, that should play a big part early in the season. The San Antonio Spurs-owned team has the same coaching staff as last season and employs five players that have previously started in the D-League.
Brad Jones' team should have the chemistry needed to persevere through any sort of early season struggles considering Justin Dentmon, Lance Thomas and Leo Lyons all played for the USA's entry at the Pan-Am Games earlier in the fall. The starting lineup will likely be rounded out with Luke Zeller, a floor-spreading center, and rookie shooting guard Tristan Thompson (not that Tristan Thompson).
And, of course, Squeaky Johnson deserves a mention. He'll probably end up behind Dentmon on the depth chart, but he brings four years of prior Toros experience to the Austin lineup -- and that oughtta mean something, right?
2. Los Angeles D-Fenders
The D-Fenders don't have the strongest roster, at least as far as players I'm familiar with, so this ranking is probably too low for the Los Angeles Lakers' D-League affiliate. The team does have a great coach in Eric Musselman, however, and will be led by longtime Indiana Pacer Jamaal Tinsley at the point guard spot.
The D-Fenders forcused mostly on the backcourt through the draft, picking up a pair of NBA prospects in Anthony Gurley and Eniel Polynice to team with Tinsley, but the frontcourt seems to be a bit of a question mark -- specifically whether they will be able to get out and run as much as Musselman would like.
Brandon Costner will create plenty of match-up problems with his ability to both shoot and bang in the post depending on the match-up, but the remaining big men are all kind of question marks after being a couple of years removed from the NBA landscape. Former Syracuse Orange big man Terrence Roberts once looked like an NBA prospect, but he's floated around in some less than stellar leagues overseas for the past four seasons.
3. Reno Bighorns
The Bighorns will look drastically different from last year's team as Eric Musselman moved on to the Los Angeles D-Fenders and their top 11 players, at least in terms of minutes played, have all either moved on or been moved by new head coach Paul Mokeski. They have plenty of talent with D-League experience, though, meaning they should at least be used to the rigors of the D-League schedule.
The Bighorns will feature a backcourt led by Blake Ahearn, acquired in a trade from the Erie BayHawks, and the talented Cedric Bozeman. Bozeman averaged 19.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 assistants during his last go-around in the D-League with the Anaheim Arsenal -- a team that featured Mokeski as an assistant coach under Sam Vincent.
Nick Fazekas could also play a vital role if he's healthy, but the former NBA big man played just 12 games in the D-League last year before sitting out the rest of the season with an ankle injury. Doug Thomas, an excellent role-playing big man, and Taj McCullough should round out the team's starting lineup. The team is probably better than this ranking indicates, but still has a few questions to answer.
4. Bakersfield Jam
The Jam don't have a lot of continuity on the roster, but they do have quite a bit of talent. Will Voigt's team added four potential starters through the draft earlier this month, including getting quite the coup when he traded for Osiris Eldridge and Renaldo Major from the Dakota Wizards as well as picking up rookie Mustapha Farrakhan with one of three first round picks.
The Jam should be pretty set in the frontcourt -- provided Brian Butch is fully recovered from injury and healthy for the foreseeable future -- as second-year pro Mac Koshwal is a bit of a beast (and played overseas with Mike Gansey last season) and should do the dirty work while Butch drains three-pointers. Former Minnesota Golden Gopher Damian Johnson and Adam Koch, a teammate of the Jordan Eglseder-led Northern Iowa teams, should also contribute at the forward spots.
The problem is, though, that they don't have a sure-starter at point guard ... the most important position in the D-League. The Jam have D-League veterans Anthony Harris and Lawrence Westbrook, along with rookie Justin Graham, but none are the caliber of former Jam point guards Jeremy Wise, Stephen Dennis or Trey Johnson.
5. Tulsa 66ers
The 66ers have an excellent coaching staff in Nate Tibbetts and Dale Osbourne, but they return just one full-time starter -- and won't be given the luxury of having the Oklahoma City Thunder assign them some extra firepower until the NBA lockout is complete. It didn't help that first-round pick Gary Johnson and Byron Eaton were both released early in the preseason due to injury, either.
The frontcourt should be fine as former Thunder draft pick Ryan Reid and Marcus Lewis, the surprising MVP of Team USA at the Pan-Am games, will start and likely play as many minutes as possible. Jerome Dyson will start at point guard and, while your's truly isn't exactly a fan of his offensive game, should score plenty of points.
Depth is definitely a question mark heading into season, however. Former Kansas Jayhawks guard Brady Morningstar will probably start as the shooting guard with Curtis Sumpter playing small forward, but there aren't many players worthy of talking about behind them.
6. Texas Legends
The Legends lost their first round draft pick last week when Alando Tucker took his talents overseas, but Texas's excellent coaching staff -- led by Del Harris -- should be just fine this season. The Legends (ran by Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson) returned four contributors from last year's team and added NBA journeyman Jamal Sampson through the draft to pair with Matt Rogers in the frontcourt, but the backcourt rotation might be interesting.
Dominique Johnson surprised a lot of people late in the season, but he'll have to make sure he can be a bit more consistent this season as he'll likely be one of the Legends' go-to scorers. Stanford's Lawrence Hill should start at small forward while former Iowa and Indiana Styate standout Jake Kelly will probably attempt to make the transition to full-time point guard.
Oh, and of course Booker Woodfox shouldn't be forgot about. Woodfox started 13 games for the Legends last season, but considering his percentages were quite a bit better off of the bench, Harris will probably use him as the primary back-up at both guard spots.
7. Idaho Stampede
Am I punishing them too much for Antoine Walker being absent while he deals with some off-the-court issues (and parties)? Probably, but I would love for Randy Livingston's team to prove me wrong -- and this is likely all the motivation they need.
The Stampede drafted well but didn't return much firepower, making 'Toine a key to the frontcourt. Employee No. 8 won't be with the team to start the season, though, and there doesn't seem to be enough depth behind Jason Ellis and Kendall Dartez to pick up the former NBA All-Star's slack.
Seth Tarver's a good defender and Mildon Ambres was the D-League's Most Improved Player in 2010, but the remaining players all have their fair share of question marks (Which one deserves the nickname "crazy"?). Kevin Galloway could alleviate quite a few of my concerns if his play lives up to the hype, however, as the 6-foot-7 guard's college pedigree included stints with both the USC Trojans and Oklahoma Sooners before finishing at Texas Southern.
8. Rio Grande Valley Vipers
The Houston Rockets-affiliated Vipers made an excellent acquisition in the off-season when they hired Nick Nurse to replace Chris Finch as the team's head coach, but last year's runners-up were only able to convince two players from last year's squad to return.
Terrell Harris and Kelvin Lewis seem like good guys and decent basketball players, but the Vipers weren't able to surround them with enough talent to get them out of the cellar of the Ridiculous Upside Power Rankings to start the season.
The Vipers didn't miss with their first round pick as former Louisiana-Lafayette forward Tyren Johnson should make a solid impact in the league, but the rest of the roster leaves something to be desired. Hofstra rookie Greg Washington will likely team with Connecticut center Charles Okwandu in the frontcourt, forming a solid shot-blocking tandem that hasn't proven to be excellent at anything else.