NBA D-League Power Rankings: Returning Players Highlight Eastern Conference

Edwin Ubiles will play for the Dakota Wizards this season. He played for the Puerto Rican national team this summer, stealing the spotlight from J.J. Barea (in this picture).

The opening night of the NBA Development League season is just over 48 hours away. Considering the D-League is going to be the only game in town and Ridiculous Upside strives to be the premier site for coverage of the NBA's official minor league, it makes sense that we'll begin to ramp up our coverage this week.

On Tuesday, the topic of the day was Western Conference power rankings and -- surprisingly -- there wasn't much in the way of outrage from coaches and front office personnel from around the league (aside from one that asked me to list all of the Ernest movies).

That might not be the case with the Eastern Conference power rankings, though, as there doesn't seem to be quite as much talent on that side of the minor league world. There isn't much continuity in the Eastern Conference, either, as five teams will break in new head coaches with four of them having undergone ownership changes since last season ended.

One thing that doesn't look like it will change this season though, at least judging from opening-day rosters, is the fact that the majority of the playoff teams will likely come out of the Western Conference once again this season. Only the top team in each conference is guaranteed a playoff spot, meaning there are six spots up for grabs -- and last year, five of those six spots belonged to the Western Conference.

Anyway, without further adieu, the Western Conference power rankings: Let's break it down!

1. Dakota Wizards

I've watched Dakota quite a bit the past few years, living in Bismarck and all, but by no means am I biased when it comes to the local team -- a fact that should have been evident when I noted that I wasn't exactly impressed with their draft class. The Golden State Warriors owned Wizards will boast seven former D-League contributors this season, however, giving new head coach Nate Bjorkgren a head start on the competition.

The Wizards will be led by veteran point guard Maurice Baker, a former call-up of the Portland Trail Blazers and a player that has been on and off of Dakota's roster since 2004. Along with Baker, Curtis Withers, Marcus Dove and Mike Anderson should form one of the best frontcourts in the D-League. Edwin Ubiles should also be a positive addition on the wing, provided he's able to stay healthy.

The backcourt is where the questions begin, however. Aside from Baker, the Wizards will rely on Anthony Goods, Shy Ely and Travis Walton -- three players that have definitive strengths and weaknesses that could be exploited this season. They should be able to fill their roles, but it'll be important for them to do just that.

2. Maine Red Claws

The Red Claws will have a brand new coaching staff this season after bringing former Virginia Cavaliers head coach Dave Leitao aboard to replace the promoted Austin Ainge while hiring Donyell Marshall as an assistant. The team will also boast quite a few new faces on the roster, meaning chemistry could be an issue in the early-goings of the season. Maine isn't short on talent, however, and that's ultimately what wins ball games in the D-League.

The Red Claws added NBA Draft prospects Chris Wright, Durrell Summers and Mike Tisdale via the draft, ensuring quite a bit of young talent will play key roles this season. Those three will complement Paul Harris in the starting lineup, but the point guard position might be key for Maine this season.

General Manager Jon Jennings was wisely able to sneak former Virginia point guard J.R. Reynolds in through local tryouts to pair with D-League veterans Darren Cooper and Kenny Hayes in the backcourt. Reynolds averaged 18.4 points under Leitao while earning All-ACC Second Team honors at Virginia in 2007 and has spent the past few seasons playing in Italy and France.

3. Fort Wayne Mad Ants

The Mad Ants will begin the season with five solid contributors from last season's team on the roster and the excellent Sebastian Pruiti added to the coaching staff, but one important player won't be on the team's opening day roster. Big man Chris Hunter, a former call-up of the Golden State Warriors, will start the season on the injured reserve. 

The Mad Ants still have a couple of solid bigs in Darnell Lazare and Marvin Phillips to start the season -- even without Hunter in the lineup -- but depth will definitely be a factor up front as Hunter recovers from yet another injury. The team could have addressed that need in the draft, but apparently wasn't too sure about first round pick Cameron Jones as they selected a second shooting guard in the second round, electing to wait until the fifth round to address their frontcourt's (lack of) depth.

Walker Russell and Ron Howard will round out the team's starting lineup as returners Tory JacksonCorey Allmond and draft pick Sadiel Rojas, the 2011 NAIA Player of the Year, work to contribute off of the bench.

4. Erie BayHawks

The BayHawks were acquired by the New York Knicks over the summer, but their new NBA owners decided to do the right thing and retain head coach Jay Larranaga following an impressive performance in his coaching debut last season. Larranaga will be without the services of powerful big man Ivan Johnson this season, though, forcing his strategy to change a bit this year.

Erie made an interesting move in trading Blake Ahearn for Donald Sloan, a solid point guard that the Knicks apparently view as a more viable NBA prospect, and did about as well as one could ask for in the D-League Draft. The BayHawks acquired Colorado shooting guard Cory Higgins, a player that was often overshadowed by Alec Burks last season, and added veteran big man Chris Daniels in the first round.

Depth at the forward positions might be something to watch. Jeff Graves has been known to be a bit out of basketball shape for much of his basketball career and the small forward position seems in a bit of disarray. Kyle Spain is the incumbent, but he wasn't impressive enough last season to warrant a start this season.

5. Sioux Falls Skyforce

The Skyforce could honestly be a mess this season as they have their fair share of players with off-court issues that Mo McHone could need to rein in on a daily basis. With the off-court issues comes on-court talent, however, and their starting bigs should vie for one of the best tandems in the league.

The Skyforce will start shot-blocking extraordinaire Greg Stiemsma in the middle, pairing him with Seattle U's Charles Garcia to form a dangerous pair on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Depth issues might force Sioux Falls to play small ball when one of the two needs a breather, but that's a discussion for another day.

The backcourt includes  former NBA Draft pick Gabe Pruitt and Casey Mitchell, a talented rookie out of West Virginia, but both players have had trouble staying out of trouble in the past. D-League veterans Anthony Mason Jr. and Dominique Coleman should also contribute quite a bit -- and let's not forget the University of Mary's Anthony Moody made the opening-night roster.

6. Iowa Energy

The defending champions fall to sixth place to open the rankings this season, a fact that probably isn't going to sit well with general manager Chris Makris and new head coach Kevin Young. The Energy lost the majority of last year's team, though, leaving them with just two returners from a squad that typically featured five NBA-caliber players.

The Energy will be fine at the forward spots as former Orlando Magic draft pick Stanley Robinson and sharpshooting Moses Ehambe return to the team, but depth seems like it might be a problem everywhere else.

Iowa should be fine at the point guard spot as former Wyoming guard Brandon Ewing and Iowa State's Jake Anderson share team-running duties, but the rest of the backcourt still needs to prove itself. South Florida rookie Jarrid Famous will occupy the middle, and while he's talented, it'll be interesting to see how he makes the transition.

7. Springfield Armor

The New Jersey Nets made the right move in hiring Bob MacKinnon to run their D-League team, but the Armor fell in the preseason power rankings because I'm simply not familiar enough with the majority of their roster. In reality they probably shouldn't have been ranked until I saw them play, but that's simply not how the internet works.

Springfield does have a solid backcourt with JamesOn Curry and L.D. Smith, two veterans of the D-League, leading the way. Their backups, Jerry Smith and Lance Hurdle, are also veterans of the D-League that shouldn't have any trouble filling in when needed.

The frontcourt has quite a few more question marks -- especially now that the team has decided that Chris Taft, a former second round pick in the NBA, wasn't even one of the top ten players in training camp. The team better hope its gamble of selecting National Tryout participant Jonathan Thomas in the second round pays off or this season might get ugly.

8. Canton Charge

One might think I'd have learned my lesson from betting against the Cleveland Cavaliers braintrust -- at least when it comes to their decisions regarding the D-League -- but that point hasn't come quite yet (as this ranking obviously shows). The Charge will break in rookie head coach Alex Jensen with an undersized team this season, leaving me a bit leery about their chances.

Canton will be led by Keith McLeod, a former starter for the Utah Jazz, at the point -- but at 32 years of age, the veteran has probably seen his better days. McLeod was scheduled to be flanked by former Pittsburgh guard Antonio Graves and Jamine Peterson on the wing, but the former has been injured for most of training camp and the latter ... well, his "Greedy" nickname is well-earned.

The Charge will be led by Tyrell Biggs and Marcus Hubbard up front. Both players have been given looks by NBA franchises in the past, but it would seem both might be taken advantage of in the post by bigger players.

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