In the early years of the NBA Development League, the word "assignment" carried a different meaning and connotation than it does today.
In fact, it was often confused as a way to punish a player, or relegate someone not living up to their assumed potential. But with this season's flurry of NBA D-League assignments, and the rehab/practice sessions in which Amar'e Stoudemire and Kawhi Leonard took part in, getting "assigned" to the D-League is now a purposeful plan created for specific players' needs.
The conclusion that an "assignment" to the D-League is anything but a demotion for a player can now be drawn. NBA teams are getting creative in using their D-League affiliates with ways to truly benefit the player they deem necessary of such an assignment.
For superstar Amar'e Stoudemire, that meant flying out the Erie BayHawks squad to the Knicks' practice facility in order to allow Stoudemire the chance to work out his left knee amongst high-level competition. Spurs' forward Kawhi Leonard embarked on a similar journey as he practiced with the Austin Toros, while on his way back to the Spurs' lineup from a tendinitis issue in his left knee.
Both players' specific assignments are a part of a trend that will likely continue as the D-League continues to strengthen it's involvement with the NBA.
Nevertheless, this isn't to say that assignments of first and second year players in need of development won't continue to occur. The D-League is still an excellent avenue for NBA teams to "develop" players, i.e. Fab Melo, Kendall Marshall, Jeremy Lamb, and seemingly any Houston Rockets rookie.
What's becoming different now is that NBA teams are figuring out effective ways to incorporate the rehabilitation aspect of the NBA D-League. By arranging assignment players to practice with D-League squads, a more controlled and efficient environment can be created to ultimately maximize a rehabbing player's needs.
This rehabbing-through-practice approach should also further entice non-single affiliates, to seek a direct relationship with their D-League affiliate, hybrid or not.
Notice that the New York Knicks (Erie BayHawks) and San Antonio Spurs (Austin Toros) were the teams to utilize the rehab-through-practice sort of assignment. Both are NBA teams with a single affiliate D-League relationship. The reason being, that they have more control with their D-League affiliate and can use them in this unique way in order to benefit the assignment player and the team in general. Ricky Rubio's return did not entail a D-League team arranged practice session, was this because the Minnesota Timberwolves are absent of a single affiliate relationship?
The ways in which NBA teams are assigning players nowadays, whether they be first round draft picks in need of playing time, or ten-year veterans rehabbing their way back to the NBA spotlight, being "assigned" to the D-League has become a player specific plan. It is just another way that the NBA D-League is cementing itself as the true NBA minor league system, and even situating itself now as the most unique minor league system in all of professional sports.