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Brandon Jennings, Undrafted Players, and Europe

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Should <a href="">Brandon Jennings</a> have spent a year in Europe?
Should Brandon Jennings have spent a year in Europe?

Apologies in advance that this one's a bit of a ramble.  Nevertheless, I want to talk about a few things that have come up in the last few days related to the relationship between the D-League and the European leagues, and how players see each one.

First is the 48 Minutes of Hell piece that Scott linked to yesterday.  Tim Varner talked to several players who were projected to go in the second round or undrafted entirely, players who are prime D-League candidates, about what they thought of playing in the NBA's minor league.  Here's Varner:

Most of the responses were of the "no, I don’t want to play in the D-League" variety. Other players, surprisingly, knew very little about the D-League.  One agent told me in a matter of fact manner that he "doesn’t really address" the subject with his clients.

That's a problem.  Not just for us here, who follow the D-League, or even just for Dan Reed.  It's a problem for David Stern as well.  If he really wants to see the league grow, and saying he wants a team in Harlem would seem in indicate that desire, then he needs players to see the D-League as a viable option, or even just know that it exists.  If teams are already struggling to exist, one way to help them would be to ensure there's a steady stream of players ready to come in and help generate revenue.  This is especially true since teams can assign roster spots to "local" players.  The Utah Flash seem to be doing okay financially, but I would imagine that adding someone like, say, Austin Daye, would help even more.  Same with someone like B.J. Mullens and Erie.

There's also the question of whether going over to Europe really helps a player get into the NBA.  As of this point, the number of players who have gone from the D-League to the NBA in recent years is much higher than those who started in Europe and then come back over.  Look at Mario Austin.  He's become a pretty good scorer over in Europe, but it's taken him 5 years to get to the point where he feels he has a shot at the NBA again.  It's possible it would've taken him that long had he gone to the D-League, but it's also possible that he would've gotten a call-up a few years ago.  Udonis Haslem did it in just a year, but the issue for him was more about shedding weight and getting in proper NBA playing shape, something that he could've done in the D-League as well.  Kentrell Gransberry still doesn't have the most ideal NBA physique, but he's lost a bunch of weight and has been working on his conditioning, just as Haslem did.

This leads me to a discussion of Brandon Jennings, which I'll get to after the jump.

Jonathan Givony at DraftExpress has a post today about draft rumors, and there are supposedly some growing concerns about Brandon Jennings, namely that teams haven't really seen him play enough 5-on-5 to evaluate him.  Most teams who traveled over to Italy to see Jennings play were frustrated that he played relatively little and out of position.  Compounding the problem is that Jennings is now back in the U.S. participating in private workouts rather than playing in the Reebok Eurocamp.

Final judgment on this will have to wait until draft night, where we'll see where Jennings gets picked, but I think it's fair to say that there's a good chance Jennings's decision to play in Europe hasn't worked out as well as he probably hoped it would.  Rather then spending a year in the D-League (or college, I guess) where he could've played point guard, and probably gotten a fair amount of playing time, Jennings perhaps has hurt his standing among NBA teams.  According to that DraftExpress piece, if Jennings falls past Golden State at #7 he could be in for an even longer slide.

So...why would borderline prospects or high school players like Jeremy Tyler go to Europe to develop their game and make the NBA?  The Arizona Daily Star has been following the developments surrounding the University of Arizona's Nic Wise, an early-entry draft candidate, but who was not invited to the combine.  In discussing the lack of invite, an NBA scout is quoted as saying

"When players ask me 'Should I go overseas or to the D-League?,' I say you’ll be here (in the United States) in the D-League, you’ll play in an NBA setting with great coaches and great offenses and it’s the only way you’ll get a 10-day callup"

Part of the solution, I think, was alluded to by draft candidate Joe Ingles in the 48 minutes piece when he said "Their situation in Austin is different. It’s really not the same thing. The Toros are part of the Spurs’  program."  The implication I got from that (and I don't think it's a stretch) is that increasing the number of one-to-one relationships between NBA teams and D-League affiliates, either through direct ownership or hybrid affiliation, would make the league more attractive to "borderline" players. 

Looking at Austin, Marcus Williams wasn't even an NBA assignee, but he grew enough as a player over the course of the season that the Spurs dropped another good player from their roster, Malik Hairston, just to sign him.  With a few exceptions, the teams that don't have a one-to-one relationship with their affiliate just don't seem to be paying enough attention to do the same thing.

This brings us back to where we started.  In order for there to be more direct relationships between NBA and D-League teams, there need to be more D-League teams.  And for that to happen, running a D-League franchise has to be a viable proposition for team owners.  But for that to happen, in part, young players need to see the D-League as a viable place to play and be seen by NBA teams.  I'm not sure what the exact answer is to that problem, and we've certainly discussed it here in the past, but it strikes me once again (or still) that the problem faced by players who aren't quite ready for the NBA should be easily solved by the presence of the D-League, but those who the League could help seem barely aware of its existence.