Yes, we're talking about playing in the D-League vs. playing in Europe again. But this time I want to look at the phenomenon of all the veteran D-Leaguers (for lack of a better term) who are headed overseas this year rather than sticking it out again in Idaho or Fort Wayne or wherever. A few things prompted this. First, a lot of the D-League's premier players won't be there next year. Some of these we know (Othyus Jeffers, Brent Petway, Kasib Powell - and those last two are official by the way, and I'll have more on them in tomorrow's transactions post), and some of them will be making that decision soon.
For instance, take Blake Ahearn. Ahearn's gotten a call-up or two in his time, but has spent the majority of the past few seasons playing in the D-League, where he's a lights out three-point shooter. Ahearn played for not one but two Summer League teams, New York and the combined Philly/New Jersey squad. Unfortunately, he played pretty poorly in both instances, and is now mulling offers from several European teams in addition to being able to go back to the D-League. On this last point, though, this is what Ahearn thinks:
"I've literally accomplished all I can in the D-League," he said.
And you know what? He's probably right. There are still some holes in his game, to be sure, for instance his defense and the fact that he doesn't really collect enough assists to play a lot of point guard, which is where he's been playing the most and where his physical profile slots him. The D-League is a good place to work on those skills, but Ahearn is 25 at this point, and barring some late-in-life commitment to defense is what he is. He's been a D-League all-star and was named to the All D-League first team this past season. What exactly, would he gain from coming back to the D-League this year? The same could be asked of Kasib Powell, who will be playing in China next year. He was the D-League MVP in 2008 and had a great Summer League this year, but apparently not well enough to get an NBA offer. At 28 years old, Powell likely has an increased number of factors that he has to consider when deciding whether to take low five figures at work his tail off in the D-League for maybe a chance at getting a call up, or head overseas and try again next season.
What I'm trying to get at here is that it's different for players who have been out of college for several years. This isn't a Jeremy Tyler situation or even a Brandon Jennings deal. There's not really anything that these guys can improve on from an individual skill perspective that would make a year or two in the D-League more beneficial than spending that time in Slovenia. Does there come a point in a player's career when the D-League just doesn't make sense anymore?
This may not seem surprising coming from me, but I don't think so, or if there is then it's not a player's mid-late 20s. And even then, older players can play in the D-League, learn how the system works, and move from the court to the bench as an assistant. But I think what we're seeing this season is just a reflection of current NBA economics. There already were a limited number of open roster spots around the league that D-League guys had to compete with older veterans (and washed up guys like Jason Williams, apparently), but this off-season several teams have decided to go with the bare minimum 13 players as a way to save money, meaning there are only a few teams that will have players on their roster who they didn't draft, trade for or have last year. For players like Powell and Jeffers, I would imagine that playing in the D-League this year would be ultimately pretty frustrating, having already shown that they're talented enough and ready for the NBA while having an even slimmer chance than usual of making it while making not very much money.
In some ways, while teams are feeling the crunch, the players we refer to as "D-League guys" may end up benefiting a little bit. While I remain confident that the D-League remains the best route for making the NBA for guys who aren't in the league already, that just doesn't seem like a realistic possibility this year or maybe even next? So why not head to Sweden or Greece or China or Israel for a year or two, earn ten times or more what the D-League pays (assuming you get your paychecks), then come back to the D-League and Summer League and try again when NBA teams are willing to carry that 14th player? There's another point that Ahearn makes in the above article that I think may be relevant here:
"I haven't had a break from basketball in two years," the former Missouri State player said. "So I'm ready for one."
If players are serious about trying to make the NBA, which a lot of the players this article is concerned with are, then they basically have to work hard all the time to make that happen. They can't rest much. A week here, a week there, sure. But between the offseason workouts organized by various teams and the D-League, work done with individual coaches and trainers to improve a player's skills, Summer League and the D-League season (plus any summer basketball camps a player might run or participate in), there's not a lot of time to relax. Playing in Europe or Asia for a year or two without worrying about making an NBA roster will give some of these guys a needed psychic break and let them relax and just enjoy playing basketball, and that's important too. So as much as I'm going to miss watching guys like Jeffers and Powell and Petway and Hendrix on Futurecast or when teams come through Austin, playing overseas this season might be what they need for their careers.