The Rio Grande Valley Vipers, under the watchful eye of the Houston Rockets, chose to play the Bakersfield Jam in the first round of the NBA D-League Playoffs.
While I can understand not wanting to face the Texas Legends, the Jam play pretty similarly to the Vipers' up-tempo style and have the perimeter shooters to keep every game interesting so this one won't be easy.
In the last meeting between the Vipers in the Jam, Rio Grande Valley coasted to a 126-111 victory on March 5 after making 13-of-30 shot attempts from beyond the arc while turning the ball over just 14 times over the course of the game. Neither of those statistics should be all that surprising, however, considering the Vipers led the D-League in three-pointers made while turning the ball over less than than any of the 15 other teams in the Development League.
I'll get to the individual match-ups after the jump, but the match-up on the sidelines might be just as interesting. Chris Finch, coach of the Vipers as well as Great Britain's National Team, was at the helm of last year's championship squad in his first season in the D-League and is surely looking to repeat. Bakersfield coach Will Voigt, on the other hand, has yet to reach the postseason in the D-League after achieving success in both the ABA and PBL prior to his move to the D-League last season.
PG: Jerel McNeal vs. Stephen Dennis
Considering Jerel McNeal earned an NBA call-up to the New Orleans Hornets this season and Stephen Dennis is rookie out of some college called Kutztown, one would think match-up wouldn't be close. It is.
McNeal, a 6-foot-3 veteran out of Marquette, played his rookie season in Belgium last season until being kicked off the team for a drug violation. I couldn't find anything about a FIBA suspension so McNeal apparently came to the D-League on his own volition (and therefore no worries about an Orien Greene situation) and did quite well after having a subpar Summer League with the Charlotte Bobcats. In 47 games with the Vipers -- he missed three while with the Hornets when Chris Paul was out -- McNeal averaged 19.4 points and 4.4 assists after becoming the de facto point guard once Mustafa Shakur was called up to the Washington Wizards for the rest of the season.
Dennis, a 6-foot-6 rookie out of Kutztown that I actually wrote a bit about during the pre-draft workouts, was one of the most impressive players at this year's D-League Showcase. Since earning his role as Jam's starting point guard, Dennis has averaged an impressive 12.5 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field. The talented 23-year-old was able to impress enough people to earn an invitation to tryout for the Chicago Bulls earlier in the year and, if he's able to impress in the playoffs, his name will surely come in more NBA circles next season.
Edge: As a point guard, I'm inclined to give Dennis the nod, but McNeal's going to have to be the better player in this series.
SG: Jon Scheyer vs. Trey Johnson
Two of the highest-profile players in the D-League are on a collision course. Who's excited?
Scheyer, a rookie out of Duke who's just recently returning to basketball after an eye injury during Summer League, has the talent to play in the NBA right now -- just not the consistency. In 16 games with the Vipers, Scheyer has four 20-plus point games compared to five games where he's scored in single digits. His game-to-game assist-turnover ratio is just as shaky, though that should be expected until he's able to develop a bit of chemistry with his RGV teammates.
Johnson, my pick for the D-League's MVP award, averaged 25.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field this season. The knock on him is that he's undersized, but his ability to score is pretty great and he does enough otherwise to make himself a worthy NBA gamble.
Edge: Since I just mentioned that I think Johnson's the D-League's Most Valuable Player, I think he's gotta get the edge here, right?
SF: Richard Roby vs. Derrick Byars
Something tells me these two could be the leading scorers for their respective teams during this series.
Roby, a 6-foot-6 wing out of Colorado, , has cooled down a bit after coming out of the gates with a hot hand to begin the D-League season. The half brother of Denver Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin is actually a very good player on both ends of the court without many flaws in his game. Unfortunately he sometimes lets that go to his head, settling for heat-check shots even before he's hot, causing just as many 3-of-15 games as 14-of-22 performances.
Byars was actually a second round NBA Draft pick back in 2007, but the closest the 6-foot-7 wing has actually come to making the big leagues was as a member of the Chicago Bulls during last year's preseason. Byars began this season playing in Greece but has returned to form since joining the Jam in January with averages of 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Edge: Byars if he's healthy, Roby if he's hot.
PF: Mouhammad Faye vs. Derrick Caracter
If it looks like a mismatch, it probably will be.
Faye is actually a player I'd been following quite a bit during the Vegas Summer League as the former Georgia Tech transfer looked like he could be an NBA caliber player down the road while playing for the Dallas Mavericks' entry. A lanky 6-foot-10 face-up four man, the Senegal native has good range and can put the ball on the floor with the foot speed to defend most D-League forwards on the perimeter. On the season, Faye's averaging 10.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in 41 starts for the Vipers.
Caracter, a 6-foot-9 power forward on assignment from the Los Angeles Lakers, is actually a pretty good player. Unfortunately, he's suffered from a bit of ring rust (or its basketball equal) and is averaging just 8.7 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field in his three games for the Jam so far this season.
Edge: Caracter. There's a reason one of them is on an NBA roster.
C: Hasheem Thabeet vs. Drew Naymick
This match-up should be a landslide victory for the former No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft. It isn't.
Thabeet is a player everyone knows about so I'll just let you know he's averaging 10.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks six games with the Vipers since being assigned by the Houston Rockets last month. I'll use the rest of this paragraph to thank him for getting me my first break when I broke the news that he was being assigned to the D-League. I owe you, big man, because otherwise I wouldn't be writing 1,200 words about a D-League playoff series at 2 a.m. in my underwear.
Naymick, a 6-foot-10 center who's best known as the red-headed kid from Michigan State a couple of seasons ago, has actually turned into a pretty respectable D-League player. Since moving into the starting lineup for the Jam in January, he's averaging 9.7 points and 8.5 rebounds while 2.3 shot attempts per game. He probably won't ever be an NBA player, but I like his hustle and that should count for something.
Edge: Thabeet. Even if he's far from a complete player and maybe not even as good as Naymick at this point, his presence in the paint is going to make the Jam players think twice before slashing to the bucket.
Bench: Matt Janning, Patrick Sullivan and Connor Atchley vs. Jeremy Wise, Brandon Wallace and Luke Zeller
The good thing is that all six of the above players would have been starters on a lot of D-League teams this season, but I think I'm going to give the Vipers the edge here.
Pick: Vipers in three after losing in Bakersfield.