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The NBA D-League Deserves A Better Reputation

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NBA D-LEAGUE products Jeremy Lin and Walker Russell Jr. play against one another in the NBA.
NBA D-LEAGUE products Jeremy Lin and Walker Russell Jr. play against one another in the NBA.

It's been suggested here before that the NBA D-League needs to change it's name to more accurately reflect the nature and talent level of the league. With an abundance of misconceptions out there, it's no surprise to followers of the D-League that player assignments tend to drawn some fire from sports beat writers across the nation, but a recent article out of Houston took the NBA D-League haterade to a new level.

The author contends that the D-League is not nearly as mature as MLB’s farm system and that an assignment to the D-League is a demotion. These points are certainly open for discussion, however; when he labeled all NBA D-League players as ‘scrubs’ he showed his unfamiliarity with the D-League and its current level of play.

The NBA front office has clearly stated that the D-League is the ‘official minor league’ of the NBA. Since 2005 each NBA team has had a D-League team to which it may assign players. Comparatively, minor league baseball has existed since the late 1800’s and is currently operating under a structure established during the 1960’s.

With over a 40 year head-start, minor league baseball is certainly more mature than the D-League. Yet recently the D-League has produced talented contributors to NBA teams. This season 20 players have been called up to NBA teams and 14 are still on their rosters. League-wide, 22-percent of the players in the NBA have D-League experience and 27 of the 60 players selected in the 2010 NBA draft played in the D-League last season.

New York Knicks second-year sensation Jeremy Lin is a great example of the type of talent that the D-League has developed. Lin spent last season playing in the D-League for the Reno Big Horns. During this season he played one game with the Erie Bayhawks and after putting up a triple double (28 point, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists) against the Maine Red Claws he was called up by the New York Knicks. In his last 3 games he’s averaged 29 points, 8 assists, and 3 rebounds and is in the starting line-up.

Former Fort Wayne Mad Ant, Walker Russell Jr. was called up to play with the Detroit Pistons and now has a guarantee contract through the end of the year. When asked about how well the D-League prepared him for the NBA, he was very positive about his time in Fort Wayne. "The NBA is a lot faster and the guys are bigger. Besides that, the D-League does a good job of preparing guys. I feel like I was well-prepared, and people are saying that it looks like I’ve already adapted to the NBA and now I’m playing solid minutes," Russell said.

Other notable D-League products are Greg Stiemsma (Boston Celtics), Jamaal Tinsley (Utah Jazz), Chris Wright (Golden State Warriors), and Ben Uzoh (Cleveland Cavaliers). All of these players put in solid minutes for their respective teams and have earned their way on to NBA rosters. The level of play in the D-League is obviously high enough to develop talent that is capable of playing at the highest level.

Not only do NBA teams use the D-League to fill open roster spots, they also use the D-League as it was intended – to develop talent. This season there have been 30 assignments from NBA teams to the D-League. When an NBA player is assigned to the D-League they receive their NBA salary, travel first class on road trips, stay in upgraded hotel rooms, receive a higher per diem for meals and travel expenses, and maintain all of their NBA benefits. This hardly sounds like a demotion. In fact, these players receive something that they were not getting while in the NBA – valuable playing time.

Craig Brackins became the most recent assignee to the D-League when he joined the Maine Red Claws on February 6th. The 21st overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft was averaging less than 5 minutes per game with the Philadelphia 76ers. In his last two games with the Maine he’s played 36 minutes per game and is averaging 24 points and 9 rebounds. Instead of looking at the D-League as a demotion, Brackins asked to be sent to down to get the playing time needed to work on this game.

The D-League has continued to increase the number of players called-up to the NBA year over year. During this year's condensed NBA season, teams will likely need talent to fill roster spots as back-to-back games take their toll on league veterans. As for the author in Houston, hopefully this article has shed some light on the level of talent that the D-League has to offer. If not, there are 3 NBA D-League teams in Texas for him to check out. Perhaps he'll spend the $5 to go to a game and see first-hand how talented these players really are.