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Is Jerel McNeal On The Way To Becoming an NBA D-League Star?

Earlier this season, Jerel McNeal provided a spark off the bench for the Bakersfield Jam while backing up Suns' assignee Kendall Marshall. With Marshall back in Phoenix, McNeal has begun to rise up as a starring attraction in the NBA D-League this month.

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

The Bakersfield Jam have won 8 of their last 9 games.

An NBADL affiliate of four different big league teams, the Jam have had plenty of assignees come to town already this season. But such a streak hasn't been propelled by any of the assigned prospects. A player like Kendall Marshall didn't rise up as a star during his extended stay earlier this season. Damion James, who just finished playing through a 10-day contract with the Nets, hasn't exactly emerged as a dominating force (though he's still played well) during his time in the D-League either.

Instead, it's been combo guard Jerel McNeal who has begun to rise through the ranks and lead the Jam during this most recent surge. Since Marshall returned to the Suns, McNeal has been receiving more playing time, undoubtedly making the most of it. The Marquette alum has had a stellar month of January, averaging 19.2 points (on 49% from the field), 6 assists, and 2 steals per contest.

His recent success has elevated him to #26 on the NBA D-League's official Prospect Watch.

After previously playing overseas, McNeal spent training camp with the Raptors this past fall. Though he didn't make the team, the Marquette alum is now donning the uniform of Toronto's D-League affiliate. McNeal says he indeed feels as though the Raptors have continued to keep a close eye on his progress throughout the season. He told recently, "They really embraced me. I was up at training camp early, so I was with them for about two months. I was just working. That gave me a chance to see and understand the types of things that I need to do in order to get to that next level and stay."

McNeal went on to say that the Raptors' staff gave him feedback on his game before his time in Toronto came to a close. The guard added, "I had a sit-down with Coach Dwane Casey and G.M. Bryan Colangelo, and the biggest thing for me is just to develop my point guard skills. It's about making the right decision at the right time. I have the ability to get my own shot and score, but I need to find my rhythm. It's about picking and choosing when to pick my spots and shoot, and then otherwise being aggressive to get others the ball as well. That's something I've really taken to heart, and I've been working on it since I got here."

There's no doubt that McNeal is one of the best scorers in the D-League. As he climbs up on the prospect list, the guard has been filling it up offensively. When he's hot, Bakersfield is almost impossible to beat, as proven in most recent weeks. But as he emerges as a top notch player, McNeal tells that it'll be the other things he does on the court that will ultimately garner him NBA consideration. He added, "I'm just trying to be a leader, man. My big thing this year has been starting games off with a couple of good passes and getting the other guys involved. More importantly, I always want to set the tone defensively, because I know if I don't do that, it kind of trickles down to the rest of the team. I'm just trying to find a good balance in my game to do all that and not get too tired. My conditioning has been great."

As McNeal continues to emerge as a true leader and efficient point guard (feeling as though that will help him reach him the next level quicker), the Jam's staff seems to share the same sentiment. The team's Assistant General Manager, Brian Levy, says, "Jerel's always been a talented scorer. We felt as though he could come here and transition into a full-time point guard and do it well, and he's really accepted that responsibility. He's taken the team on his back as he tries to find guys in the right spots. He still has a full bag of tricks, where he can score pretty much at will, though. We're fortunate enough to have a unique balance in Jerel of someone who can take over the game if necessary, but still spends the first three quarters trying to get his teammates involved."

Levy went on to discuss how important it was to keep close watch on McNeal's progress, by not letting it take a backseat during Marshall's past stint in Bakersfield. He added it was beneficial for the team's up tempo style to play with two point guards, and that McNeal would likely thrive in a similar atmosphere in the NBA. The executive said, "There's always going to be backup point guard minutes, but in Jerel's case he's so versatile that you can also get him on the court in others ways. [Playing with another floor general] doesn't take away with from the reps Jerel gets at the one in practice, or the work that we do with him in the gym."

Arguably, McNeal's most visible success this season initially began with him providing that crucial spark for his team off the bench while backing up Marshall. Levy added, "I think he's more of a scoring point guard, especially in the NBA. He plays off his ability to be a spark-plug and really makes sense as a third guard, much like John Lucas was with the Bulls last season. If a team has an injury and they need someone to step in, Jerel's the kind of guy who can speed up the game. He can score, cause turnovers, and create easy opportunities. That's probably what his role would be in the NBA, and I know there are teams in the league that feel the same way. I'm hoping he gets the opportunity to display those skills at the next level."

Levy went on to compare McNeal's explosive first step to the basket to that of Jeremy Lin's, but the Jam guard himself wasn't one for comparisons. The Marquette alum put it simply by saying, "Whenever I have the opportunity to provide a spark and create a great energy for the team enough for it trickle down to the rest of the guys, that's the way I'd like to impact the game."

Backing up an NBA point guard, McNeal began to prove that he's ever so capable of providing such a boost. That said, with Bakersfield now fully embracing him as their leader, the guard has begun to emerge as a true starring attraction in the D-League as of late. Perhaps his recent efforts will garner him enough consideration for a 10-day contract sometime soon.