Minor league sports is one of the few places where taking a job with the mindset of it being a platform for future opportunities, and not a destination, is perfectly okay.
The D-League is no different, with hundreds of athletes playing basketball for close to nothing, traveling around the country with the luxuries of a high school class on a field trip in order to one day, hopefully, reach the NBA.
This end goal in mind, casual NBA fans could assume that D-League players have only one person's interests in mind - their own. Beckley Mason of ESPN's TrueHoop blog thinks of this as a significant problem impeding the league's path to becoming the primary source of player development for those not quite at the NBA level.
Setting aside the statement that selfish play is ruining the D-League's chances at being a successful minor league, Mason's tweets point to what could be a legitimate struggle in D-League players. Performing within the team concept, doing what it takes to win for the team paying said athlete and appeasing the coaching staff versus showing off personal skill, stealing the spotlight in hopes of an NBA scout taking notice. But does this internal conflict exist?
Talking to the Springfield Armor following a practice in mid-March, Jeff Foote told RidiculousUpside.com that he believes so. "For sure. Some people I don't think realize that the better your team is the more you get looked at. I think a lot of people have the me-first mentality, which you said you have to have a little bit in this league but at the same time if you're the best player on the worst team it's not that good."
Foote's head coach Doug Overton, who played 11 years in the NBA, agreed that such a conflict could be prevalent.. "That's fair enough. You got so many things on your mind when you come to the D-League. It can be adjustment - because you know this is not your ultimate goal - you want to get to the D-League to help develop and get to the next level. I'm sure that's what everybody's goal is."
However, Foote's former teammate Willie Reed (now with the Sacramento Kings), thinks otherwise. "I don't think [such a mentality] really exists. With them having to play in the team aspect, I think if you play hard and you do what you do best, the NBA is all about what [teams] need, filling a position," the big man said. "They love guys that play hard and defend. I think that should be everybody's role. Whether you can score the basketball or not you still have to be able to play defense to make it to the next level."
Former Los Angeles Lakers' draft pick Devin Ebanks sided with Reed. "I don't believe that. We all know what it takes to get to the next level and that's actually to play like a team. NBA teams want winners, if you look back at who got called up, a lot of players came off teams who were winning going to the playoffs, he added. "It's not really about individual play you have to win games and play as a team."
In the 2012-2013 D-League/NBA season, 31 players were called up. 21 of which were called up from teams with a winning percentage of above .500. The Armor's Khalif Wyatt raised another point regarding shot attempts:
"You see guys around the league shooting 35 shots, scoring a lot of points, but those aren't necessarily the guys that get called up. Coach always mentions that to us. It's not the guys scoring the points that get called up it's the guys that are doing the other stuff," he said.
The statistics back up Wyatt's claim as well. Of the 20 players leading D-League in field goal attempts per 40 minutes this season (not assigned by an NBA team) only one of them were called up. Just one.
Still, there are those players who believe they can shoot their way to the next level.
"I've seen some before," said Foote of players that would look to score their way to the top over putting team basketball first. "I haven't seen it first hand on my team but I've seen it elsewhere." Reed chimed in, "You have those guys, but I think that's when you have to be mentally strong and mentally grow to become a better player."
But do a few bad eggs spoil the entire carton?
According to coach Overton, they don't, simply because their individual efforts don't get them anywhere. "That's not going to work. NBA scouts and personnel, they're pretty smart at what they're looking at. If you think that's the way to go you're probably going about it wrong. People can tell you're trying to be selfish. You want to be a team player, you want to do the things that's going to help an NBA team.
He continued, "Numbers have some importance but most of all it's showing them that you know how to play and that you'd be a good teammate at that level.Trying to go out here and get your own, everybody knows that's not the way to do it."
In reality, If this issue was prevalent anywhere it would be at NBA Summer League.
"I think that's more of an individual stage," said Ebanks on the annual Summer League the NBA holds in Las Vegas. "It's 5 games, you're really auditioning." Foote shared the same ideal. "With the Summer League the coaches tend to put a lot of the onus on the guys that they actually draft. So I think there's a little bit of difference that way... At the Summer League you're face to face with the head coach, as opposed to you don't know who's here [scouting the D-League] and who's not."
The D-League continues to make strides in becoming the lead stage as a means of developing young players. One-to-one affiliation and ownership for all 30 NBA teams isn't in a very distant future, with D-League players making a larger impact on the league upstairs every season. Is it perfect? Certainly not, but it's role is defined and it's playing said role well. As do the best of the league's alumni, the ones that have reached their destination.