The NBA Development League is having one of its best seasons to date, and things are only looking up for the once ignored minor league. When it began in 2001, it only had eight teams. Fast forward to 2015, and the league has expanded to 19 teams and counting, all having exclusive relationships with an NBA team. According to the D-League website, over 38 percent of all NBA players this season had spent time in the D-League. The NBA’s Development League has been undervalued across the board, by fans and franchises, but thanks to the rapid expansion, the emergence of D-League alumni, successful rehab stints, and serving as a platform for undrafted college stars, it is time for fans and NBA teams alike to start paying attention.
In 2014, the New York Knicks added the Westchester Knicks. This season has seen the birth of the Toronto Raptors’ Raptors 905 to bring the total to 19. Next year the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, and Charlotte Hornets are adding teams. It’s clear that NBA owners are finally seeing the value in a minor league affiliate.
Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley is the poster child for what the D-League is all about. After being taken 19th overall in the 2010 NBA Draft, he struggled as a rookie. A lingering recovery from chipping a bone during his pre-draft workout for the Thunder and otherwise limited game reps, led then head coach Doc Rivers to assign him to the Maine Red Claws.
After spending one month with the team, Bradley found his shooting stroke and established some much needed game reps to build the confidence in his game that helped propel him to where he is today. Since then, other playoff teams have done this with their draft picks and seen success in their development.
"Fortunately I’ve been on two championship contenders during my young career. Unfortunately, it’s left little opportunity for me to play" recent Miami HEAT to Sioux Falls assignee Jarnell Stokes told RidiculousUpside.com. "By playing in the Development League, I’ve been able to get some game reps, which is very important in any sport."
"Playing is always good for a young player like me. A lot of guys come to the D-League to work on specific things like jump shooting or skilled moves." says Stokes. "I’m just trying to dominate my opponent by whatever strength I have over him, and win while doing so. I want to have an effect on every play — even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet."
The D-League is not just a place where teams can develop young talent; it is also where you can find current NBA players rehabbing from injury, much like Major League Baseball. The most notable case happened just a few days ago when Brandon Jennings started serving a voluntary assignment with the Grand Rapids Drive to get acclimated to the game after tearing his Achilles tendon last January. Other players like Festus Ezeli, Marcus Smart, C.J. McCollum, Eric Bledsoe, and Patty Mills have all used the D-League to rehab from an injury before playing with their NBA team.
All of these players went on to have successful seasons after their rehab stints. Smart went on to have a good season for the playoff bound Celtics, McCollum blossomed into the second part of one of the most potent backcourts in basketball, and Ezeli played a key role in the Golden State Warriors championship run. Bledsoe emerged as the player everyone expected him to be coming out of college, and Mills became one of the most reliable bench players in the league.
The D-League is also a legitimate way for players to seek out a second chance. In years past, players like Greg Ostertag and Ricky Davis used the D-League for half-hearted comebacks that fell short, but now it is a place for players like Jimmer Fredette and Sean Kilpatrick to thrive and earn another shot at an NBA contract.
Fredette came out of college a superstar, but was given a reality check when he got to the NBA. His struggles followed him from the Sacramento Kings to the Chicago Bulls to the New Orleans Pelicans, before the Westchester Knicks drafted him with the second overall pick in the 2015 D-League Draft. He made his D-League debut and turned a lot of heads, scoring 37 points and dishing out eight assists in a win over the Grand Rapids Drive. The former 10th overall pick has enjoyed success early on in the D-League and is continuing to impress NBA teams, much like Sean Kilpatrick has with the Delaware 87ers.
Kilpatrick has gone from the player that was signed by the Minnesota Timberwolves because he was the closest player to a legitimate NBA prospect that is deserving of an NBA roster spot. After a successful career at NC State he went undrafted and bounced around different Summer League teams. Kilpatrick found a home in the Delaware 87ers. In 12 games played he is averaging 26 points-per-game and has been named D-League Player of the Week twice in the young season.
The D-League has been an undervalued asset to the NBA but is starting to be valued more. Playoff teams are following in the footsteps of the Boston Celtics by stashing their first round draft picks in the D-League as opposed to letting them ride the bench and it is only a matter of time before every team has their own D-League franchise. College stars that are "two years away from being two years away" now have a place to grow into the players they should be. It is time for people to start tuning into the D-League, and thanks to the NBA’s commitment to making it a better product, everybody wins.