The NBA is already full of superstars, and as some of the expected top picks of the next couple of rookie drafts continue to develop, there's no doubt such an influx will continue as well. When looking into the D-League for talent, no one expects to find the NBA's next premier scorer.
LeBron James. Kevin Durant. James Harden. Russell Westbrook. Anthony Davis. Carmelo Anthony. Paul George. All these guys have it covered. Upon entering the NBA, such special athletes are expected to do it all. In turn, they soak up all of the spotlight and attention. They live the glamorous basketball life.
With that in mind, things aren't going to come as easy for those who go under the radar and grind their way through playing in the minor league. And because such aforementioned stars are already pouring in the points on the next level, D-League athletes must find another way to stand out and subsequently make an impact.
Just ask Lance Thomas. After playing four collegiate years and becoming a national champion at Duke, two D-League campaigns, and bouncing around the NBA and China for limited stints from 2011-15, has finally carved out a role for himself with the Knicks this season. The 27 year old isn't the most gifted athlete, nor is he the purest shooter. But Thomas works his butt off night in and night out. He's literally the poster-child for doing the little things --- defending, fighting for loose and/or jump balls, rebounding, boxing out defenders, making the right pass, or evening help space the floor and hitting the occasional shot now and then. He hustles and his energy level never wavers, meaning whatever he gives a coach like Derek Fisher, it'll come with a consistent effort. Coach Fisher knows that Thomas can fit with any number of guys on the court, because he'll fill in the gaps wherever necessary.
Thus, Fisher trusts Thomas. In fourteen games from October 28th through November 21st, Thomas was New York's only reserve to never play fewer than 15 minutes in a given contest. He wasn't receiving the most minutes, but Fisher rewarded his steady play with the gift of consistent minutes.
Thomas is now being rewarded for what he's proven on various levels, but for the young aspiring players who hope to follow in his footsteps, the journey starts in the D-League. The concept of trust goes both ways. On one hand, players need to trust the coaching staff's vision by understanding their respective role. The idea that a player has the best chance of getting called up by playing the most minor league minutes is a farfetched concept. Even if an athlete is playing just 15-20 minutes, they can make their presence felt by doing exactly what they would intend to do the NBA level in a similar role. There might not be a need to pour in the points. Instead, run up and down the floor with high energy and look to make a key defensive stop and/or cash in on the other end by spacing the floor or filling the lane correctly. Doing the intelligent things on the court, but not necessarily the sexy ones, could pay off in the long run. It's not only important to know one's role, but to execute it properly. Don't try and do too much. Do what's asked. That'll go a long way.
On the flip side, coaches need to communicate effectively. It's important to do what they can to help players develop a rhythm on the court, regardless of how much they play; help them understand their role, what's expected of them, and how many minutes they'll receive on a nightly basis. Players will be more productive (especially to a coach's liking) if they understand how and why what they're being asked to do can benefit the team, as well as themselves, in the long run. Help them understand that how they'll get noticed. If a specific matchup calls for something drastically different or if a player is struggling mightily, communicating why a change is being made and/or what a player can do in the interim to keep his head up or improve is helpful, too.
Conner Henry, who led the Mad Ants to a minor league title in 2014 and has since moved on up as an assistant coach for the Orlando Magic, is a great example of someone who seemed to understand this quite well.
The D-League is obviously centered around nurturing talent and watching it manifest on the big level soon after, but keeping players motivated will obviously result in more wins as well. Keeping the peace on one's team is important. That type of success reflects better on everybody.
Trust in one another is key, but it goes both ways. Each party needs to do their part to gain and keep it.