Last season, Robert Covington won the D-League's "Rookie of the Year" award. Donning a Rio Grande Valley Vipers uniform, the forward stuffed the stat-sheet on a nightly basis, averaging 23.2 points (on 44% from the field and 37% from deep), 9.2 boards, 2.4 steals, 1.7 assists, and 1.4 blocks through 42 contests.
Having also emerged as the D-League All-Star Game M.V.P. midseason (not to mention, an All-Star, of course), there's no doubt Covington was one of the best players in the minor league. He could have garnered M.V.P. honors, let alone the award reserved for first-year players. He was truly able to stand his ground amid the best of the best. He often looked like a man amongst boys.
There's just one problem: he was an NBA player all along.
Though he went undrafted in 2012, Covington was subsequently snatched up by the Houston Rockets soon after. His time in the D-League was spent as an NBA assignee, playing for the Rockets' affiliated RGV squad. Despite such success, Covington was let go shortly after winning the D-League award. And while he was drafted first overall in this past fall's NBADL Draft by the Grand Rapids Drive, he didn't have an opportunity to hit the hardwood as a full-time, more authentic, minor leaguer. Having since been picked up by the 76ers, the 24 year old has averaged 13.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.5 steals this season. There's no doubt he's garnering consideration for the league's "Most Improved Player" award, after squeezing in just seven games for Houston last season between D-League assignment time.
But alas, talk about his most recent success should perhaps be reserved for another day. The debate at hand isn't whether or not the D-League played a role in his progress or subsequent development. The opportunity he had to play more and learn all the while, makes such a notion undeniable.
There's little doubt a player like Covington was able to dominate during his time gracing the minor league stage. But as an NBA player, should he still be rewarded for it?
Presumedly, NBA players are better than D-Leaguers. At least, that's what decision-makers on the big league level believes. The perception is that the players in the NBA have what it takes and are superior to those who aren't in the league. That's why certain players are where they are, and others are not. Perception is a relative thing. While it's entirely possible that more talented players slip through the cracks, such perception is all we have to go on when comparing one player from another. Those who are on the outside looking in are probably there for a reason, and vice versa.
Thus, how is it fair to compare how an NBA player performs on the D-League level, verses how those full-time minor leaguers perform? The players who have already reached The Association are supposed to have an advantage. With that in mind, how can everyone be judged on an even playing field?
They can't be. This puts D-Leaguers who fight each and every night for a spot in The Association at a disadvantage.
Of course, allowing NBA players to strut their stuff in the minor league is still an amazing opportunity for all involved. It provides such young guns with an opportunity to play more and develop, all while their veteran teammates are taking care of things on the big league level. On the flip side, such resident minor leaguers can compete against NBA caliber-talents every now and then.
Matching minor leaguers up against NBA players should be used as development tool, and much less one for direct comparison. When baseball players take batting practice and/or step into the batter's box before an at-bat, a heavy doughnut of sorts is placed on the end of the bat. This creates resistance for the batter to practice with. But alas, when the doughnut comes off, swinging will come easier for the batter, because the resistance is no longer there.
This is merely a practice tool. They're not judged by how they swing the bat with the doughnut on top.
It should come as no surprise that NBA players are playing better and/or dominating minor league competition. That's what they should be doing when they hit the D-League hardwood. They're simply meeting an expectation, so to speak. There should be no reward involved.
Conversely, full-time D-Leaguers, should, in fact, be rewarded for playing well and standing tall above the rest. Such awards and/or similar recognition should be given, not only as a means of celebrating such an accomplishment, but also as a way to better promote these top performers who strut their stuff in hopes for an NBA look once and for all.
When NBA assignees win such awards, who are they being advocated and/or promoted to? They already have a team employing them, paying them a more substantial salary. If said NBA teams are paying as much attention to their assignees' development as they should be, there's no need for the D-League to remind them of such players' talent with an award of some sort. Those who care should already know.
On Monday, Kyle Anderson (of the San Antonio Spurs) was named the D-League's Player of the Month for February, all for his efforts while on assignment with the affiliated Austin Spurs squad. There's no doubt he dominated. As a first-round pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, he should be making this much noise. There's a reason he is where he is.
There's no need to celebrate that, per say.
Covington and Anderson are merely two examples. There are weekly, monthly, midseason, and annual honors that go to NBA players on the minor league level on a regular basis. It's time to give the D-Leaguers sole recognition.