The life of a player in the NBA D-League can often uncertain and filled with stress. Concerns over whether they’ll be called up to the NBA, if they’ll have opportunities internationally or whether they’re receiving enough playing time to showcase their skills for scouts can take a toll on players who aren’t prepared for the experience.
In the case of Rio Grande Valley Vipers guard Denzel Livingston, however, this level of transition has been something that he’s dealt with throughout his entire time playing basketball.
Weighing in at 137 pounds during his senior year of high school, it was unclear as to where he would be playing college basketball. After some deliberation, he chose to travel three hours west from his home in Houston to play at Incarnate Word University in San Antonio.
He smoothly made the jump to college basketball, as he ended up starting nearly half of the team’s games during his freshman year as the Cardinals went on to have a 16-11 record.
As Livingston found more time in the starting lineup during his sophomore year, he saw his field goal percentage jump by 8% and the team finished with a 14-14 record. While it was a bit of a step down from the year before, the team would soon be faced with a whole new set of challenges.
After playing at the Division II level for Livingston’s first two seasons, the Cardinals jumped to Division I and joined the Southland Conference. There was going to be a few natural obstacles, but as Livingston tells RidiculousUpside.com, the jump was a bit different than most would imagine.
"It wasn’t as difficult as you would think. The game overall at the Division 1 level was more athletic and we just had to adjust to the faster pace of the game that teams played at," Livingston said. It was at this new level that Livingston thrived, scoring over 20 points per game and leading them to a 21-6 record, the best of all-time for the first season of the Division II to Division I move.
He excelled on the heightened level of competition and it helped him gain some notoriety amongst professional circles. His all-around game began to flourish as he went through his second season in Division I basketball.
"Playing at the D-I level made me figure out other tools that I needed to use that I didn’t always have to while we were in Division II. It helped me improve a ton on the defensive side, but I also got better as a scorer and as a leader," Livingston added.
His scoring was certainly on display during his senior year, finishing fourth in the entire country in points per game. Making the transition to Division I is difficult for any team, but the fact that he was able to do it so seamlessly helped him get on the national radar. Despite this level of national recognition, he was passed over in the 2015 NBA Draft and wound up going undrafted. Undeterred by this disappointment, he began seeking out opportunities and ended up with one that he had dreamed about his entire life.
One day after going undrafted, Livingston signed on with his hometown Houston Rockets for the summer league. "It was a blessing. I grew up watching the Rockets and they’ve always been my favorite team, so it was great to get a contract with them," he gushed. "It showed me that my hard work was paying off."
The Las Vegas Summer League, as well as the NBA preseason that followed, provided him the chance to get acclimated to the level of competition that he would be playing at professionally, as well as getting an idea of where he stood within the organization.
"On the court in the Summer League, I didn’t get much playing time but it was still a pretty good experience. I liked the preseason better, though, because Coach McHale really knew what I could do. He wanted me to work on some aspects of my game, but he also let me play to my strengths while I was out there," the young gun explained. "He was happy with how I played and it really showed me that no matter how many minutes that you get, you have to do as much as you can with them."
He didn’t crack the NBA club out of the preseason, but he chose to join the Vipers after consulting with his family. Once more, this was a move that forced him into transition. As opposed to being the leading scorer and primary ball-handler in college, Livingston has found himself primarily coming off of the bench for Rio Grande Valley. It’s taken some work, but he’s taken it in stride.
"Coming off the bench is definitely a big change because I’m used to starting. Ultimately, it again just comes down to doing all that you can in the minutes that you are given," Livingston pointed out.
The pairing between Livingston and the Vipers so far has been a successful one, as his career that has been full of transitions meshes well with their fast-paced playing style that relies on playing in transition.
So far in the 14 games that he’s played in 20 or more minutes in, the team is 9-5 (as opposed to 5-7 when he plays less than 20 minutes) and he’s scoring 12.6 points per game on .459/.407/.833 shooting to go along with 5.1 rebounds per game. Livingston is going to continue to put in the work needed to crack the starting lineup consistently, but even now he believes that he can contribute at the NBA level.
"I think that I could make an impact for a team on the defensive end. I know that coming in right away I’m not going to be a superstar scorer or anything like that, but I can be a defensive-minded player that can also spot up or create scoring opportunities if that’s what’s asked of me," he said.
He’s just a few years removed from playing Division II basketball, but Livingston will be ready whenever the NBA decides to call. It’s taken a lot of adapting to get where he is today and reaching the NBA would be a testament to the work that he’s put in.