Upon hearing that the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) will include legislation that increases NBA D-League salaries to $50,000-$75,000 from the $19,000 (B contract) - $26,000 (A contract) that current D-Leaguers earn, I thought it was a game-changer for sure. I can recall conversations I had years ago with a former NBA executive and mentor of mine, where I'd say "if only the D-League could find a way to increase the salaries, it would offer a better option for pros than the current model does." He never disputed my assertion, but the reality of a salary increase seemed like a pipe dream or, at the very least, virtual light years away from ever happening. Couple that with the advent of two-way contracts and NBA roster sizes maxing out at 18 versus the previous 15? Oh, not only is this a game-changing attention grabber, but a potential life-changer for many aspiring pro basketball players.
As a 10-year pro drafted in the 2nd round of the 2007 NBA Draft out of Vanderbilt, I've had 4 separate D-League stints. Each time I opted to sign a D-League contract was at a different juncture in my career, but my reasons for playing gradually changed over time. In 2008, I was cut by the OKC Thunder before being drafted 5th overall to the D-League's Bakersfield Jam. I was 24, at my athletic peak, and not ready to stop chasing my childhood dream of playing in the NBA. I felt a phone call from the Association was closer than ever. Months later, after I was named as a D-League All-Star and 1st team All-NBADL, that call never came.
In 2011, I left Greece, where I was among the top scorers, to re-join the D-League ultimately in hopes of a call-up. After solid performances, including Player of the Week honors, that call remained elusive. During the 2011-12 season, I was Miami Heat's final cut before re-joining Bakersfield once again. My reasoning was two-fold and simple: I still felt I was on the cusp and a lot of players were overseas at the time because they signed before the lockout was lifted. The Spurs eventually called me up. My last stint was in 2014 after training at home subsequent to my Memphis Grizzlies release. I simply wanted to get some competitive gameplay under my belt and have key decision-makers know that I'm still active.
That's what has always been so special about the D-League. Any kind of player can utilize the Whether you're a young guy who declared too early or a 25 year old guy on the brink of a call-up...or a 30 year old former first-rounder looking to get back in game shape...or the unheralded guy that's trying to capitalize on the exposure element in front of nightly scouts & personnel....the D-League affords the same basic opportunity to all walks of basketball life.
What it hasn't always offered is the payday that you could potentially otherwise make abroad, depending on your market value. I am a part of a group chat with a dozen or so prominent overseas basketball players. When this groundbreaking news was shared amongst my chat buddies, the consensus was favorable toward how advantageous it would be to play in the D-League if, in fact, the new CBA is executed. Even our sneaker connect (a former high school basketball standout, if you let him tell the story) chimed in with "Shit, I'm going to the D-League!"
The following is an excerpt that depicts other guys' take. However, I think it's important to note that every player is 30+ with their best years behind them.
•"Stay y'alls asses in the States...more money for me."
•"Our era is a wrap though, if you're not already in Turkey somewhere or high level EuroLeague team."
•"It'll open up some jobs for guys in Europe."
•"A lot of guys are gonna be saying f*** Europe now which means that the European markets are gonna take off again. They gotta compete with that now so they are gonna be offering guys more money in Europe."
•"Hell yeah if I had a chance to stay home for $75k and hoop and have a chance to get in the league or go overseas for $100k, I'm staying my ass at home."
In order to fully comprehend the dichotomy here, one must be informed of the other end of the spectrum. Let's explore the European market, which is widely considered to be the most competitive brand of basketball, not named NBA. In no particular order, Spain, Turkey, Russia, Greece, Italy, Israel, Germany, France, Serbia and Lithuania headline the European market in terms of level of competition. There are teams in Turkey, Russia, Spain and a few within Greece, Italy, and Israel that can pay salaries in excess of $1 million per season.
These countries occupy most of the EuroLeague-level teams. So, you have a handful of American players at these positions. What about the majority of other European countries such as Hungary, Finland, or Austria for example? Based on prior experience and sources that I know, I've heard estimates ranging anywhere between $30k and a shade over $100k for a foreign player's annual salary on teams not among the top of leagues like Germany or Italy, for instance.
Many teams in most leagues across the continent consist of salaries skewed more closely toward the lower end of that tier, while even bottom-feeders in prominent leagues like Spain (ACB) and Greece have budgets that don't come close to rivaling their EuroLeague counterparts of those respective domestic leagues. If you're outside the States and not earning a big payday in China or with a EuroLeague team or one of the top teams in a high caliber country, then suffice it to say you're probably making, on average, a median salary of somewhere between 50-75k these days, generously.
Sure, there are a good amount of players earning 6-figure thresholds, but the large majority of teams and leagues with low budgets must be taken into account. That's also over the course of 9-10 months. I think one interesting factor to point out and remember here is that current D-League salaries are dispersed over the course of the 5-6 month D-League season. If that payment structure continues to hold up in the new CBA, then many players would stand to make reasonably more than they possibly could per month abroad.
I did not weigh the consideration of Latin/Central/South American markets because most are active during the D-League's offseason. Australia, by and large, does not possess budgets that could pay substantially higher than the newly proposed D-League salaries. China can still pay non-NBAer's the most amount of money, on average, per month than any other domestic league globally. If you can secure a Chinese contract, by all means you sign it. There are only a couple roster spots for Americans across the 18-team CBA league.
One factor that shouldn't be ignored is the volatility and instability of many leagues worldwide. I can't express enough the frequency in which my peers and I did not receive the totality of our salary or how absurd some of the expectations can be for keeping your job and the criteria given for being released. Make no mistake about it, guys get cut all the time and competition is absolutely healthy for the sport, particularly when the next guy can do the job better. But the stability aspect and knowing there won't be any funny business with your money certainly bodes well for the D-League as well.
Alas, what type of effect do I think this will have? I think it depends on where the player is in their career and what he's looking to get out of basketball. If you're someone who's young and feels overlooked, I say pursue the D-League. I personally know guys who were lesser known entering the pro ranks and their D-League experience ultimately led to them garnering salaries well into the 6 figures in Europe. If you've had a few tough breaks and you're at the precipice of breaking through, then absolutely give it a try. The name of the game is money at the end of the day and even if guys may try to pursue their NBA dreams, the D-League has also served as a launching pad for those who have made big money in Europe too.
I speak as someone who has had success in the D-League, yet given my age, I'd said I was done with that route. While I'm certainly not committal one way or the other, I will say that I no longer feel as definitive about closing that door as I previously had. I think comfort of USA plus an NBA modeled game have always been attractive but now you have the allure of being compensated as handsomely, if not more (per month), than you would overseas. Also speaking as someone who has been a training camp casualty at the deadline multiple times, I can see the benefit of being under a two-way contract and more closely involved with the NBA team. It makes for a better farm system, development for the player, and experience for both team and player. All in all, the D-League seems destined to become the disruptive market that most, including myself, didn't think would happen so soon, if at all.
I used the term "life-changing" because it would have affected many of my professional decisions when I wavered between earning more money overseas or continuing to knock at the NBA's door. And had this new system been amended earlier, perhaps it could have changed the trajectory of not only my professional career but many other players as well. I am not sure that I would have considered overseas work as an ambitious 20-something-year-old who seemingly continued to lose the NBA's grasp by the slightest of margins. That may not be everyone's desire or choice. A lot of guys feel very comfortable and make the quick adjustment to many aspects of living and earning abroad. I feel the newly proposed D-League salary structure could have kept me employed with a respectable income during the months when the European market was crowded and roster spots are thin. Almost every guy has been there before.
It is not only a resounding victory for the D-League itself, but possibly for leagues worldwide as the overseas market may present more opportunities to players if Americans choose to stay home. Maybe not immediately, but the likelihood of higher overseas salaries in order to compete with the D-League remains to be seen as well. With respect to how my career has played out, I consider the new measures placed toward D-League salaries and two-way contracts potentially life-changing alternatives for players moving forward.