There is no question that the NBA Development League has been rapidly rising in popularity over the past few years. NBA organizations are now racing to form exclusive relationships with D-League teams to not only develop young players but also help bolster the bench during the 82-game grind and possibly find a diamond in the rough. Thanks to the one-and-done rule in college basketball, there is an abundance of players that are two years away from being two years away that often fade away, but how do teams develop this so far untapped pool of potential that is seen in college? Enter Danny Angie, Brad Stevens, and the Boston Celtics.
In 2012 when the Celtics announced an exclusive affiliation with the Maine Red Claws, they were one of a small handful of teams to do so; fast forward to 2016 and the NBADL has exploded to 19 teams in operation with three more ready to go for next season. Since forming this relationship the Celtics have been one of the few NBA teams to effectively use the D-League to not only develop their own young talent but also reward players in the D-League with a 10-day contract to fill roster spots when needed.
Avery Bradley was the first D-League experiment that paid in dividends for the Celtics. When he was first drafted by the team he struggled to find his way. The team featured superstars like Rajon Rando, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen to go along with other well established players like Nate Robinson, Delonte West, and Jeff Green. Minutes were hard to come by for still raw Bradley on a team that finished first in the Eastern Conference. It was not until he was assigned to the Red Claws for a total of 24 days, where he saw his first significant minutes since being drafted, that he started to blossom into the great two-way player he is today.
"I was a completely different person when I came back from Maine," Bradley told ESPN in a 2014 interview. "I remember I came back, and I hadn't gotten a haircut, and they called me a 'man on a mission.' That first practice, when I dunked on Perk and Doc ended it, from that day on, I felt like I belonged in this league."
Since then, Bradley has been one of the most consistent contributors and a leader, especially during the years immediately following the implosion of the Big Three and Rondo's trade to Dallas. His success helped lay the foundation for every playoff team on how to develop the next generation of talent while still winning. This approach was embraced by Brad Stevens and followed with the development of Jordan Mickey and other young players.
Mickey has been a dominant force in the Development League this season. He earned Player of the Month for December, averaging 19.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.3 blocks, and 1.8 assists. He is a double-double machine and an eraser in the paint, even one time netting one of the most rare feats in basketball, a points-rebounds-blocks triple-double on December 31st. Critics of the D-League will cite this as just an inflated stat line against mediocre competition, but the proof is in Mickey's play when called upon in Boston.
Mickey has gotten limited minutes for the third place Celtics, but has made the most of the time he was given. His most memorable performance came against the Utah Jazz on February 29th when early that morning Brad Stevens sent Mickey a text message that simply said "Be ready to go any time". He came in off the bench and had two huge blocks and a pass defection that helped seal the 100-95 victory.
"You know, I got the text early this morning and I read it about 10 times before I even got here," Mickey told the Boston Herald. "I was just trying to prepare myself to be ready for the opportunity and you never know when you are going to be able to get in our when you are going to get that opportunity. It happened to be kind of early in the night and I was excited about it."
Stevens has had only the nicest things to say about Mickey and his time with the Red Claws. Following the announcement that Isiah Thomas had been named as a reserve for the All Star game the team soon got word that Mickey was named a D-League All Star.
"I think really highly of Jordan," Stevens told ESPN. "He works the same way and he doesn't change his demeanor. He's going to play the same way in Sioux Falls in the D-League as he will when he gets his opportunity in the NBA."
The Celtics have utilized the Development League to its fullest when it comes to player development but what sets them apart from other teams is their willingness to reward players on the Red Claws that work hard with a chance in the league. Time and time again since Brad Stevens has used Maine to bolster the bench unit when injuries strike. Since joining the team in 2013 there have been nine players called up from Maine, most notably former NBADL MVP Tim Frazier, who was just signed to a 10-day contract by the New Orleans Pelicans.
The relationship between the Boston Celtics and Maine Red Claws is truly unique. The Celtics seem to be one of the few franchises to value the D-League as more than just a place to put rookies. The NBA is a copycat league and teams are taking notice. College basketball is not producing players that were NBA ready like it use to. More and more players enter the draft after one or two years to chase the money but fizzle out because they just are not ready for the next step. Do not be surprised after this upcoming draft to see a high amount of late first round and second round picks of playoff teams to follow in the footsteps of Bradley, Mickey, and others in using the NBADL to get ready for larger roles in the NBA.