The NBA D-League aims to provide its prospects with special opportunities for unique exposure to NBA personnel. Such an effort continues year round. While members of the Sioux Falls Skyforce are fresh off winning a minor league championship, the grind never truly ends.
With the offseason here, the D-League's annual Elite Mini-Camp has officially arrived. Conveniently taking place in Chicago right before the NBA Draft Combine, the league ensures that NBA coaches and executives from all across the league are already in town to see some of their most intriguing prospects strut their stuff. The Draft Combine is all about scouting and evaluating respective talent, and this minor league event is no different. It gives such youngsters a chance to be seen, while opening up the eyes of big league decision-makers to something a little different.
"I think what's happening is people are trying to discover new talent for their teams. The D-League is an avenue that the more creative teams are using well," D-League coaching vet and long time Camp Leader Bob MacKinnon told RidiculousUpside.com. "You look at a guy like Jonathon Simmons, he's playing a role with the Spurs. There were an all-time high of assignments from the NBA to the D-League this season as well. This is a place where you can find guys to help your program."
"This has been my baby. I've run it every year since its existence. This event keeps getting better and better," MacKinnon, who was asked to return to the event as a consultant this year, added. "You're sitting there, and already on day one, you see guys like Fred Hoiberg, Tom Thibodeau, Tony Rozone of the Mavericks and Jeff Bower of the Pistons."
And as Tyler Gatlin of the Bakersfield Jam pointed out, guys came out to play, and there was no shortage of standouts.
"Brandon Fields was ready. He got after it. He wasn't making all his shots, but he played hard. That kid is poised to have a big summer," Gatlin told Ridiculous Upside. "He's a stud; he's working really hard and has improved his game consistently over the last couple of years. He's fun to watch. Brandon can attack, has good size, and will play the point, but can still take over and score in certain stretches."
"Talib Zanna was good. He's someone who's obviously been a consistent D-League performer, always grabbing double-figure rebounds. He was hitting his mid-range jumpers, making layups, and just playing really hard," he added. "I think NBA teams are intrigued by him. He stretched the floor a bit, set picks, rolled."
Much like Fields, Gatlin said that some guys like to especially come out and perform when the pressure is on at an event like this. With that in mind, Patrick Miller of the Legends came up in the clutch on the defensive end.
"David Stockton's team was down one during scrimmages, they tried to run a play for him to win the game. He tried to isolate Miller, and [Miller] ripped the ball from him. He's just a bulldog. Really tough guy."
There were players who certainly left positive lasting impressions on MacKinnon as well, following day one.
"I thought DeAndre Liggins had a great day. He really performed well. Darion Atkins really showed an ability for well-rounded defending," the coach said. "He defended the pick and roll, inside/outside, and did a good job of talking to his teammates on defense."
MacKinnon continued, "Jordan Bachynski banged, rebounded well, and did a good job of finishing inside. Demetri McCamey had an excellent day. From what I understand, he was a late addition. But he came out and took full advantage. Kadeem Jack is another guy, who even though he may have been a bit under the radar, really played well."
Gatlin asserted that a certain Westchester Knicks teammate of Atkins and Bachynski's did particularly well, too.
"Ra'Shad James is ultra-aggressive and gets caught up in the moment, but guys had a tough time with him. He made threes, took it to the basket, and is super athletic," he added. "Physically, he looks very good. He's not that tall but he's strong."
Being in shape at an event like this is crucial; most would think that would be a given. But after a few weeks off, it's clear some players weren't as primed to go as someone like James was. Other standouts included Askia Booker, Walton Lemon Jr., and Xavier Silas.
As big as an opportunity at this truly is for the prospects strutting their stuff, there's no denying that as the D-League becomes more popular and prevalent, there's talent to make note of from all different ranks. This is a special opportunity for the coaches present to prove they can effectively motivate and guide these youngsters, all while getting valuable face time with NBA executives. But as far as Gatlin was concerned, a certain trainer also went above and beyond on day one.
[Jam head athletic trainer] Jonathan Mak is the man. He's someone on the rise that knows his stuff. Jonny was there at 8am, an hour and a half before anyone was in the gym," Gatlin said about his involvement with the Elite Mini-Camp. "He was working guys out early and made sure they were ready to go. He monitored both courts during the scrimmages. Anytime a guy went down or caught an elbow, he was on it. Jonny got all the guys checked out after things were done. He's dedicated to this camp, and it's a 24/7 thing for him. He's on point; a big reason why this event flowed so well."
With day one in the books, Gatlin and others are looking forward to day two, which figures to be an even more spirited and competitive session, now that things are getting going. "Guys will either build on what they did on day one, or those that didn't do a ton initially will show out a little bit. [Day two] is when it really starts to show who is in shape, and who isn't. The talent is good. It's deep, and pretty well balanced. Across the board, these guys can play," he said.
McKinnon continued to sing the event's praises and shed light on the importance of attending, adding, "One thing that the D-League offers is exposure. This is one of two events that almost guarantees exposure and a chance to play in front of personnel from just about all thirty teams. It's the Showcase and this. This event is different, because you're being seen while playing with, against, and alongside the best of the best, talent wise. You see exactly how guys are reacting to be coached. This is an intimate setting. You see how guys are reacting to officials, as well as each other. That's valuable for NBA teams."
"If you're someone who wants to make it to the next level, this event is an absolute must," he said with no hesitation. "This is a great format. When you come out play hard, and do things the right way, it shows. The competition level was very high. Guys were unselfish. That ball was moving around. We changed things up a bit this year and gave the teams more practice time with the coaches, and I think that showed in the quality of play."