Note: This piece is written by aspiring journalist Greg Levinsky. You can keep up to date with Levinsky’s work by following @Greg_Levinsky on Twitter.
It was not so long ago when Willie Reed was on the outside looking in. The 6’10 center spent last season with the Brooklyn Nets and is in his first year of a two year deal with the Heat, next season being a $1,087,745 player option.
Until recently, Reed’s basketball career had been anything but stable. The Kansas City, Missouri native spent time with the Springfield Armor, Reno Bighorns, Grand Rapids Drive and Iowa Energy of the NBA D-League stateside while also trying his luck overseas in Israel, Spain and the Dominican Republic.
Reed is not the only Heat player familiar to the D-League, as teammates Tyler Johnson, James Johnson, Luke Babbitt, Rodney McGruder, Hassan Whiteside and Okaro White have all spent time in the NBA D-League as well.
“We like to call it [The D-League] ‘The Jungle,” Reed said. “You know when guys come from there they’re going to play hard every single possession. They’re going to be those guys who don’t give up on plays and that’s the Miami Heat nature. This [Miami] has been a place for D-League guys to be able to succeed.”
Reed only played his junior and sophomore years in high school before starting as a freshman a at St. Louis under coach Rick Majerus. After two years in college, Reed confidently moved on.
“The journey from leaving school wasn’t as good as it was when I was playing there, I took the long road,” Reed said.
He surely did. After breaking his foot his first year out of school, Reed had to spend an entire year rehabbing.
“It was tough, when you’re not playing teams tend to not look at you, and the goal is to make teams remember you and that they always are keeping an eye on you,” Reed said.
Training camp with the Sacramento Kings was next for Reed. After that, a stint with the Springfield Armor helped Reed to embark on his professional career.
Reed said, “I think the D-League really humbled me as well as allowed me to understand the professional game. Obviously it was faster than the college game and after missing a whole year, that was really difficult, so I had my ups and downs.”
The ultimate up did occur, and Reed earned a callup to the Memphis Grizzlies. Reed spent the last two months of the regular season with the team and the playoffs, but never played in a game.
The next season Reed returned to Springfield after spending training camp with the Grizzlies and a month in Spain.
“I decided that overseas life really wasn’t for me. So I had to make a sacrifice. I ended up going back to the D-League and that’s where I ended up having my son and I met my wife,” Reed said.
Reed’s hard work in the D-League was rewarded with a call-up to the Sacramento Kings. After being waived, Reed played in the NBA Summer League with the Indiana Pacers and played a short stint in Israel.
“Same thing. I realized, hey sometimes the money [overseas] isn’t what it’s all about. I really wanted to play in the NBA and I came back from Israel. After coming back from Israel I took a 10 hour flight to Kansas City, hopped in a car drove from Kansas City to Michigan which was 10 hours and played in a game for Grand Rapids in Canton [that night],” Reed said.
Reed was named a D-League All-Star in 2014-2015 and credits a mid-season trade to Iowa as a career rejuvenation.
“I changed my offensive game. Bob Donewald really helped me change my offensive game and it continued to grow. I was First Team All-Defense and First Team All-D-League,” Reed said.
Despite the stellar campaign, Reed received no NBA call up and played in the Dominican Republic before playing in the Summer League with the Heat. After three games, the Brooklyn Nets signed Reed to an NBA contract.
“I had a really good year. I didn’t play as many games but I was productive with my minutes. Very productive with helping the team,” Reed said. “After that year was over I ended up signing a deal with the Miami Heat and I haven’t really looked back since then.”
During this season with the Heat, Reed has averaged 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in only 14.6 minutes per game. Over the course of his second NBA season, Reed has had solid performances which include: 22 point and 18 rebound against the Suns and a 22 point, 12 rebound, 3 block showing versus the Lakers.
While he’s currently shining with the Heat, Willie Reed still hasn’t forgotten the impact that the D-League made on his path to the NBA. Reed’s NBA success would not have come without the dedication that he had in the D-League. He credits the league as being the ticket to the NBA for fringe players.
“What I can say for sure is, the D-League is the fastest way into the NBA. They’re affiliated with NBA teams, you have every single NBA team being able to watch you. The D-League was meant to develop and provide an opportunity,” Reed said.
Willie Reed’s journey from a relative unknown college big to a solid NBA rotation player is a clear testament to how big of an impact that the NBADL can have on the career of any player that participates.