Note: This is part two of a three part series breaking down the history of the NBA D/G League. Here’s a link if you want to read part one, which looks at the era that spans from 2005 through 2012.
Where we left off at the end of part one, the NBA D-League was wrapping up its 2011-12 season. Thanks to the leadership of D-League MVP Justin Dentmon, the Austin Toros stood as the 2nd best team in the 16-team league before blowing through the playoffs to meet the Los Angeles D-Fenders in the Finals.
The MVP came up clutch for the team as he put up 30 points and 5 assists on 8-16 from the field, 4-9 from 3 and 10-11 from the free throw line in Game 3 of the series to push the Toros to their first title in franchise history. Little did folks know at the time but the end of the season would represent the start of an era of change for the D-League.
When it comes to expansion, the 2012 off-season was very quiet as the amount of teams in the league stayed stagnant at 16. The biggest move came when the Dakota Wizards moved to California to become the Santa Cruz Warriors, due to Golden State purchasing the team in the prior year. That singular zip code switch up led to a change in the way that the teams are aligned as it went from the two conference system from 2011-12 to an East, Central, and Western Conference in 2012-13.
Although that move was significant, it paled in comparison to two other changes that would come. For one, a spunky 18-year-old kid from Central Wisconsin made the decision in the public library to the D-League writing game before that 2012-13 season. On the other hand, the league itself made it more easy for that young man and other basketball fans to watch the league as they partnered with YouTube to stream live games on their platform.
Personally, that was a significant move as the streams were in solid 720p quality and could easily be downloadable immediately after the game ended. Both of those qualities made the platform be seen as a glorious luxury to most when the games would move to Facebook Live in 2016.
As viewers got acquainted with YouTube live streaming, they had another opportunity to watch a Nick Nurse-led team stand as one of the kings of the D-League as the RGV Vipers, who hired prior to the 2011-12 season, pushed the team to a 35-15 regular season record. For the first time since the best-of-3 format was implemented in 2009-10, the Vipers swept their way through the D-League playoffs as they blew past Maine and Tulsa before sweeping the Santa Cruz Warriors in the Finals.
After no new teams joined the league during the 2012-13 season, the era of growth truly began during the following year, which saw the introduction of the Delaware 87ers. Although seventeen teams stood out as the high point in the league’s history for that 2013-14 campaign, it didn’t become long until that amount was seen as minuscule. In fact, here’s a quick look at the growth the league took from that point until the 2016-17 campaign.
- 2014-15: 18 teams with the introduction of the Westchester Knicks.
- 2015-16: 19 teams with the inclusion of the Raptors 905. They became the league’s first team based outside of the United States.
- 2016-17: 22 teams with the Greensboro Swarm, Windy City Bulls, and Long Island Nets entering the D-League as expansion squads.
That quick expansion of the D-League was great for multiple reasons. For one, it pushed it closer to it being a true minor league where each NBA team has their own affiliate. The continuous expansion led to the decline of G League teams having multiple affiliates, like what we mentioned in part one with the Bakersfield Jam being associated with five NBA teams in 2010-11.
This change coincided with more examples of NBA prospects that were able to use the D-League to develop their games. The most glaring example of that came with the Raptors 905 as the likes of Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam used reps with the 905 during the regular season and run to the 2017 D-League title to help grow into the players that helped push the Toronto Raptors to become NBA champions in 2019.
Besides that duo, other examples during this era include: Dejounte Murray with the Austin Spurs in 2016-17, Clint Capela being a double-double threat with the RGV Vipers in 2014-16, and Terry Rozier getting four double-doubles in 15 games with Maine in 2015-16. Each of those players are currently in the midst of successful NBA careers, which has allowed them to be rewarded with lucrative deals after their rookie contracts expired.
At the same time that those five current NBA standouts were using the D-League to help grow their games, there were group of other players on standard D-League contracts that shined bright during this era. At the start, there probably wasn’t a man that was loved by his fans and feared by the opposition more than Ron “Mr. Mad Ant” Howard.
Despite getting his start in the league in 2007, and having a few very solid seasons during the first era of this series, the 6’5 guard was a fine wine that took until his 30’s to really reach his peak as a player. That height came during the first two years of this era, where he was able to use his knack as an on-ball threat to score from mid-range and around the rim to stand as one of the best wings in the league. Despite only playing 35 games due to an injury suffered against Bakersfield in early January, Howard was fantastic during the 2012-13 campaign as he averaged 19.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.7 assists on 46% from the field.
In the following year, the lessons learned during the prior six years were enough to lead Howard and the Mad Ants to have a tremendous 2013-14 campaign. I put the team and player together, as both were incredible during that season. For Howard, he averaged 20.5 points, 4.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.6 steals on 47% from the field. His ability as a mid-range threat, in addition to him shooting 83% from the free throw line on 7.6 attempts per game, were the keys behind him maintaining a solid 56% True Shooting Percentage.
The leadership of the veteran wing helped push Fort Wayne to new heights as they finished the regular season with a franchise-best 35-16 record. Howard’s great production combined with the success of Fort Wayne were the keys behind Howard receiving co-MVP honors with Iowa Energy guard Othyus Jeffers. After a phenomenal regular season, Fort Wayne pushed themselves into another great during the post-season, where they won the 2014 D-League title after sweeping Reno, Sioux Falls, and then finally Santa Cruz in the Finals to win the title.
Two years after Howard and the Mad Ants won their first title in franchise history, a former Tennessee standout was able to do the same as a member of one of the main stays of minor league. That man and team was Jarnell Stokes and the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Despite only being 22-years-old during the 2015-16 season, the young forward was able to use his strong 6’9, 255 pound frame to dominate inside the paint. Statistics makes that domination evident as he averaged 20.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.1 steals per game on 66% from the field for the team, which ultimately led to him being named MVP despite only playing in 28 games.
Stokes’ stance as a double-double threat along with the duo of DeAndre Liggins and Briante Weber dominating on defense were the two keys behind the Skyforce finishing the season with a jaw-dropping 40-10 record. As was the case for Fort Wayne, Sioux Falls was able to carry carry that regular season success into the playoffs by going 6-1 through their three series before beating the D-Fenders in the best-of-3 games Finals series.
At the same time that Stokes and the Skyforce celebrated winning the 2016 D-League title, a young 23-year-old guard named Vander Blue stood on that same court sulking. He had good reason too as the young guard spent the entire 2015-16 season playing like a minor league superstar. In 48 games, he averaged a league-best 26.3 points, 5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.8 steals on 44% from the field and 33% from 3.
Although the young standout didn’t win a title during the that season, he didn’t let it deter him in his attempts to grow as a player. Over the course of the next two seasons, including the 2016-17 campaign where he won MVP, Blue continued to stand as one of the best scorers in the league. In fact, his consistency with averaging more than 18 points per game in four straight seasons helped vault the Marquette alum to be stand second in the league’s All-Time Points leaderboard.
While Blue’s status as one of the best scorers in league history is partially a testament to how dominant he was at the minor league level, it’s also an unfortunate sign that he wasn’t stick in the NBA, despite being on multiple training camp rosters, and two call-ups during this era.
The former Marquette stud wasn’t the only player that had that issue during this five-year era. In fact, it was a common occurrence as Howard, Jeffers, Goudelock, and Stokes stood alongside Blue as D-League MVPs that struggled to get a consistent role at the NBA level. In fact, 2014-15 MVP Tim Frazier is the only player that was able to receive a guaranteed deal from a team. Aside from those MVPs, the likes of DeAndre Liggins, Briante Weber, Bryce Cotton, Chris Wright, and Jorge Gutierrez were some of the standout players during this era that weren’t able to last in the NBA.
Although there has to be some level of disappointment for those players as they grew up with dreams of being in the NBA, they all played a role in growing the league over the course of those five years. Their contributions combined with the likes of Seth Curry, JaMychal Green, and Robert Covington being some of the players that used the D-League to get into the NBA, pushed the league to become a more legitimate and respected league.
That growth during the span of 2012 through 2017 set the league up for the gains that it would make over the next three years. However, we’ll get to that in the next part.