Note: This is part three 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, and part two, which goes from 2012 through 2017.
On April 27th, 2017, the Jerry Stackhouse-coached Raptors 905 celebrated the franchise’s first D-League title as they defeated the RGV Vipers 122-96 in Game 3 of the Finals. Although current Torono standouts Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam pushed them through the playoffs, a man that was once hailed as two-years-away-from-being-two-years-away was the one that defanged the Viper. In 32 minutes, Bruno Caboclo put up 31 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks on 13-19 from the field and 5-7 from beyond the arc. As the Mississaugua men were celebrating their title, that moment truly represented an end of an era.
More than two months before that celebration, it was announced that the NBA Development League, would be rebranded as the NBA G League, as part of a multi-year partnership between the NBA and Gatorade. That deal represented the first deal between a U.S. professional team sports league an entitlement partner. I put emphasis on team sports as NASCAR has had corporate companies sponsor their various series for decades. Along with having Gatorade branding on game balls, on-court signage a, and team jerseys, the partnership also brought an opportunity for teams to utilize the Gatorade Sports Science Institute for programs to enhance the player’s performance and recovery.
Along with the name change, the build-up to the 2017-18 season saw a few other changes take place. One of the most significant of those was seen in the new NBA/NBPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was ratified on July 1st .One of the biggest features of the new CBA happened to be the introduction of Exhibit 10 and two-way contracts.
Exhibit 10’s are actually attachments that can be placed onto a player’s contract when they’re in training camp. For a player with an Exhibit 10 deal, their contracts can be transferred into a two-way before the start of the year. Even if that doesn’t happen and they end up getting released, the players are still in luck as they’ll be able to receive a bonus from $5,000 through $50,000 after spending 60 days with the G League affiliate that they’re assigned with.
If you’ve read this site over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with the substance of those two types of deals. If you’re a newcomer, two-way contracts are essentially beefed up G League contracts that give prospects an opportunity to spend time in the NBA. At the G League level, players on those deals made $79,568 during the 2019-20 season, a significant improvement on the $35,000 that guys on standard contracts started to make in 2017-18. Now when it comes to the Association, they’re limited to spending 45 days with their NBA team where they’ll be making the rookie minimum.
Although two-way contracts have only been around for three seasons, there have already been a good amount of success stories. Two of the biggest ones was evident during this year’s NBA Finals as Duncan Robinson and Alex Caruso were both able to use two-ways to get an opportunity in the NBA, which led to them starting games for the Heat and Lakers, respectively, during that series.
While he didn’t get playing time during that series, fellow Lakers guard Quinn Cook stands out as another example of a two-way success story. In a similar vein to Caruso, Cook’s run in the league actually came before the introduction of two-way deals .After a four-year career with Duke, which included him winning a national title in 2015, he made the trek to Canton to begin his professional career. From the jump, the young guard was able to immediately establish himself as one of the most dynamic backcourt threats in the league. That fact is shown by how his 19.6 points and 5.4 assists per game average with a 57% True Shooting Percentage were the keys behind him winning Rookie of the Year for the 2015-16 season.
Following another great season with Canton during the 2016-17 campaign, Cook was in a frustrating but similar situation as a lot of top-flight minor league prospects. While he seemed to be at a step above other G Leaguers, he wasn’t able to establish himself at the NBA level, as he had stints with the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, before getting waived by both squads.
However, Cook’s luck changed during his third season, where he signed a two-way deal with Golden State. After an incredibly strong run with Santa Cruz and Golden State dealing with several injuries, the young guard finally had a chance to show himself after three years of grinding in the league.
Those years of struggles seemed to be enough motivation, as he took advantage of his NBA opportunity by putting up 20+ points in back-to-back-to-back games against Sacramento, Phoenix, and San Antonio in mid-March. That run was enough for Golden State to transform his two-way deal into a standard contract. Almost two years later, Cook has established himself as a solid 2nd unit guard that can shine as a perimeter threat.
That trio aren’t the only three former two-way players that have had success at the NBA level. Former two-way player with Toronto and Golden State two-way player Chris Boucher been able to use his run in the league, which included winning the 2019 G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, to be a solid rotation piece on Nick Nurse’s Raptors squad.
During his rookie year, two-way player Luguentz Dort was able to go from being a solid part of the OKC Blue to making huge plays for the Thunder during their hard-fought series against the Houston Rockets in the NBA bubble. Before COVID put an end to an end to their season, the Minnesota Timberwolves had Jordan McLaughlin as one of their top role players in February and March.
As those two-way players were looking to get their feet wet at the NBA level, the league itself was changing in other ways. For example, expansion remained a big part of the league’s continued growth. When we left off in the 2016-17 season, the league stood at 22 teams after the inclusion of the Greensboro Swarm, Long Island Nets, and Windy City Bulls.
That decent growth looked pedestrian to how the league ballooned to 26 teams in 2017-18 as the AC Clippers, Wisconsin Herd, Memphis Hustle, and Hawks-affiliated Erie BayHawks joined the league. The gain continued into the next two seasons with the inclusion of the Capital City Go-Go in 2018-19, and the Pelicans-era Erie BayHawks team in 2019-20, after the Hawks moved their G League affiliate to College Park.
While everyone, including G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim, is currently unsure about when the next G League season will begin, the expansion will likely continue with the inclusion of the inclusion of two teams: Capitanes de Ciudad de México and the G League Ignite. The first squad will come to the G League after spending the last three years in the Mexican LNBP, and thus will become the first team to be from a country that’s not the United States or Canada. Meanwhile, the G League Ignite will feature elite high school talent like Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Green, and Daishen Nix.
Top high school talent like that trio joining the G League has been a plan for the league since the Professional Path program was introduced in the fall of 2018. However, the issues of a lower $125k salary and mystery surrounding the process of putting the player on a G League team made players like LaMelo Ball and RJ Barrett go to the Australian NBL during the 2019-20 season. However, the changes that have been made, which is further expressed in this piece, made the G League into a much more appealing option for elite prospects within the high school class of 2020.
Within the three years that the G League has grown to 28 teams and has made significant changes, there are players on standard contracts that have made waves. The most heart-warming example of this would be 34-year-old guard Andre Ingram. Since the 2007-08 season, Ingram has been able to use a phenomenal three-point shot to be a mainstay in the league, no matter if he’s with the Utah Flash or LA D-Fenders/South Bay Lakers.
After a decade in the league, the veteran guard got his moment straight from a live-action Disney movie as the LA Lakers signed him on April 9th, 2018. While that call-up was an emotional moment for the veteran, it became even sweeter when he put up 19 points in his NBA debut against the Houston Rockets. While that moment was meaningless in the grand scheme of basketball during the 2017-18 season, it was a night that both Andre and many other folks will remember for the rest of their lives.
Besides Ingram, there are a few players that haven’t been on two-way deals that have stood out over the past three years. For example, Dusty Hannahs has been able to use that time to go from an overlooked tryout player to one of our candidates for G League MVP due to his brilliance on the offensive end. Although he only played nine games in the G League with the Windy City Bulls, Spencer Dinwiddie does count as a success story as he was able to use the league to jumpstart the 2nd part of his NBA career. Outside of that duo, veterans like Pierre Jackson, Manny Harris, John Jenkins, Terrence Jones, and Keith Benson have been able to standout in the league since 2017-18.
Although their immediate future is in question due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t finish the series with feelings besides optimism and excitement about the direction that the G League is going. As someone that’s followed the league for eight years, it’s incredible that we’re at a point where the league will feature teams from three countries, top high school talent, and only three teams without affiliates (damn you Robert Sarver!). Also, the fact that the players have formed a union, that has been recognized by the league president, is something that I couldn’t have even imagined would happen due to the rough pay and working conditions that the players have dealt with for an eternity