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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Life in the D-League

Life in the D-League
NBADL catching on as a farm system for the NBA

By Chris Mannix, SI.com

Gerald Green remembers the bus. Or more specifically, the bus ride. That five-hour mission he took as a member of the Fayetteville Patriots to Roanoke, Va., to hone his skills in a game against a team called the Dazzle.

He remembers the planes. No, not the charter jets with their catered meals and plush leather seats that spoiled him during his first three months with the Boston Celtics. We're talking about the aircrafts with cramped quarters and the stale peanuts that are so often found on commercial airlines, flights Green and his fellow Patriots -- sometimes sitting in middle seats -- took on a regular basis. Say goodbye to that posh Boston bachelor pad, too. In Fayetteville, his home was the Holiday Inn.

"Riding that bus was tough," says Green, the 18th pick in the 2005 NBA draft after graduating from Gulf Shores Academy outside of Houston. "I felt like I was in high school again. And the planes? Man, Boston is a first-class organization that flies private planes. Down there we were flying coach in small planes that made your legs all cramped up!"

Down there is where the Celtics rookie forward spent more than a month of his inaugural NBA season, a guinea pig in the experiment the NBA likes to call the D-League. The brainchild of NBA commissioner David Stern in 2001, the D-League began as a six-team pseudo farm system that was a refugee camp for mediocre talent.

In its first four years, the D-League was little more than the NBA's version of Gatorade, a way for teams with injury-riddled rosters to temporarily replenish themselves, with disposable talent. Sure, there were the occasional success stories. Bobby Simmons was a Mobile Reveler in 2003 before he was the NBA's Most Improved Player with the Clippers two years later. One of Simmons' teammates in Mobile was Rafer Alston, the hyperactive streetballer who averaged 14.2 points with the Toronto Raptors in 2005 and started 63 games for the Houston Rockets last season. Simmons and Alston were exceptional, but they certainly were exceptions; the talent in the D-League in its first few seasons was marginal, and the league was bleeding financially.

That all changed last summer, when one of the byproducts of the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement was the provision that each NBA team had the right to send down any of its players with less than two years' experience to the NBADL. It was the minor league system Stern had dreamed of, a place where high school and inexperienced college players could go to fine-tune their games while at the same time developing the maturity needed to compete at the next level. It was a way to rid the league of the Korleone Youngs. The early results have been positive. Stern says he expects the NBADL, which is financed by the NBA (each team puts up $350,000 and all player salaries are paid for by the league), to break even next season.
"The quality of play was extraordinary," says Stern. "These teams are better than college teams. They are enormously improved, and I think the NBA players populating the rosters lifted everyone's effort."

Says Green, "I won't lie, when I went down there I thought it was going to be easy. But those guys play hard every night. I've got nothing but respect for them; they made me a better player."

The level of play in the D-League has steadily improved, in part because NBA teams are much less reluctant to send their inexperienced bench-warmers down. In addition to Green, first-round picks Martell Webster, Julius Hodge, Pavel Podkolzine and Sergei Monia were all shuttled to the D-League this season. Bracey Wright, the Timberwolves' second-round pick in '05 and the D-League's leading scorer this season, even expressed disappointment at being recalled while the Florida Flame were in the thick of the playoff hunt.

"I was looking forward to winning something," says Wright.

Adds Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey, "You feel bad about that, but that's what the D-League is there for. It's almost like a badge of honor for those teams to have a player called up."

Green and Wright are two of the D-League's biggest success stories, but they're far from the only ones. In addition to the 29 players assigned by NBA clubs, 18 more -- or half of all the players called up in the league's first four seasons -- contributed to their teams, most notably Chicago Bulls center Luke Schenser.

The improved play in the D-League is a sentiment echoed frequently. "The quality of play is the highest of any minor league, hands down," says NBADL Vice President of Player Development Michael Curry.

Curry knows what he's talking about. The former Pistons forward spent time in the CBA, USBL and Global Basketball League before going on to play 11 seasons in the NBA. "I've got a pretty good gauge of talent level," says Curry, who estimates he witnessed 10 D-League games a month this season. "I constantly heard remarks from players and coaches that this league was the toughest [outside of the NBA]. And a lot of top European players decided to stay here and play with us because they thought the competition was so good."

Work in progressA league without problems? An unqualified success? Not exactly. Despite having the ability to farm out its younger players, many NBA teams chose to ignore the D-League early on and keep their not-ready-for-prime-time players on the bench. One reason was that players sent to the D-League would effectively be subject to the whims of an independent ownership (all but two NBADL teams last year were owned independently) and a coaching staff that was not beholden to run the system used by an NBA club.
"It was an issue," admits Stern.

Said Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, "You just don't know what will happen to [the players you send] down there."

One of the people who expressed the biggest concerns, according to Stern, was Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. Ainge was Stern's target audience; the Celtics' roster this season was littered with young talent, including Green, a promising but exceedingly raw prospect. Green rode the Boston bench for three months without playing a minute; his only contribution was being a frequent example of the NBA's new and improved dress code. Finally, in January, Ainge made a decision: It was time to give the D-League a try.

After informing Green of his demotion -- "I thought it was a terrible idea," Green says -- Ainge boarded a plane and accompanied his prized pupil to Fayetteville, where he observed practices and had an opportunity to talk to Patriots coach Mike Brown.

"I don't think it was reluctance [to send Green down] as much as it was the uncertainties," says Ainge. "You just didn't know what was going to happen. But I was impressed with what I saw down there and with what I saw of Gerald when he came back. His work ethic was better, and you could tell his game had really improved."

Several NBADL teams have taken steps to alleviate the concerns felt by their NBA counterparts. In addition to Brown, Fort Worth coach Sam Vincent made a point of instituting plays from every NBA team that sent a player down, incorporating the styles of Avery Johnson (Dallas), Nate McMillan (Portland) and Phil Jackson (Lakers).

"Sam did a fantastic job," says Curry, who says every NBADL coach will be required to attend the NBA predraft camp in Orlando later this month. "Whenever an NBA player came to him, he made it a priority to put a little bit of their team into his."

The Lakers took it a step further when they purchased their own NBADL team in April, meaning they hold the right to manage and coach the team whatever way they see fit. Stern says a number of other NBA teams are considering doing the same. Boston held preliminary discussions recently about buying a D-League team and according to Ainge are watching the Lakers situation "with great interest."

Stern doesn't believe it's necessary for NBA teams to own their own D-League franchises but doesn't oppose the idea, either. "It's an option," says Stern, who says the D-League will expand to 15 teams by the 2007-08 season. "We are just looking for great independent ownership. It's a model that works for us." (Stern has a point: Though the D-League will expand from eight to 12 teams next season, three have been shut down, including Fayetteville and Roanoke, the two remaining NBA-owned teams. Says Stern, "You just can't run a team from New York.")
The D-League continues to grow. Former CBA teams are joining the fold. The quality of play continues to rise, and more and more NBA teams are embracing the concept of a minor league system. The D-League is even considering adding an All-Star Game, one that the Celtics' Green most likely won't be a part of.

After returning from his second stint in the D-League in February, Green became a regular in the Celtics' rotation, finishing the season averaging 5.2 points in 11.7 minutes. He drew praise from his coaches and teammates and improved by playing and learning rather than sitting on the bench.

Green came away with a new appreciation for the D-League. "Nothing but positives came from that," he says.

So, would Green mind going back? "No, I don't want to go back!" says Green. "But maybe guys will look at me as a warning: be ready to play at the NBA level or they just might send you to the D-League."

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