The name D-League was taboo in an NBA locker room back in 2009. Mention the D-League to an NBA rookie or second-year player and the question would always come back, "What did I do wrong?"
When I was in the New Jersey Nets' front office, the assignment of a player to Springfield, the Nets' D-League affiliate, was regarded as a penalty. After former lottery pick Terrence Williams was placed on the inactive list for multiple violations of team rules, he was sent to the D-League. When he got there, Williams took his gear and soaked it in the sink so he wouldn't have to practice.
Now the G League (with a new name, thanks to its title sponsor) is seen more as a platform for player development, under-the-radar players looking for an opportunity, injured players using practice conditions to rehab and former draft picks looking for a second chance.
The 17th G League season started Friday night, and the defending champion Raptors 905 begin their title defense Saturday on Facebook Live. In January, the 14th G League Showcase, the league's in-season scouting event, will take place in Ontario, Canada. The G League will have some experimental rules in 2017-18, including a two-minute overtime period (reduced from three, whereas an NBA overtime is five minutes), a shot clock reset to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound and a coach's challenge. And at least 20 G League games will air on ESPNU.
Here is an in-depth look at the G League entering the 2017-18 season, including 10 under-the-radar players who could land on NBA rosters.
Developing a minor league system
The early-morning wakeup calls to catch a commercial (not charter or private) flight still exist, as do the long bus rides and stays in three-star hotels.
While the travel conditions remain similar to when the National Basketball Development League (NBDL) started in 2001, much has changed.
The days when four NBA teams shared one team to assign their players to are now replaced with 22 teams owned by NBA teams, three teams with NBA teams (Detroit, Boston and Houston) in control of basketball operations and a 26th team, the Texas Legends, owned by Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson.
"I think it's big, because it stresses development for the young guys," says Dee Brown, the general manager of the new Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario, California, and director of player programs for the LA Clippers. "It stresses a true minor league system like in baseball or hockey, where you can send your young guys to get better and evaluate talent that you'll get a chance to see that maybe went overseas or came out of college and maybe didn't have a great early NBA career."
While the league has grown from eight teams in 2001 to 26, perhaps the biggest change occurred last December.
Introduced in the new collective bargaining agreement, the two-way contract is seen by teams as a positive step in identifying the G League as a true minor league system.
The common complaint among organizations was that the time and money spent developing players in the G League did not go to good use. Players would be developed only to be called up by another team.
With two-way contracts, we should see fewer cases where a team like Brooklyn would spend money and time investing in Yogi Ferrell's development in the G League only to see him signed to a 10-day or rest-of-the-season contract by another team. In Ferrell's case, the Mavericks swooped him up, and he would go on to earn second-team All-Rookie with Dallas.
Now a team such as Boston can develop Jabari Bird without the risk of losing him to another team. Of course, it also means that Bird's options are limited on the two-way deal. He's not permitted to sign with another NBA team even if he flourishes in Maine.
No team has benefited more from the two-way contract this early season than the Phoenix Suns.
Faced with roster turmoil as Eric Bledsoe waits to be traded, Phoenix has used 27-year-old Mike James to fill the void at point guard. Signed to a two-way contract in the offseason, James has started six games, averaging 23.9 MPG and ranking eighth among all rookies in scoring (11.4 PPG).
James will stay on the Suns' active roster for 45 days before his two-way contract is converted to an NBA contract. Phoenix has until Dec. 6 to open a roster spot. Had the two-way contract not been in place, James would likely not have been on the Suns' roster to start the season.
The two-way contract is not the only benefit of the G League.
NBA players Tony Parker, Marcus Morris, Michael Carter-Williams and Ben McLemore have practiced with their clubs' respective G League teams as they continue to rehab from injury. As NBA practices are condensed based on rest, travel and back-to-back games, the G League is a great fallback, especially with many teams running the same system as the parent club.
Last season, 92 NBA players were assigned to the G League, including more than 50 percent of the 2016 NBA draft class.
"The biggest thing we try and communicate with the guys is that our team is really built for development," Brown says. "We want to make the guys better, we want to teach them to be better players, not just on the court but off the court."
What about the other four teams?
All 26 G League teams are singly affiliated with NBA parent clubs. The NBA is in active conversations with the four unaffiliated NBA teams: the Washington Wizards, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans.
The Nuggets, Pelicans and Trail Blazers are at various stages of the expansion exploration process, and the Wizards have announced that they will have a team in place for the 2018-19 season.
Updated G League map of each franchise as we head into 2017-18 pic.twitter.com/PoKwmbQKUN
- Chris Reichert (@Chris_Reichert) August 9, 2017
The four teams can still utilize the G League, but the challenge is that there is no home base for the players to be sent. Instead, players are assigned under a flex system..
When the Nuggets sent first-round pick Tyler Lydon to the G League, Denver had to initiate the process of flexible assignment.
In this process, each one of the 26 teams could send the NBA a notice of interest, and it was Denver's choice among those interested teams. In this case, Lydon is assigned to the Rockets' affiliate in Rio Grande Valley.
Could the G League eventually be an alternative to the NCAA?
Call me old school, but I was fortunate to be part of the draft process when Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady entered the league as high school players back in the mid-90s.
Those players and Kevin Garnett were exceptional enough to thrive, but NBA teams were not prepared to provide the kind of support and development young players needed. There was no safety net for an 18-year-old player when the transition on and off the court became too challenging.
Now, almost 20 years later, the safety net for a teenager might be in place with the G League.
To take full advantage of that, the G League might be a solution to the NBA's conundrum over the age limit. NBA prospects from the U.S. can enter the G League at age 18, but they can't be drafted until they are 19 and have completed one year beyond high school, a concession the players granted the owners in 2005. So while there is widespread dissatisfaction with the college one-and-done system, the NBA hasn't made the G League a full-fledged alternative.
So how can the NBA and the players' association reach a new arrangement -- a compromise -- that creates an alternative to the one-and-done path?
One idea: Both sides could take a page from the NCAA and create a "redshirt" exception.
Here is how it could work:
High school seniors would be allowed to enter the NBA draft as redshirt players. Undrafted high school graduates could also become redshirt players as free agents.
Each team would have three roster spots in addition to their standard 15-man roster (two spots for a two-way player; one roster spot for a redshirt exception).
All three roster spots would count against the offseason maximum roster list of 20.
Each redshirt player would receive a salary of $77,250 (similar to a player signed to a two-way contract in 2018-19).
Redshirt players would participate in summer league and practice with the NBA team during training camp but not play in any preseason games.
Redshirt players could not be called up during the NBA season but could practice with their NBA teams once the G League season concluded.
Redshirts would be eligible to sign an NBA rookie contract on July 1 of the year after entering the draft.
The rookie or minimum scale would begin the year a player signed a contract and not the year when a player was drafted.
The NBA advisory committee that is used for college underclassmen testing the waters could also be used for a high school senior weighing the option of declaring for the draft.
With a heavy focus now on off-court life skills, each NBA team employing player development staffs and a foundation in place like the G League, there is a support system for high school players entering the NBA.
Ten under-the-radar G League rookies to track
By Mike Schmitz
I'm sticking to affiliate players, not two-way guys. They're in a completely different boat. I'd actually rather be a free agent, not locked into a certain team.
Take London Perrantes for example. He's a stud backup/third point guard, but he can only get called up by Cleveland Cavaliers. Will they make room for him?
There are 11 roster spots open in the NBA, excluding two-way contracts. Here's a list of 10 under-the-radar type of guys who could get some looks as the year goes on.
Antonius Cleveland | SG/SF | Santa Cruz Warriors
The late-blooming Cleveland is one of the more intriguing long-term prospects in the entire G League. We profiled the former Southeastern Missouri State wing last year and have tracked his progress closely since. At 6-foot-6 with a 6-11 wingspan, long strides and fluid athleticism, Cleveland is a tremendous defender and straight-line slasher who is still developing as a shooter. Steve Kerr liked what he saw in training camp enough to keep the 23-year-old nearby in Santa Cruz. Even if it's not with Golden State, he figures to work his way onto an NBA roster in time.
Amida Brimah | C | Austin Spurs
The 23-year-old Ghana-born center never blossomed at UConn like scouts had hoped, but at 6-11 with a 7-6½ wingspan and impressive defensive range, Brimah has a role at the NBA level. Although his hands, rebounding, and overall feel for the game are still a work in progress, his ability to lob, catch and protect the rim isn't lost among NBA scouts. Brimah is an NBA-caliber shot-blocker and is likely to look more comfortable in an open, free-flowing game.
L.J. Peak | SG/SF | Maine Red Claws
The 21-year-old Georgetown product brings length (6-9½), physicality, defensive potential and a versatile offensive skill set as a 6-5, big bodied wing. He needs to prove he can shoot the ball consistently to stick long-term, but he has the tools to really defend, he can play with the ball as a facilitator, and he plays an efficient game overall. If Peak shoots the ball well enough in Maine he could garner some NBA interest.
James Blackmon | PG/SG | Delaware 87ers
At 6-3 with a 6-9 wingspan, Blackmon is a high-level shooter who can get it going in a variety of ways. He averaged 22.2 points per 40 minutes in 76 games in the Big Ten while shooting 41.5 percent from 3 on 494 attempts. He needs to prove he can defend his position and stay healthy, but shooting and length are king in today's NBA, and Blackmon has both.
Jeremy Senglin | PG/SG | Long Island Nets
Guards who can shoot off of movement tend to surface, and Senglin was a big-time shot-maker who finished third in the NCAA in total 3s made last season at an impressive 42.9 percent. With a strong frame and a 6-5 wingspan, the Weber State combo guard has the tools to defend his position as he continues to make strides as a pure point guard. Expect some big scoring games from Senglin this season, who may be able to develop into a Bryn Forbes type in time.
Marc Loving | PF/SF | Delaware 87ers
Loving had an up and down collegiate career at Ohio State, but at 6-9 with a 7-3 wingspan and an 8-11 standing reach, he has more than enough size and length to operate as a stretch 4 at the pro level. A lifetime 37.0 percent 3-point shooter on 551 attempts, Loving spaces the floor and has the tools to defend his position. If he can find a way to play harder for longer he has a chance to surprise in the G League and get some NBA looks.
Milton Doyle | PG/SG | Long Island Nets
The 6-4 combo guard had an excellent Las Vegas Summer League with the Nets after an impressive four-year career at Loyola, and is certainly someone to monitor this season. He's long, energetic, quick and shifty with the ball as a slasher and off-the-dribble shooter. Averaging 5.2 assists per 40 minutes in college, Doyle may be able to develop into more of a lead guard, which would make him an attractive option for NBA teams down the road.
Rashawn Thomas | PF/C | Oklahoma City Blue
Thomas is an explosive, strong-framed athlete at 6-7 3/4 and 233 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan. The former Southland Conference Defensive Player of the Year can switch ball screens, fly around off the ball and add value as an offensive rebounder. He's not overly skilled, but the Oklahoma City native is worth keeping an eye on given his strength, length, explosiveness and flashes of defensive energy.
Ben Moore | PF/C | Fort Wayne Mad Ants
Moore is a bit of an unconventional player as he doesn't space the floor, have great length or a big body, but he's a tremendous passer, can switch on the perimeter and plays with constant energy. With the league trending smaller, there may be a place for a guy like Moore, who can play out of short rolls, guard the perimeter and bring energy off the bench.
T.J. Williams | PG | Greensboro Swarm
Williams is a physical, 6-3, 211-pound guard coming off a strong senior season at Northeastern as the Colonial Player of the Year. The 23-year-old Texas native has strong scoring instincts as a drive-first guard and has made strides as a perimeter shooter. He has the tools to defend (6-8 wingspan) and can make basic reads when on the ball, although he's not the most natural point guard. If Williams shoots the ball well and buys in as a defender he could help an NBA team down the road as a change-of-pace guard.
PF Amile Jefferson (Iowa Wolves)
SG Jeremy Morgan (Memphis Hustle)
PG George De Paula (Rio Grande Valley Vipers)
SF Andrew White (Maine Red Claws)
ESPN's Law Murray contributed to this report.