Is the D-League a viable alternative?
OTL: A New Route To The NBA
If you've spent any time reading, thinking, writing or tweeting about college basketball in the past five years, you've heard some version of the following argument approximately two trillion times:
"The one-and-done rule is unfair! Talented players should be able to start earning a living immediately. Let the free market decide whether they're ready or not! It worked fine for LeBron James and Dwight Howard! Loud noises!"
"They're getting expensive college educations for free, so simmer down. Plus, high school players don't have to go to college. Brandon Jennings went overseas, and look at him now. And hey, there's always the D-League."
"The D-League? Are you serious?"
That last question always sounds sarcastic. It shouldn't be.
Since 2006, the NBA has forced draft hopefuls to wait a year after their high school graduation before they can become eligible for the draft. In that time, we've seen freshmen dominate college hoops unlike at any other time in the sport's history. We've seen players sign contracts in foreign leagues. We've seen stars emerge and NBA hopes dwindle.
What haven't we seen? The rise of the NBA Development League.
Given the presumptive professional advantages presented by a league with "NBA" and "Development" in its title, it's worth asking: Why not?
"Our system is built to produce NBA players wherever they come from," D-League president Dan Reed said. "Whether a player is a college graduate, whether a player is an NBA veteran or whether a player coming out of high school and for whatever reason doesn't want to go to college, we feel like we're a good alternative."
For a player whose sole focus is making the NBA, the D-League would seem to offer a leg up. It is heavily scouted by its very nature. It features NBA-style systems, NBA coaching, NBA rules and what Reed called "deep integration" with NBA franchises.
Where college coaches can sublimate a player's individual ability for the sake of a conference title, the D-League's sole purpose is to develop players for the NBA. It has done that increasingly well in recent years: There are 104 players in the NBA who have spent a portion of their careers in the D-League, and in 2010-11, 20 different players received call-ups to NBA franchises.
What's more, being in the Development League precludes the pesky restrictions that come with being a college athlete, such as the inability to sign endorsements or receive loans, among myriad others.
With all those arrows in its quiver, it's not unfair to say the D-League should have emerged as a viable third way -- alongside a year in college and a year overseas -- for talented prospects bridging the gap to the NBA.
But top hoops prospects apparently disagree. In the five years since the one-and-done rule was passed, only one player, former Memphis recruit Latavious Williams, has made the bold choice to take his high school talents to the D-League.
Saddled by woeful grades, the prospect of sitting out a year at Memphis and his parents' desire to avoid a far-flung sojourn in foreign lands, Williams instead signed a contract with the Tulsa 66ers in 2009. In doing so, he earned plaudits as a groundbreaker from ESPN's "Outside the Lines," Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, and he became a one-man basketball experiment: Could the D-League acquire, develop and quickly prepare first-time prospects for the NBA?
Williams started slowly in 2009-10, but he showed flashes of potential in his rookie season and was drafted in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft. His rights were traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 66ers' affiliate, and Williams just finished his second season in the D-League without a call-up to the NBA.
In other words, the jury is still out. Perhaps more telling is Williams' status as the only player to make such a leap before or after he broke new ground. (ESPN.com attempted to reach out to Williams multiple times, but he was unavailable for comment.)
The answers for that dearth are complicated, but no explanation is complete without a mention of cold, hard cash. The D-League doesn't pay its players anywhere near the offers available in foreign leagues; an average NBA Development League contract ranges from $13,000 to $25,000. (That's less than journalism graduates make, which is saying something.)
In comparison, Jennings' one-year contract with Italian club Lottomatica Roma netted him $1.65 million in addition to his $2 million endorsement contract with apparel company Under Armour. The D-League covers most of its players' expenses, including housing, travel, medical care and a daily per diem, but it's not hard to see why prospects could be lured by more attractive offers overseas.
There are also worries about exposure. Collegians at high-major programs have five months of televised games, not to mention the NCAA tournament, to build their brands among fans and media members. D-League players are lucky to get a game on NBA TV. Collegians play in front of packed houses filled with boisterous fans. D-League gyms are often quiet and empty.
And if a player is willing to adopt all that, there's still no consensus on whether the D-League -- which has a reputation among league personnel as a rightfully harsh, even cutthroat, competitive environment -- is the best place to develop a young talent in the first place.
"The D-League is a fascinating place," said Mark Bartelstein, the CEO and founder of Priority Sports and Entertainment who represents NBA stars Danny Granger and David Lee, among others. "There's no one that's there that wants to be there. Everyone that's there is trying to get called up. The referees are trying to get called up. The coaches are trying to get called up. The players are trying to get called up. The scorekeepers are trying to get called up. Everybody's trying to get to the NBA. It's a very interesting environment.
"It's a real minor league system, there's no question. They've done a tremendous, tremendous job building up the D-League. But it's a very cold system. I'm not sure that's where a young man should be growing up."
Reed is quick to point out the D-League's educational efforts, which include everything from college-degree completion to off-the-court seminars on personal growth and entrepreneurship. And he sees a flip side to the argument that the league could be harsh on developing youngsters.
"Some would argue that's an outstanding environment for a player to develop in," Reed said. "We do try to accelerate our players' development because of the talent level and NBA integration that we have. We think that's a strength. That might not be for everybody, but that's a decision people have to make individually."
Still, sheltered structure and an emphasis on education -- however substantive that education really is -- remain unique and lasting features of the college hoops environment. That goes double for the typical, if not universal, camaraderie among college coaches and players and working toward the shared competitive goal of a national championship.
For all the cynicism that infects the college hoops discussion, these things still seem to matter, even to future NBA stars. The recent decisions of Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones -- all locks to be selected in the 2011 NBA draft lottery who elected to stay in school for another year -- only seem to reinforce that point.
"The D-League is great in a lot of ways," said Dave Babcock, director of player personnel for the Milwaukee Bucks. "Players do get better there. And it's probably a little easier to adjust to than the overseas option, where the culture and language barriers can be difficult.
"But given the choice, I just think it's better for a kid to go to college for a year, if not longer, because of all that experience entails."
In the end, like the other options, the D-League comes with its share of features and bugs. It doesn't offer the salaries available overseas, but players get a direct line to the NBA and don't have to adjust to life on another continent. It can't replicate the look or feel of college hoops -- nor can it offer the inherent, carefree fun of a college campus -- but it does free players from the financial limitations of amateurism.
Is the D-League set to revolutionize the way players are discovered, scouted and developed? Probably not. Still, even if players have yet to adopt it as such, it does deserve a place in the ever-changing conversation.
It may take a highly touted recruit, one with the ability to compel hoops fans' attention with the sheer power of his talent, before other players are willing to take the Latavious Williams leap. And if the NBA changes the age limit during the looming lockout negotiations this summer, well, who knows?
In the meantime, prospects seem likely to keep up the cycle of brief stopovers on college campuses. If the D-League is set to reroute players' pathways to the NBA, we haven't seen it yet.
Is the system unfair? Maybe. Does the one-and-done rule need to change? Sure.
The good news? As any wistful graduate knows, there are far worse fates than college.
"In college, you spend all your time trying to get out and look for a job," Bartelstein said. "Then, when you get out of college, you spend all your time trying to recreate college. When you're young, it's hard to know how valuable that part of your life can be. But hopefully these kids have people around them to help them realize just how valuable it is."
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).
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