Players' development arrested: The NBDL, reconsidered

Before it was gobbled up by Internet gremlins, a quick post on Thursday was all set to discuss PhDribble's very sharp commentary on how NBA teams develop (or more often, don't) their young players.

Since it's a really interesting read that's deservedly blown up--with pundits Abbott and Ziller since weighing in--there's no need to re-rite our lost words (General conclusion by all: It's every man for himself out there.)

Instead, we'll lay out a proposal for a better future, where teams *do* cultivate their young: Use the NBDL as the NBA's minor-leagues.

Yes--it's brilliant and revolutionary, right? Wasn't that the NBDL's point, in the first place?

Well, not really.


When the developmental league was announced in March of 2000, the NBA was reacting to a PR disaster. In a few short months, Leon Smith--a 1999 first-round draft pick out of high school--had attempted suicide and clashed with police, before washing out of the league for good. Clearly, Smith was troubled before being drafted, but the NBA spotlight did him no favors. At the same time, Smith represented the first real crisis for a preps-to-pros phenomenon that had benefited the NBA, producing stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett.

While, pre-Smith, the NBA was considering an overseas minor league--all part of David Stern's world domination strategy--having a state-side alternative eased teams' ability to stash young players under official league supervision. The NBDL wasn't without controversy, of course; to avoid complaints that such a league would spur "competition" with colleges for basketball players, the NBA worked hard to distinguish the NBDL as a league for older players. One oxymoronic Washington Post headline read "Developmental League Targets Experienced Players"; according to the article, the NBDL sought veterans who were the last cuts of an NBA training camp, rather than college-age athletes--a hiring pattern that continues today.

Entering its seventh year, the NBDL has generally achieved its early goals. It's doubled in size, from eight teams its first year to 16 today, but isn't attractive enough to tempt marginal college basketball players to turn pro early. It's provided experience not only for players, but rising coaches, officials, and trainers too. And it's allowed the NBA to extend its brand into new corners of America, although attendance is generally lackluster.

But despite the "D" in its name, the NBDL isn't well-suited for player development, largely because its teams aren't really connected to NBA franchises. In baseball, for example, a minor league team is directly integrated with the big-league club, enabling a franchise to ensure organization-wide strategies and consistent instruction. In comparison, most NBDL teams are "affiliated" with two or three NBA teams, which can mean an NBDL coach often teaches a completely different offense or defense than a partner NBA organization uses. Moreover, NBA teams can only assign two of their first- or second-year players to a NBDL roster. Instead, the NBDL itself signs and controls most of the players, meaning any NBA team can "call up" the first NBDL veteran they choose.

As a result, the league has a mercenary core--most players aren't working to be promoted by their parent organization, but instead audition for the entire NBA, all the time. The every-man-for-himself routine can make for an unstable roster; despite a shorter, 50-game season, most NBDL teams last year used 20 or more players, as guys would leave mid-season to find other opportunities. And because it's hard to truly teach in quicksand, the players who most benefit from the NBDL are those who come with ready-made games, simply waiting for an NBA spot to open up.

For example, the two players called up this season--the 30-year-old Jelani McCoy and 29-year-old Eddie Gill--already have a combined 12 seasons in the NBA. Other than getting exposure and staying in game shape, it's doubtful that either "developed" new skills in their brief NBDL seasons.


Of course, the NBDL has success stories--and one of the best is ex-Fort Worth Flyer and current Golden State Warrior Kelenna "Buike" Azubuike.

Coming out of Kentucky in 2005, Buike was viewed as an intriguing-if-flawed prospect; ESPN's draft experts had flagged him as an "inconsistent shooter," which the website Draft Express further explains:
If [Kelenna] is to someday make the NBA, he'll have to become a much better shooter from outside. Kentucky was sorely lacking a player who could hit the open 3 to compliment Rajon Rondo's ability to drive and dish, and Kelenna was not able to do that in many games for Kentucky this year, failing to hit more than one three pointer in 20 of Kentucky's 34 games. This is hardly the type of shooting ability you would expect from an NCAA junior who is confident enough in his offensive skills to forfeit his final year of NCAA eligibility.
An inconsistent shot didn't stop Buike from being a willing shooter, however. In his Kentucky career, he averaged one three-point attempt every 8.5 minutes played (for comparison's sake, Michael Redd is averaging one three-pointer every 8.8 minutes played, Tracy McGrady every 8.1 minutes.)

Buike went undrafted and ended up with the NBDL's Flyers, where he started about half of the team's games and played pretty well (12.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.5 apg in 25.6 mpg); the next fall, Buike returned to the Flyers after being the Cleveland Cavaliers' final cut. But something had changed in his game between those first and second years. Since we're bloggers who can't actually interview the guy, we'll have to read between the lines of a few cryptic newspaper quotes.
Our guess: He was working on his shot!

Now a sharper shooter, Buike became much more aggressive, too. While Buike took one three-pointer per 13.3 minutes his first year in the NBDL, he upped that to one attempt per 7.6 minutes (For a sense of comparison, Michael Redd shoots a three every 8.8 minutes, Tracy McGrady every 8.0.). The Warriors called Buike up in January and he continued his aggressive and fairly accurate shooting the rest of the year, winning a spot with the team and getting even more PT this year; here's a chart demonstrating the evolution of his three-point shooting, accurate through Friday.

It's one thing for a professional player who didn't shoot much in college to improve his shot over a number of years. In two seasons at UConn, the Wizards' Caron Butler took one three every 18 minutes, making 36.3%; prior to this season's dramatic improvement, Butler only shot once every 27.5 minutes and hit 30.3% in the pros.

But for swingmen who were aggressive shooters in college, like Buike, and feasted on shorter three-point lines (19'9"), slower defenders, and the greater use of zone, it's rare to see significant improvement in the pros--losing these advantages, the greatest all-time shooters instead shot slightly worse after leaving school. Since the NBA and NBDL share 23'9" three-point lines (a fact kindly confirmed by True Hoop's Abbott), let's combine Buike's Fort Worth-Golden State stats to get a better picture of how his three-point shooting really has dramatically improved, despite the greater challenges and 'pro' distance.


It's tough to know how much the NBDL helped Buike--playing with the same team, two years in a row--versus how much he helped himself, on his own. But his shooting improvement came somewhere and, at minimum, the NBDL let him play against near-NBA competition and with NBA rules.

Several other players have demonstrably improved while playing in the NBDL. Undrafted out of Notre Dame, Matt Carroll in 2003-2004 sandwiched two unspectacular stints in the NBA (with a PER of 6.2, in very limited minutes) around 11 games with the NBDL's Roanoke Dazzle, where he played capably, but not exceptionally. However, Carroll returned to the Dazzle the next year and had an awesome campaign, picking up the league's MVP award; by the time the Bobcats signed him in 2005, Carroll clearly had taken a step forward and was ready to be a rotation player.

But unlike baseball's system, where the better minor leaguers can enjoy reasonable careers after making it to the majors, many NBDL-to-NBA players simply wash out. Of the 13 NBDL players who were called up during the 2005-2006 season, only two (Chuck Hayes and Ime Udoka) are still in the NBA. And shouldn't the ability to cultivate and retain talent be the ultimate test of a "developmental" league?

So--many paragraphs later--here's the proposal.

The NBA drops all pretense, stops inching forward, and within two years turns the NBDL into a true minor league: One team per NBA franchise, to be coached and staffed however the major league club desires. Simultaneously, the league expands both the NBA draft and NBA rosters; while only 12 players could be active for any given game, keeping with current rules, a taxi squad of five-to-six players would either stay with the team to be activated on any given night or play with the NBDL team.

Such a system would require waivers, so teams couldn't shuttle players back and forth from the NBDL forever. The limit on players' experience levels also would be relaxed as well, so veterans could use the NBDL to work themselves back into shape after injury or still-young third- and fourth-year players could add new touches to their games.

In many ways, a true minor league would only improve the quality of NBA play. Teams could better draft and cultivate for need; the Magic could use their minor league squad to identify the best shooters to fit around Dwight Howard, or an aging team like the Celtics could take flyers on a handful of athletic-but-unskilled players, who they could teach up to replace a Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett in several years. Moreover, the change would diminish the current reliance on European teams to act, unpredictably, as a de facto minor league system. Rather than drafting foreign players to stash overseas--and going through complex negotiations to finally sign them--the NBDL could be a true alternative for international players who might not be ready for the NBA, but want to test the American experience.

But the niftiest feature of such a minor league is a pleasure that many baseball fans, growing up far from a major league franchise, already know: Watching present and future stars play in your town, even for a cup of coffee. Like a Roger Clemens drawing record crowds in Trenton, fans might be able to watch LeBron return from injury in Rio Grande or Gilbert warm up in North Dakota. The Portland Trailblazers' current NBDL affiliate is the Idaho Stampede; if Greg Oden played his first game in Boise, wouldn't the entire state light up like his smile?

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 23:39,


At December 10, 2007 at 9:54 AM, Anonymous steve p said...

but what about devin brown or miki moore? THEY came out of the NBDL, and got big contracts in the NBA.

At December 10, 2007 at 11:01 AM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

Mikki Moore already had bounced around the NBA for a few years before playing his first NBDL game; based on PER and his own NBDL performance, it doesn't appear that the league helped him improve any skill tangibly. Devin Brown's a tougher case, because he played in the NBDL (and won MVP) before picking up with the Spurs, so it's possible the league was a good stepping stone for him.

The post wasn't to argue that the NBDL doesn't produce the occasional player or offer development opportunities. Both PhDribble and Bethlehem Shoals point out the seeming success of the Amir Johnson experiment. But the league isn't yet set up to make that routine...although, it could be.

At December 10, 2007 at 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't blame the NBDL for players not going to college or leaving early; if they played more college basketball, they'd be more prepared to play in the NBA.

At December 10, 2007 at 12:26 PM, Blogger Jarrett Carter said...

Jordan Farmar is very impressed by this post.

At December 10, 2007 at 12:43 PM, Anonymous CavsFan said...

I found your blog from deadspin and like it, but I would like it more if you wrote shorter articles, so the boss wouldn't catch me reading the same article 20 minutes later.

At December 10, 2007 at 2:42 PM, Anonymous phdribble said...

Wicked history of the NBDL. Thanks for the knowledge. I hope your vision comes to fruition. And I wonder if this has been Stern's long-range strategy. We'll see, it may be that we're in a transition time. Any attempts at an NBA minor league were stunted as long as the 4-year college system was functioning. Hopefully, it will take just a few years for the NBDL to develop and fill that gap. Fingers crossed. But no matter how much evidence I see, I refuse to believe that there was ever an NBDL team named the Roanoke Dazzle.

At December 10, 2007 at 5:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been saying exactly this since the NBDL was started.

What's also inane is that the NBDL coaches are not affiliated with NBA teams and are thus ALSO auditioning for the NBA. This means they will leave a younger player on the bench while using a 30-year old vet in order to win games. Which is absurd.

Think about what the Celtics could have done last year. Imagine there was a team in Hartford or Providence - and, for sure, it is important to locate the minor league team within the NBA team's fan zone - that was starring Gerald Green and Leon Powe. You're not going to get huge crowds, but you're going to get something. And no florescent uniform schemes!

Of course, basketball is different from baseball. Among other ways, you're much less likely to see rehab assignments in an NBA minor league. If Paul Pierce isn't 100%, he may only play 20-30 minutes, but it will be with Boston. Whereas you don't want a starting pitcher trying out his stuff on the major league level without testing it out first -- very different consequences.

But overall, good article. This needs to happen, or the NBDL will never reach its potential.

The NBDL could have saved Korleone Young, Lenny Cooke, Omar Cook, and others. (Who knows...) Hopefully it will save those type of players in the future.

At December 10, 2007 at 7:14 PM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

In order...

Anon #1, it's true that more college basketball would likely help the rawest players, but plenty of young, degree-toting guys idle on the bench anyway--a revamped NBDL would help those folks who are still putting their games together. Also, not all players need college basketball equally--some guys are ready for the NBA at 18 (LeBron), others at 25 (Bowen). If anything, players who go pro early should have an advantage...they don't need to worry about the distractions of class any longer, just their craft.

Jarrett, chances are good that Jordan Farmar's NBDL career--start to finish--was shorter than this post.

CavsFan, suggestion noted, and reply truncated, but no promises for the posts.

PhDribble (with a hat-tip for starting the ball rolling), it wouldn't be surprising AT ALL if Stern was inching the NBDL toward a full-fledged minor league system--he's already suggested plans to have one team per franchise. However, why waste any more time? It's been seven+ years at this point. Also, barring significant structural changes, the NBA would still keep control of an expanded NBDL (for its own purposes, as Anon #2 notes), rather than let the individual franchises run the show. Which means folks are working at cross-purposes.

Anon #2, thanks for the many good thoughts--unless you're Russ Granik, riting on deep cover, you should be proud to stand behind such well-ritten words! But why so convinced that players wouldn't do injury rehab on an NBDL team, though? Might be as much mental as conditioning; a recovering Gilbert might prefer to test his knee against a less high-profile set of opponents than, say, the Pistons or Jazz.

At December 11, 2007 at 11:27 AM, Blogger Doctor Dribbles said...

Somewhat off-topic, but I was always perplexed by the title of ESPN's D-League reality show. Did they not check urban dictionary before calling it the Down Low?

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