Translating Potential into Production; The D-League is Working

Translating Potential into Production; The D-League is Working
Jan 21, 2007, 10:56 pm
Jonathan Givony explores the development aspect of the NBA's Developmental League following the D-League Showcase in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Included is an in-depth look at six players who are clearly taking advantage of their playing time and showing substantial progress in their all-around skill-set since graduating from college.

D-League Showcase Recap, Day One.

D-League Showcase Recap, Day Two.

D-League Showcase Recap, Day Three, part one.

D-League Showcase Recap, Day Three, part two.

It was negative 10 degrees as we left the gym and headed towards our hotel, but everyone had a big smile on their face regardless. The D-League showcase was not disappointing even the least bit, with a compilation of some excellent talent that surprisingly played like cohesive units for the most part and fought to win every game.

This was a topic that came up on a number of occasions over the course of the week – just how relevant is the D-League going into its 6th season? It’s expanded to 12 teams and up to 144 roster spots at this point, and surprisingly enough, the talent this year is running as deep as ever. Even if many players here might be caught in a “numbers game” according to Director of Basketball Operations Chris Alpert, when referring to the limited amount of roster spots available this year, that doesn’t take away from the fact that there are quite a few very good basketball players who will make NBA teams in the future or earn lucrative contracts overseas as a result of their play here.

What this writer personally enjoyed most was seeing the actual “development” part of the league in action here. Having followed most of these players throughout their college careers and then through the pre-draft camps and summer leagues over the past few years, it’s not hard to tell who is improving, who is regressing, and who just isn’t making much progress at all. It’s nice to see that players truly are getting better here through playing solid minutes in a competitive environment and working hard off the court as well. And to us, that’s really what this league is all about.

There are no shortage of examples to teach us that players don’t stop getting better once they graduate from college, and that in the right environment with a good coaching staff, they’ll be able to eventually expand their games and do things we never thought they would after having seen them play in the NCAA. The fact that more NBA teams are showing a willingness to send their draft picks down for seasoning certainly does not hurt the level of competition either.

Although the goal of most, if not all, players here is to eventually play in the NBA, many here should or will realize that making a solid career overseas if that does not work out is nothing to sneer at either. Having worked closely with many GMs and coaches of overseas teams over the past year plus and understanding their mindset of how they pick their import players, it’s quite obvious that a large chunk of the players in the D-League have gone from unproven, unsignable rookies to legit candidates with something substantial to show on their resume. For example, the D-League’s leading scorer last year, Will Bynum, parlayed his performance last year into grossing over a million dollars by signing with Euroleague powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. It wasn’t hard to notice the faces and accents of numerous GMs from top teams in Russia, Italy and Spain here amongst others—some from the Euroleague, some not--and from speaking and getting to know them, finding that their interest level in specific D-League prospects is quite real. For players coming out of college with 12-14 point per game averages (or less) on teams that did not make the Final Four and without First team all-conference honors on their resumes, finding a good job in Europe to start off their career can be difficult, at least one that is stable and actually pays. International teams are always going to prefer players with a few years of professional experience underneath their belt, so this is where the D-League can come in quite handy in terms of being a resume builder. No more than a handful of players at most here will end up getting a callup to the NBA this season, but for the rest, this one year of riding buses and making 12, 18, or 24 thousand dollars doesn’t have to be a waste of time.

Here are a few examples of players we followed in college that seem to be making some very nice strides with their skill sets thanks to the time they’ve spent in the D-League thus far.

Jeremy Richardson, 6-7, SG/SF, Fort Worth Flyers, 1984

“A body like Rawle Marshall, and a game like Rip Hamilton” says D-League Senior Coordinator of Basketball Operations Brandon Barnett. “The wing player with the most upside in our league” says Director of Basketball Operations Chris Alpert. You think they like him in the D-League? After watching him play twice and sitting down with him between games, it’s not hard to tell why.

Jeremy Richardson started his college career at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. From there, he went to Division II powerhouse Delta State, where he was only named to the all-region second team by Daktronics. He got a little bit of exposure for himself by working out with John Lucas—who was extremely high on him it must be said—and earned himself NBA workouts with his local Houston Rockets, as well as the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks, mostly off Lucas’ recommendations. We had him pegged as a player who should be invited to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament after watching tape on him against Florida State and from his conference tournament, but that wasn’t enough to get him an invite to the PIT or the pre-draft camp.

Without the assistance of an agent-- his father still handled his business for him as late as last week—he found his way onto a D-League team after being shrewdly selected in the 2nd round by Fort Worth. Since then, he’s averaging 18.5 points on 47% shooting from the field and 40% from the 3-point line. He was one of the hottest names amongst NBA scouts during the D-League Showcase in Sioux Falls, and it really wouldn’t shock anyone if he were to be called up this season once non-NBA playoff teams start bringing up players with upside that they want to take a look at.

Upside would be a good place to start his scouting report. Standing 6-7 with an extremely long wingspan, Richardson has great size for the swingman position. He is a very good athlete who can get to where he needs on the court thanks to his quickness, and he elevates off the floor smoothly for mid-range jumpers with nice separation. Richardson has a quick release on his shot, and he made a great living for himself in Sioux Falls by coming off screens and curls endlessly knocking down shots. He didn’t force a thing in either of his two games, which helped him hide his biggest weakness at the moment—his ball-handling skills. Richardson is much improved in this area compared with what we saw in college, but he still has a ways to go. He prefers to pull-up from mid-range rather than taking the ball all the way to the hoop, and therefore is averaging less than 3 free throws a game in the D-League so far. His frame is also on the lanky side, which doesn’t help him much in this area. Defensively, though, he does a good job due to his length and work ethic.

As noted, he should be considered a prime candidate for a call-up this season, and will surely be an interesting player to follow over the summer.

Dontell Jefferson, 6-4, Point Guard, Dakota Wizards, 1983

A player who averaged only 3 points per game as a senior at Arkansas, starting at the point guard spot next to Ronnie Brewer, Jefferson seems to have plenty of upside that he’s still yet to fully tap into. After averaging only 18 minutes per game in his first 10 contests in the D-League, he’s now fully embraced the starting point guard role for the Dakota Wizards, one of the best teams in the D-League, and is averaging 29 minutes per game in his last 10. Over that stretch, he’s dishing out 7 assists and scoring 14 points per game, and his team is 8-2.

Jefferson has outstanding physical attributes to play the point guard position. He has great size at 6-5, a nice wingspan and very good athletic ability, particularly his quickness and leaping ability. Jefferson uses these physical attributes to his advantage on the defensive end especially, showing terrific lateral quickness and the ability to get in the passing lanes.

As a point guard, Jefferson has solid ball-handling skills and the ability to make the kind of passes you’d expect from a pass-first playmaker. At the showcase he showed very nice court vision, using bounce passes, post-entry lobs, and the drive and dish to get all his teammates involved, and looked especially promising running the pick and roll. He was a bit out of control at times, needing to learn how to change speeds, pick his spots and control tempo better, but you can certainly tell that the upside is there. He’s not ready to make any kind of impact in the NBA any time soon, but he’s a guy that teams need to keep track of to see how he develops over the next few years. Improving his scoring tools is a must, including expanding the range on his shot.

Pooh Jeter, 5-11, Point Guard, Colorado 14ers, 1983

Not even given a sniff from the NBA as far as an invite to Portsmouth or the NBA pre-draft camp goes, Pooh Jeter has gone from an off the radar 5-11 combo guard at Portland to possibly the best point guard in the D-league. Seeing the transition he’s made from 3 assists per game compared with 2.5 turnovers at a mid-major school tells us everything we need to know about how important it is for a player to be placed in the right situation to maximize his skill-set, and warns us about how dangerous it is to jump to conclusions on players like him in the future. Jeter is ranked 3rd in the league with 7.2 assists per game, and is posting a stellar 3.7 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. He’s gone from a guy who was garnering 50-60 thousand dollars offers overseas this summer to a player that will be considered one of the most coveted American free agent point guards on the Euroleague market this summer, if he indeed decides to take that route.

Jeter is a lightning quick guard with an outstanding sense for running a team and finding the open man. He controls the entire floor like a true playmaker should, but is also capable of putting the ball in the net when the situation calls for it. His ball-handling skills are exquisite and he changes gears with superb body control. Despite his ability to blow by players at will, he rarely forces the issue, always making good decisions and rarely getting out of control. What was most enjoyable to take in from Jeter’s performance was just how much fun he was having despite everything that was at stake for him. He had a permanent smile on his face the entire time and did an awesome job making everyone around him look good. In terms of his NBA future, it seems like he has a place as a backup or 3rd guard for some NBA team. He doesn’t have great size, which hurts him a bit on the defensive end, and could probably improve his shooting range (he’s only 5-16 on the year, despite shooting the ball well in college), but he has a flair and feel for the game that can’t be taught. He’ll be a very interesting player to track in summer league if he doesn’t get called up this year.

Jared Reiner, 6-11, Center, Sioux Falls Skyforce ,1982

A player that no one has really seen much of in the last three and a half years since he suffered a season-ending injury mid-way through his senior year at Iowa, Jared Reiner is certainly making up for lost time in the D-League so far. A top recruit at Iowa, Reiner spent his first year out of college with the Chicago Bulls, but only saw 131 minutes of action through the course of the entire season. The following season, Reiner was signed by the Clippers but was quickly waived before being picked up by the Phoenix Suns. He suffered a knee injury and never saw even a minute of action with them before being waived in January. He went into camp with the Spurs this summer, even getting some guaranteed money up front, but did not make the final cut and eventually decided to try the D-League route. Even in summer league this past July (this time with Seattle), he did not see all that much playing time. In short, it’s safe to say that not many people have seen enough of Reiner in a true game setting to make a true evaluation of the type of player he is.

All that changed this past week in Sioux Falls, where he averaged 20 points and 9 rebounds in two games at the Showcase. He’s been very inconsistent through the course of the season, largely due to foul trouble, but managed to string together two very impressive performances in front of more scouts and decision makers than he’ll get to see all year long.

From the little we’ve seen of Reiner over the past two summer leagues, he seems to have added some nice bulk to his frame. This has helped him athletically, as he looks pretty mobile getting up and down the floor. Thanks to his wide shoulders, he should have plenty of room to continue to add bulk to his frame. Coordination isn’t an issue for him as it often is with players his size, as he’s pretty fluid moving around in half-court sets and even showed off some ball-handling skills and a reasonably quick first step taking his man off the dribble. Where he really shined though was in his mid-range game, where he showed excellent touch from a number of different spots on the floor. His team ran a lot of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop sets through him, and Reiner took advantage by knocking down a series of very nice looking jump-shots. Moving off the ball intelligently, he also displayed good hands and a quick mind catching the ball and going up immediately for a layup. Although he doesn’t appear to be an extremely prolific rebounder, he was pretty active in this area, particularly on the offensive end. Defensively, he got outmuscled at times trying to defender stronger players, and this is an area that he’ll have to work on if he’s to stick in the NBA, especially showing on screens and using his lateral quickness to stay in front of players.

All in all, Reiner did a good job making sure that people remembered who is. NBA scouts and European General Managers we spoke to seemed encouraged by his performance, and they said they’ll surely continue to track his progress throughout the year. He could certainly make it this summer as an end-of-the-bench NBA big man at the very least, or he could really try to make it big by putting up solid numbers in a league like Italy for example, where his style of play would seem to fit perfectly. Either way, Reiner is going to have options at the end of this season, which is what the D-League is all about.

Kevinn Pinkney , 6-10, Power Forward, Bakersfield Jam, 1983

Kevinn Pinkney’s story is like that of quite a few players in the D-League. After a decent college career at a decent enough school (12.5 points, 7.7 rebounds as a senior at Nevada), he went to Europe for a decent contract, signing with Clermont in France. After not looking overly impressive in his first two months there (6.2 points, 4.4 rebounds in 14 games), he was cut and signed the next month in Poland, where again he did not set the world on fire (12.2 points, 6.1 rebounds for Turow). Pinkney came back to the States that summer and played in the summer league with the Portland Trailblazers, where he actually played well enough to earn himself a non-guaranteed invite to training camp with the Washington Wizards.

In college, Pinkney was known mostly as a big, bruising rebounding type, possessing a promising but unpolished mid-range shot, but not being athletic enough to really draw much interest from the pros after his college career. Since then, he has dropped plenty of weight and has become quite a bit more athletic, while his face-up game has become simply a thing of beauty.

Pinkney showed a sweet arsenal of step-back, fadeaway and turnaround jumpers from mid-range, converting some very difficult shots and looking like a potent weapon on pick-and-pop plays. He created his own shot nicely from the high post, putting the ball on the floor and elevating off the dribble like a classic modern-day forward would. He fell in love with his jumper a little too much at times, but he still really separated himself from almost every big man here thanks to his advanced skill level. In transition he showed good hands and nice ball-handling skills, getting to the free throw line by being extremely aggressive, looking for his own shot at all times. In the mid-post, he continued to show off his soft touch, throwing in a gorgeous turnaround hook shot (ala Tim Duncan) off the glass that really left a lasting impression. A one-handed floater here, another pretty jump-hook there…it’s safe to say that Pinkney made the most of his time here by displaying his entire offensive arsenal.

On the negative end, he probably could have done a better job hitting the glass and playing defense, but that seems to be the kind of finesse player that Pinkney has become. It’s not entirely clear that that is exactly what NBA coaches are looking for when they dig into their bench for a backup power forward, but it wouldn’t surprise at all if someone gave him some very hard looks as the season rolls on and we move into summer league. What’s for sure is that he secured himself a very nice six-figure contract in Europe whenever he decides to take that route. And it surely won’t be in Poland.

BJ Elder, 6-4, Shooting Guard, Austin Torros, 1982

A player mostly known as a spot-up shooter on a very good Georgia Tech team that made the NCAA Tournament Finals in 2004, BJ Elder has expanded his game dramatically to become one of the best scorers in the D-League at 20.4 points per game. His 3-point shot has actually become one of the weaker points of his game, shooting only 28% from that range, but he’s for the most part abandoned that part of his game in favor of developing a much more complete floor game. Only 78 of Elder’s 363 field goal attempts have come from behind the 3-point line, compared with 126 out of 268 as a senior at Georgia Tech. The European executives in attendance expressed surprise at the way Elder has improved in the D-League, as he for the most part was considered a role-player in Germany last year, scoring 13 points per game on poor shooting percentages.

Elder is now showing much more of a commitment to putting the ball on the floor, getting into the paint regularly and displaying a very nice scoring arsenal from mid-range. Elder does a lot of damage coming off a screen and mixing up a smooth pull-up game with his strength to bully his way into the lane. He hit a number of very tough shots off the dribble, as he has a knack for keeping himself balanced and using fundamentally sound footwork to get his shot off in tough situations. As you might expect from his 50% shooting percentage from the field, Elder does not force the issue and has no problem being another effective cog in his team’s offense. Playing next to a somewhat selfish combo guard in Troy Bell, and a shot-happy NBA send-down in James White, he probably doesn’t get as many looks as he should on a consistent basis. Defensively, Elder is a smart player who knows how to move his feet laterally and use his strength to disrupt his man. Despite his excellent showing in the D-League thus far, it’s a bit difficult to see Elder making an impact at the NBA level, as he possesses average size and even more average athleticism. He should be able to make a very successful career overseas.

Edit: Correction: We incorrectly identified Jared Reiner as a former walk-on at Iowa. As has been pointed out to us, Reiner was actually fairly highly regarded coming out of college. Our apologies for the error.

Recent articles

9.3 Points
2.0 Rebounds
3.0 Assists
1.4 PER
12.7 Points
5.7 Rebounds
1.0 Assists
12.7 PER
9.2 Points
3.5 Rebounds
0.5 Assists
9.9 PER
5.8 Points
1.8 Rebounds
4.9 Assists
11.3 PER
0.0 Points
0.0 Rebounds
0.0 Assists
0.0 PER
8.5 Points
1.6 Rebounds
2.7 Assists
13.6 PER
12.6 Points
7.8 Rebounds
1.2 Assists
19.7 PER
8.2 Points
7.0 Rebounds
2.5 Assists
16.3 PER
6.9 Points
1.8 Rebounds
0.7 Assists
8.9 PER
2.8 Points
1.5 Rebounds
0.3 Assists
3.6 PER

Twitter @DraftExpress

DraftExpress Shop