AUBURN HILLS – College players weighing the decision to come to the NBA don’t dream about playing in the D-League. But they’re universally aware that most of them are likelier to get a carafe than a cup of coffee in the NBA’s minor league in today’s environment.
The stigma might not have completely evaporated, but it’s no longer an oppressive cloud that dissuades many from taking the plunge and waving goodbye to their college campuses.
“I’m just willing to work – that’s the one thing I’ve always prided myself on. Just willing to work and get better,” Louisville sophomore Donovan Mitchell said. “A lot of guys look at it as a demotion. It’s not. It’s just a chance for you to get more reps, minutes you aren’t going to get (in the NBA). You’re a role player. It’s your first year in the league. You’re young. You’ve got to learn. I’d be definitely willing to go to the D-League and work on my game if I have to.”
It’s fair to guess that most of the 67 prospects that congregated in Chicago earlier this month at the combine were coached by agents to respond positively to questions from NBA teams – and even media – about the likelihood of playing in the D-League. But there will be varying degrees of sincerity in their answers and NBA teams will be looking for tells.
Mitchell would have passed the test with flying colors. The answer Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo provided, while drawing high marks for honesty, might require a little more interpretative analysis.
“(Teams) talked about it, but it wasn’t like straightforward towards me,” he said. “It was more like a question, if we have to put you in the D-League. So hopefully I never have to go to the D-League and I live my life in the NBA.”
Players the caliber of Mitchell and Adebayo and pretty much all college players intermingle enough with NBA players during summer camps or elite pickup games that they’re aware of what the NBA lifestyle entails. It’s five-star hotels, enough expense money to hit the best steakhouses, charter flights and teams of trainers, massage therapists and coaches to accelerate every aspect of player development.
But the D-League is still commercial flights with connections – bus rides on occasion – and a class of hotels several cuts below the Four Seasons. To be sure, the high-level college programs like Mitchell’s Louisville and Adebayo’s Kentucky offer amenities closer to NBA teams than they’ll find in their D-League experience.
But first-round picks, at least, come to the NBA believing their D-League time will come in short bursts.
“It always crosses your mind,” Wake Forest sophomore John Collins said. “It’s a process you have to go through. Teams aren’t sending you down there because they think you’re terrible. They’re sending you down there because they want you to get reps. They want you to get better. For me, this was my time to come out. If a team does want to send me to the D-League, I’d be more than willing to go and get better. It’s not that big of a factor for me.”
Pistons general manager Jeff Bower said the Pistons didn’t use the combine setting as a forum to test potential draft choice’s openness to D-League assignments.
“All of these players here right now, their focus is on being in the NBA,” he said. “The D-League conversation really will come at a different time and a better place.”
But three other big men leaving college after their freshman season – Jarrett Allen, Zach Collins and Ike Anigbogu – all said the D-League talk came up frequently during interview sessions with NBA teams. Zach Collins, in fact, was eager to talk about it on the expectation that it would be something he could use to accelerate his development.
“They’re definitely asking me about the D-League,” the 7-footer from Gonzaga said. “I asked them questions, too. For me, going to the D-League, it’s not like I’m not going to stop playing basketball or stop having fun. I’m going to try to get better. I asked them how seriously they take the D-League. Do they like developing guys? Do they care about the guys down at the D-League? They were all really great about it and all acknowledged the fact it’s become more and more common. I think all organizations are getting more involved with their D-League teams.”
That’s undeniable. There will be 25 teams in the D-League next season – which will be rebranded as the G League under a partnership with Gatorade – as more NBA teams either own their own franchise or have control of player personnel, as the Pistons do with the Grand Rapids Drive. It wasn’t so long ago the Pistons had a working agreement with the D-League’s Fort Wayne franchise along with two or three other NBA teams, depending on the season. There was no guarantee they could send their young players to Fort Wayne for playing time if the Bucks, Pacers or Hornets were also dispatching their players.
Allen, who spent his freshman season at Texas, told NBA teams that he looked at the D-League as a way to improve the elements of his game he knows need polish.
“They ask if I’m willing to (play in the D-League),” he said. “People could see it two ways. They could see the D-League as, ‘Oh, this was a demotion.’ Or, ‘This is time for me to develop.’ I expressed to the teams that this is a time to develop.”
UCLA’s Anigbogu said much the same.
“Teams have been asking me that a lot,” he said. “I’m for any challenge they’re going to throw at me, anything that’s going to help my development. I’m completely trusting the staff to make that decision for me.”
Zach Collins, Anigbogu and North Carolina’s Tony Bradley not only all spent just a freshman season in college, all came off the bench for powerful teams. Bradley knows that he, too, isn’t likely ready to step into an NBA rotation as a 19-year-old.
“If that situation comes up for me to play in the D-League, I feel like it’s a wonderful place to develop your game and improve to get ready for the NBA,” he said. “If that happened, I wouldn’t be mad. I would enjoy that. I would accept that.”