NBA D-league: Hard Work Beginning to Pay Off

Nothing worthwhile comes easy or quickly.download

When the NBA D-league started their journey eight years ago, they knew they were undertaking a venture that would take a while to bear fruit. Now, eight years later, the league is starting to see the fruits of its labor. Through various milestones that helped gain the attention of the NBA league and team executives.

While the D-League may never match the popularity of the NBA, it is starting to gain a foothold in the sports landscape.  For the fifth straight year, league attendance has topped the one million person plateau for the regular and post season.

As more people start to follow the D-League, they are beginning to notice the high level in the quality of the level of play.  Along with the increase in the number of eyes beginning to watch the games; CBS Sports Network has decided to throw their support behind the league and joined the NBA and You Tube to televise 400 games, highlights and short form digital content for the next season.

As advertisers start to see more networks getting behind the league, they begin to see the chance to improve the exposure of their products.  This season six teams were able to get jersey partnerships.

TEAM                                              PARTNER

Erie BayHawks                               LECOM

Fort Wayne Mad Ants                    Lutheran, Hospital

Rio Grande Valley Vipers                Lone Star National Bank

Texas Legends                              Veracruz, Mexico

Springfield Armor                           MGM Springfield

Los Angeles D-Fenders                 MGM Resorts International

 

The league’s success was not just limited to off the court.

The league’s primary mission was to provide a place for young players in the NBA to gain playing experience.  This season 62 NBA players (including 10 where first round picks in the 2013 NBA Draft) played for their NBA team’s assigned D-League squads for a record 187 times along with 36 D-League players who got 49 Gatorade Call-ups.

Former D-League players currently comprise a third of the players currently in the NBA and 149 players were on NBA rosters by the end of the season.

NBA teams are starting to see the having their own team that they can use to help develop young players.  This season fourteen of the leagues seventeen teams had exclusive deals to be an affiliate for a NBA teams.  Next season the league will have eighteen teams with the New York Knicks getting their affiliate in Westchester, New York and the Detroit Pistions getting their affiliate in Grand Rapids.

The D-League also announced the players that made up their honorable mention teams.
D-LEAGUE HONORABLE MENTION

Position                         Player                                   NBA D-League Team         

Guard                            Dee Bost                                Idaho Stampede

Guard                            Frank Gaines                         Maine Red Claws

Guard                            Cameron Jones                     Santa Cruz Warriors

Guard                            Mustafa Shakur                     Tulsa 66ers

Forward                         Patrick Christopher               Iowa Energy

Forward                         Ike Diogu                              Bakersfield Jam

Forward                         Courtney Fells                      Austin Toros

Forward                         Damion James                      Texas Legends

Forward                         Darius Johnson-Odom          Springfield Armor

Center                           Melvin Ely                              Texas Legends

Center                           Tim Ohlbrecht                        Fort Wayne Mad Ants

Center                           Willie Reed                            Reno Bighorns/Springfield Armor

So with the thirteenth season in the books, here’s to looking towards the Austin Toros getting back on track to regaining the D-League crown.

Former Toro Trades Sneakers for Oxfords

With the 2011 NBA D-League draft next month, teams have begun to invite former players to training camp. The Austin Toros invited Lance Thomas and Leo Lyons, who are both currently at Pan-Am training camp. Noticeably absent from the invite list is veteran forward Michael Joiner. Joiner, who spent the past two seasons with the Austin Toros, played overseas this summer and returned home knowing that his basketball career was coming to an end.

“At this time in my life I’m at a crossroad” said Joiner. “Ever since I came back from China I’m not playing. I didn’t have the passion or drive to want to play.”

Joiner will be turning 30 later this month and is beginning to transition in to corporate America.

“I’ve been on the hunt fixing my resume and going to job fairs.”

The Florida State alum has a few things going for him that many who are unemployed don’t have the luxury of having: a bank account stocked with money from an overseas contract and a pair of degrees – Bachelors and Masters – that are ready to be put to use. Both degrees were acquired via scholarships. Due to the partnership between the D-League and University of Phoenix online Joiner was able to receive his Master in Business Administration specialization in Human Resource Management while playing basketball.

The realization of moving on in life and past the D-League is easily summed up by Joiner, “Eventually all of us have to get a job and find another source of income.”

Though Joiner knew last season was going to be his final season with the Toros he still enjoyed the opportunity that they gave him. Often seen on the bench in the second half of the season, Joiner was still able to bond with his teammates and this off-season was able to provide them advice as to what they should do with their basketball careers.

These talks led to Lyons and Thomas returning to the Toros this season.

“That’s my wolfpack and this is a good situation for them… It’s a chance for them to show what they worked on all summer.”

Lyons, 24, and Thomas, 23 are in their basketball prime and have the opportunity to stand out and be noticed by a scout in the D-League. Though currently NBA Call-ups are non-existent due to the NBA lockout, the opportunity to receive a lucrative contract overseas is still possible.

So while the future looks bright for two of the Toros’ youngest stars, it’s not all doom and gloom for Joiner. Aside from having a respectable pro basketball career under his belt, he is thankful to the D-League for providing the opportunity to be more than just a former player. Now Joiner leaves the sport with two degrees listed on his curriculum vitae that are much more impressive than any double-double he totaled throughout his basketball career.

High stakes for young players in the D-League

Even if there is no NBA season, the D-League will play a full season.  This may be the most significant D-League season ever due to the NBA lockout. The stakes for players on the bubble, newly drafted rookies and young players already under contract are exceptionally high. They need playing time. They have systems to learn. They cannot afford to waste a year. Instead of cursing the darkness that is the NBA lockout, Spurs fans should pay attention to the lights up north in Austin as the D-League Toros prepare for the 2011-12 season because there is the real possibility that what happens in Austin this season will profoundly reverberate in San Antonio.

We could see San Antonio Spurs first round draft picks Kawhi Leonard, Cory Joseph and last year’s first round pick, James Anderson as well as Danny Green and De’Sean Butler, in a Toros uniform playing in the D-League this season.  It’s not certain yet what the relation will be between this years’ NBA draft crop and the NBDL, and it’s more complex for players like Anderson and Butler and Green who are already under contract—but if all five could play for the Toros this season it would be a huge win: A win for them, for the Toros, and certainly for the Spurs.  Whenever the NBA season resumes, these young guns would be in playing shape and would know each other and the rather complex Spurs system. That’s a win for everybody. Well, perhaps not for Richard Jefferson, but that’s another story.

But even if some high-powered lawyers step in and declare that players under contract (like Anderson and Butler and Green) can’t play in the NBDL, or this rookie crop cannot play in the D-League—what happens in Austin is still very important if you are a Spurs fan. I don’t think the casual Spurs fan has an appreciation for how significant the D-League is. Since I am but a mere writer, perhaps someone else with greater credentials than I, can make the case for why the D-League matters.

Current Suns GM, and former Director of Scouting for the Spurs, Lance Blanks has a high view of the D-League.  Here is Blanks’ take on the Developmental League and its value to young players:

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D-League Numbers, Names: A Primer

Somewhere around the eighth grade I lost interest in math. I endured it through high school and later college. Numbers bore me. However, numbers matter.

Numbers matter in basketball terms because numbers represent teams and players. With the NBA lockout it would be wise for Spurs fans to get a little more acquainted with the D-League, and the Austin Toros to be specific.  Some numbers that might prove helpful:

160. There are that many players in the D-League all trying to prove they belong with the big boys in the NBA. A veritable collection of the Rocky Balboa’s of the basketball world. The reality is, most will not make it. But some will. Some will push themselves and elevate their game and in an incredible moment in time will get their opportunity with an NBA team and will produce—and stick. “Yo Adrian. I did it!” If you’re a sports fan you have to love a good underdog story. The D-League is filled with them. One hundred and sixty guys all hungry for that shot.

16: There are sixteen D-League teams, nine with single NBA team affiliation. For the uninitiated, here is a breakdown of the D-League teams, and their NBA affiliation: Austin Toros (Spurs); Bakersfield Jam, (Clips, Suns, Raptors) NBA DLeague Canton (Cavs), Dakota Wizards (Warriors), Erie Bayhawks (Knicks), Fort Wayne Mad Ants (Best name ever-Pistons, Pacers, Bucks), Idaho Stampede (Nuggets, Blazers, Jazz), Iowa Energy (Bulls, Hornets, Wizards), Los Angeles D-Fenders (Lakers), Main Redclaws (Celtics, Bobcats, 76’ers), Reno Bighorns (Hawks, Grizzlies, Kings), Rio Grand Valley Vipers (Rockets), Sioux City Skyforce (Heat, T-Wolves, Magic), Springfield Armor (Nets), Texas Legends (Mavericks), Tulsa 66’ers (Thunder).

30: There are thirty NBA teams that have a keen interest in the players of the D-League. These teams are not looking for The Next Big Thing, rather they are looking for a player who is ready to be a viable role player on their team. They also look to the league to give young guns that can’t crack their rotation the playing time they need to develop. Last season alone, twenty-five teams assigned thirty-seven first or second year players to the D-League. Eighteen of those players were first round picks from 2009 or 2010, six were lottery picks. Forty-five percent of players drafted in 2010 played in the D-League during the season. Every NBA team had at least one player on their roster with D-League experience.  The NBA takes the D-League seriously, and Spurs fans should as well.

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Why the Cleveland Thunderbirds matter to Spurs fans

The New Mexico Thunderbirds of the NBA’s D-League are now owned and operated by the Cleveland Cavaliers and will be playing ball in Canton, Ohio in the 2011-2012 season for the D-League.

Why does this news matter?

If you are a San Antonio Spurs fan and already experiencing the angst of the NBA lockout, this news, hardly seems relevant or encouraging as you consider the implications of a possibly non-existent NBA season.

But the D-League does matter, and this move by Cleveland also matters, especially to small market teams like San Antonio.

The Cavs joins the Spurs, Lakers, Thunder, and the Warriors as NBA teams with sole ownership of a D-League team.  This relationship between one D-League team and one NBA team benefits the D-League because the investment translates into long-term stability for the developmental league.  This relationship also is very significant for small market teams like Cleveland, and yes, the Spurs.

The Spurs’ brain-trust has been, in large part, brilliant when it comes to finding and developing talent. Names like Ginobili, Parker, Hill, Blair, Splitter and Neal immediately come to mind.

While there may not be a 2011-2012 NBA season, the D-League will go on and there are other names that Spurs fans should take interest in: Da’Sean Butler and Danny Green. Both are on the Spurs roster and both will likely play for the Spurs D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros.

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Green joins Toros for double OT loss; Jones looks back on first season

The Austin Toros (22-28) managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a double-overtime offensive showcase Saturday night, capping off an up-and-down season. Texas pulled away the second overtime, winning 134-128.

“You’ve got to give Texas some credit because we kind of had the game in control,” head coach Brad Jones said. “We missed some free throws and they made some tough three pointers, but you’ve got to give them the credit for not quitting. But at the same time, we gave them some life by missing some free throws and having turnovers down the stretch.”

The Legends had everything to play for. A win meant they were in the playoffs, while a loss ended their season. The Toros had nothing riding on this one in terms of the postseason, yet they found themselves up 108-100 with about a minute left. That’s when the wheels came off.

Booker Woodfox made a three on the Legends next possession. Then, Texas trapped the Toros and came up with a steal and found Justin Dentmon open for a trifecta to make it 109-108 Toros with 15 seconds left.

After four clutch Aubrey Coleman free throws, the score was 113-110 with less than 10 seconds left. That’s when Rashad McCants saved the Legends season by hitting a three-pointer to tie the game with four seconds left. McCants had 28 points on the night.

Leo Lyons’ potential game-winner rimmed out, and Marcus Cousin could not control the tip in and this one was headed for an unexpected overtime period.

The extra period mirrored the end of regulation for the Toros. When Toro-for-a-day Danny Green (on loan from the Spurs) knocked down an open three, Austin was leading 118-113 with 1:40 left.

A 5-0 Legends run tied it at 118, before Coleman, who led the Toros with 30 points, made a three. That put Austin up 121-118 with nine seconds left. That’s when lightning struck again. Woodfox, who only played ten minutes on the night, made his second cold-blooded three of the game with two seconds left, tying the score.

Squeaky Johnson’s three at the buzzer looked good out of his hand, but hit the front of the rim, sending it into double overtime. This was the third home game to go into double-overtime this season, and second against the Legends.

Austin got up 127-123 on a Johnson three, but then the Joe Alexander show resumed. Alexander was two for two from the field and three for three from the foul line in the second overtime.

Sean Williams’ free throws with ten seconds left put his team up by four with ten seconds left and the Toros could not answer. Williams had 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Alexander led all scorers and rebounders with 36 and 15.

Given the turnover in the D-League, Jones’ post game talk with his players was also his farewell speech to many of them.

“I told them that the goal in this league, whether you win a championship or not is we make them feel like they’ve gotten better,” he said. “That’s the goal of our staff. Everyday we come to work trying to help them get better, while at the same time winning some games. Hopefully they feel that way. We didn’t meet all of our team goals, but hopefully they met some of their individual goals.”

One player that already has a taste of the NBA is Green. On Saturday, Green was one of six Toros in double figures, with 19 points and seven rebounds.

“It was an exciting game for the fans,” Green said. “But if you’re a Toro, you’re pretty disappointed because we had the game won multiple times at the end, but we couldn’t just close out.”

Even though Green had virtually no time to practice and get acclimated with his team, he felt pretty comfortable.

“Given the short notice, I felt like things clicked pretty well,” he said. “I’m not the type of guy to come in and just put up a bunch of shots and force the issue. I know they have some things going here. So I just wanted to keep their chemistry flowing and play a small role and just knock down open shots for them and help them on defense hopefully.

“If they need me to do something, then yeah, but tonight, they really didn’t need that. They have some guards that can get in the paint and make some things happen.”

Green will now look to help the parent club down the stretch run as they try to snap their losing skid.

“I believe I’m going back to the Spurs tonight, we play Phoenix tomorrow, and we’ll see what happens from there,” he said. “Hopefully we can break the losing streak, so we’ll see what goes on. (The big guys) are all healthy and we’re playing better.”

Lance Thomas, who suffered a seizure on court last Saturday, was courtside cheering on his teammates.

“I feel fine,” Thomas said. “The hit I took was pretty bad at the moment with what happened, but I feel fine now. I have to wait a little bit until I have clearance from the doctors. From the standpoint of day-to-day from when it happened, I feel fine.”

Thomas said once he receives doctor’s permission to resume full-contact basketball, he will decide his next basketball move. He hates having to sit out and said this one was especially tough to watch.

“I hate watching period,” Thomas said. “Just to watch a nail biter like that, it was tough, especially when you want to get out there and help. I’ve been a part of this team since the beginning of the season, so it’s hard to watch my guys out there without me.”

Nevertheless, he was proud of his guys.

“I thought they left it on the floor,” he said. “I think there were plays where the other team did better than we did, and there were plays when we had to tough it out, but there was no question of our effort.”

Thomas is one of the Toros young up-and-comers with dreams of playing in the NBA. Jones would love to see all his guys fulfill their professional aspirations.

“I hope all these guys end up in the NBA or oversees making 50 grand a month, so hopefully none of them are back because they’re all making a gazillion dollars,” Jones said. “Having said that, I really like this group we have right now and obviously if it fit in their career path, then we would love to have them come back.”

Jones, who was talking with Spurs GM R.C. Buford and VP of Basketball Operations Danny Ferry after the game outside the locker room, will take the next few days to do some exit interviews and start planning for the summer.

“We’ll see what the Spurs want from us and what we have to do as a staff,” Jones said.

Overall, Jones said his first season with the Toros was both fun and disappointing.

“At times (I had fun),” Jones said. “Every year, there is a challenge. It was a little bit more of a challenge this year with all the roster turnover. Not being able to fulfill the team goals of winning more, I’m very disappointed about, but in the midst of all the fight is a lot of fun. Sometimes you just don’t get the outcome you desire.”

Toros’ Cousin discusses time with Jazz

Austin Toros center Marcus Cousin recently spent some time with the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

He was brought into Utah on a 10-day contract but was not offered another 10-day contract and returned to Austin to play with the Toros.

Getty Images

I had the opportunity to speak with Cousin on Saturday afternoon after the Toros lost to the Idaho Stampede.

When I asked Cousin how his 10-days in Utah were, he chuckled about only being there for 10 days. Cousin then told me that he learned a lot from the coaching staff and Jazz players. He used the words “good experience” in describing his short stint.

When I asked him how it was to battle the likes of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, he said it was great to learn from them. He also said he learned a lot from Jefferson in particular.

Cousin continues to produce in the D-League as he scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the loss Saturday.

Cousin has two aspirations to look forward to these next two weeks: 1) Get signed to an NBA team for the remainder of the season and 2) continue to help the Toros team earn a spot in the D-League playoffs and contend for Austin’s first D-League championship.

Optimism is still an option for Cousin.

Follow Paul on Twitter: @24writer | Email Paul at:  paul@projectspurs.com

Video recap: Austin Toros vs. Iowa Energy

Toros Fall to the Vipers on the Road, 118-103

With seven games remaining in the final two weeks of the regular season, the Austin Toros (19-24) needed this road win over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (30-14).

On the bubble for the playoffs, the Toros had recently started to make a last-minute surge for playoffs. The Vipers victory will make it that much harder for the team to pass the Texas Legends and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants for the eighth seed.

Kyle Weaver, who led the Toros with 24 points, gave the team a 25-23 lead at the end of the first quarter with a 3-point jumper. With nine lead changes in the second quarter alone, both teams traded buckets and kept the game within four points. At the half the game was tied at 49.

In the third quarter the Vipers began to pull away, outscoring the Toros 37-21, as the Toros couldn’t contain the Vipers from beyond the arc. Jerel McNeal’s long shot, the Vipers sixth of the quarter, stretched the home team’s lead heading in to the fourth, 86-70. McNeal scored 12 of his 18 points in the third quarter.

Their lead continued in the fourth as the Toros defense ran out of gas. Mouhammad Faye’s pair of freebies with 10:26 remaining in the game stretched the Vipers lead to 21, the largest of the night. Seconds later Leo Lyons jump started a Toros 11-2 run. It was not enough as the Vipers regrouped and continued to score in the paint. The Vipers win still gave the Toros the advantage on the season series, 5-4.

The Toros had five players score in double figures. The bench combined for 60 of the Toros 103 points. With the loss, Austin still remains out of the final spot for the D-League playoffs.

The team heads to Tulsa on Tuesday before returning home for a three-game home stand.

Alumnus Watch: Keith Langford

Former Austin Toros player (2007-2008) Keith Langford seems to have survived budget cuts overseas and could be signing a 4-year deal with BC Khimky Moscow:

The whole of European basketball is in financial crisis, even the richest clubs are reducing their budgets for the coming seasons. But the Russians of Khimky are definitely going against the current trend as it has just extended, for no less than four years, the contract of Keith Langford (born in Fort Worth, 1983, 1.93cm, represented by Greek agent Nick Lotsos) for an average of around 2.300.000 $ guaranteed until 2015.??

Currently, Langford is averaging 17.8 points, 2.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and shooting 57.9 percent from the field  in 29.2 minutes for BC Khimky.