RENO, Nev. — For the better part of a week, morning through night, the squeak of rubber soles on hardwood floor is louder than any sounds that come from the stands. What passes for a crowd often looks like a handful of marbles rolling around in a bathtub.
The truth is the bare bones atmosphere inside the Reno Events Center makes the annual NBA D-League Showcase more closely resemble a testing lab than an extravaganza. It belies what has been a resounding success.
Now in its 13th season, the D-League continues to grow as both a business model and the future of cultivating young basketball talent. In short, it is the most scouted professional basketball league on the planet, and not just for this week when coaches and general managers from every NBA team are on hand.
“Players have come to realize that a league where you can get a direct call-up to an NBA team is the cleanest, fastest way to reach their goal,” said Ryan Blake, NBA director of scouting. “There aren’t hoops you have to jump through to get free from a foreign contract. There’s the closeness and familiarity that lets everyone keep up and know who they are.”
Fourteen of the league’s 17 franchises now have exclusive relationships with NBA teams, either through direct ownership or a hybrid management. The realistic goal, according to many officials, is to one day have 30 teams, one for each NBA club.
“Thirty for 30 is something that we’re closer to than I ever expected at this point,” said D-League president Dan Reed. “Ten NBA teams have acquired a 1-on-1 relationship in the last three years and we have more and more teams constantly getting interested. The idea is to eventually be more of a real farm system for the NBA.”
The number of NBA players with D-League experience is now approaching 30 percent and could hit 50 percent in the not-too-distant future. The Spurs’ Danny Green played in the D-League as did the Rockets’ Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin.
More of the big clubs also have come to understand the value and utilize in-season assignments of young players to the D-League. Last season Jeremy Lamb spent much of his time shuttling between Oklahoma City and Tulsa to get playing experience and now is a key member of the Thunder rotation. Reggie Jackson cut his teeth with the 66ers a year before. Beverley signed a year ago with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, made his D-League debut here at the Showcase and four months later was starting in the playoffs in Houston. Terrence Jones went from being a Vipers regular to starting for the Rockets this season.
“I think it’s still a little bit of a stigma, but it’s going away,” said Gersson Rosas, Rockets executive vice president of basketball operations, who filled the role of Vipers GM the past four years, winning two D-League titles and getting to the finals three times.
“I don’t think Terrence would be who Terrence is now without the time that he spent here last year. I think that’s a great testament to the league and it’s a great testament to Terrence that he applied himself, he got better and once he got the opportunity he made the most of it.
“Having said that, affiliated teams have a big advantage because they have 1-on-1 relationships and they’re also the ones hiring the coaches and staff and that staff is spending a lot of time preparing the team. As a result, the philosophy is cleaner and the result is cleaner because you can develop players and get a better feel of where they’re at.”
The next logical step in the league’s own development would be to establish a system for NBA teams to sign players to D-League contracts that do not count against the 15-man NBA roster and yet maintain their rights. Currently, except for players who are on temporary assignment from the NBA, any other NBA club can swoop in and sign any D-Leaguer.
If an NBA team could hold signing rights and exclusivity, then D-League salaries for some players could rise dramatically from what they are paid now, roughly $25,000 per season. It could also enable the D-League to compete with some of the top European leagues for frontline prospect talent. At the very least, some executives say, NBA teams should have the right to match any offers that come to one of their D-League signees by another NBA club
“The biggest strides the league has made over the last few seasons is the talent level,” said Rosas. “In the next five to 10 years, it’s all only going to get better.”