The NBA Development League has been around for 10 years. There are 16 D-League teams in cities around the country. As of 2010, about 20% of current NBA players have spent time in the D-League. So why don’t basketball fans care about the NBA’s official minor league organization?
I have been living in the Provo/Orem, UT area for the last 14 months. But it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I learned that the NBA D-League has a team right here in Orem – the Utah Flash. The Flash are the minor league affiliates of the Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks. They reached the D-League Finals in 2009. But many people, including myself, have been ignorant to both this team and the league it plays for.
I decided to find out exactly what the Development League is, how it works, and why it is around. And this past weekend, I sat down with Utah Flash President Drew Sellers to do exactly that.
Since I have had practically no exposure to the Development League or the Utah Flash, Drew gave me the basic crash course on the league and its purpose. But before you ask why you should care, here are three reasons why you as a basketball fan should pay attention to the NBA Development League:
- It has the best basketball outside the NBA. These players are just one step under the NBA. And, as Drew pointed out to me, they are playing for their lives – not in a literal, barbarian losers-are-executed sense, but rather in a this-is-their-chosen-career-path-and-how-well-they-do-in-the-D-League-determines-if-they-will-succeed-or-not sense. Their motivation is different. NBA players get paid truckloads of money, and some of them are only worried about fame or attention or nothing at all. Sometimes this is obvious in the way they play basketball. But D-League players don’t make very much money – only $12,000 to $24,000 a year. They are highly motivated to do their best and make it to the next level, and this makes for very competitive basketball games.
- Teams are more locally focused. NBA teams are based in a city, but most interactions between them and the fans are on a mass scale. Development League teams are more locally based, and they get very involved with the community. Also, D-League teams are in cities where people don’t have easy access to NBA teams. Some of these places, such as Idaho and Maine, have hardly any professional sports exposure. The D-League provides a small but still fun environment for sports fans. The Flash, for example, are located in the Orem/Provo, UT area, about an hour away from Salt Lake City, where the Jazz play. Basketball fans here can go enjoy a basketball game without the hassle of planning an entire trip to the “big city.” And the Flash organization cares about and supports the community – the team has visited 30 schools here in Utah County with the Read To Achieve program, personally helping thousands of local kids get excited about reading.
- It is an inexpensive way to enjoy basketball in a family setting. NBA games are not cheap to get into – $40 seats where you need $20 binoculars to see the court aren’t a great deal. But minor league games are a great way to experience a professional basketball game on a more personal level. The least expensive tickets to a Flash game, for instance, are only $8 each and could land you in the front rows of the arena. And because of the community feel I mentioned above, the teams try hard to make it enjoyable for the whole family. They have smaller attractions and games around the arena so that everyone has a good time. If you want a fun family activity, both you and your kids will love attending a Development League game.
Alright, now that you know why you should care about the Development League, let’s get you started on the basics. I’ll break it down into three parts for you: The D-League and its relationship with the NBA, D-League players, and the future of the D-League.
The Development League and its Relationship with the NBA
Everyone familiar with sports knows that Major League Baseball has a very successful minor league system, often referred to as the “farm system” because of its role in “growing” and developing excellent baseball players. The NBA wanted the same thing, and in 2001 they started the National Basketball Development League (NBDL), which was renamed the NBA Development League in 2005.
What began as 8 teams in the Southeastern United States has now grown into 16 teams across the country, with each team affiliated with one to three NBA teams. Each team can assign its first- or second-year players to its associated minor league team, calling them back up to the NBA at any time. NBA teams can also sign any D-League player who is not under contract with another NBA team. For example, the Utah Flash are associated with the Hawks and Jazz, but in 2009 the Charlotte Bobcats called up Dontell Jefferson from the Flash and signed him to a ten-day contract, later signing him for the rest of the season.
Development League Players
Overall, 113 players called up from the D-League since its inception, including Rafer Alston, Loius Amundson, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, and many other successful players. With so many players getting minor league experience, the NBA has become more competitive and individual teams have more depth. Players that would not get a lot of in-game experience in the NBA can develop their skills in the Development League and prepare to help their future NBA team.
D-League players come from a variety of places – some are assigned from NBA teams, others come from college or high school, while still others make the teams through open tryouts. They will then stay in the D-League for a few seasons before usually moving on to either the NBA or foreign basketball leagues. The transitional nature of the league allows for many players to move through the system, each striving to reach his full potential.
The Future of the Development League
This is my favorite part – the future potential of the NBA Development League. Drew had a lot of insights when it came to what could happen next with the D-League.
Although the league is similar to minor league baseball in many ways, it still is not involved as directly with its parent league. The MLB and the minors have a very strong connection that is essential to both leagues’ progress. The NBA and the D-League have not reached this level in their relationship yet.
For example, as of right now the D-League teams do not receive any financial support from their affiliated NBA teams or the NBA itself. Most D-League teams are independently owned and operated. Drew explained an interesting theory to me that could fix this in the future. It’s called the Hybrid Model. Each NBA team is currently allowed to have 15 players on the roster. Imagine if they only had 14 players, and then the salary that would have gone to the 15th is instead put towards funding its affiliated Development League team. In essence, they would then have the rights to the 10 D-League players on that team. They effectively have 10 “15th” players that they can call up and use at any time.
As was mentioned earlier, NBA teams have the option to assign only first- and second-year players to the D-League. This is a rule that baseball doesn’t have – anyone can be assigned to the minors at any time. This works great for them – especially for players returning from injuries. It reduces the risk of having a player get hurt even worse trying to come back at the highest level. If the NBA allowed this, it could save players careers; way too often do star players suffer a major injury and never return. Being able to assign anyone to the D-League would also help create a stronger bond between the two leagues because the NBA would rely more on its minor league.
Some of you may remember my post a few weeks ago about the NBA Age Limit Rule. It’s a very controversial topic, as well as one of my favorites. Unfortunately, when I wrote that I had not yet discovered the Development League yet. Now, I’m convinced the D-League is the answer to solving the age dilemma. The current rule in the D-League is that players must be 18 and out of high school – the same as the NBA’s rules before 2005. I believe that the NBA was right to make a higher age requirement, but many people, including most NBA players, believe it is unfair. The solution is allowing teams to draft players out of high school, but these players are only allowed to play in the Development League for their first year. This has four big benefits:
- Basketball players who choose not to go to college can be making money for the year while spending all their time learning the game of basketball on a professional level. Let’s face it, many young players go to college, play basketball for a year, ignore their schoolwork, and then jump to the NBA. This plan cuts out the middle man – the D-League becomes a “college” for basketball, teaching these guys the skills they need.
- It raises the awareness level of the Development League. Imagine if the stars from Kentucky went to the D-League instead of college. People would watch, especially if those players had just been drafted by their favorite team.
- NBA teams still have the option to gamble on high school players, but it is a bigger risk because they can’t play on the team for an entire year. Teams will not waste many lottery picks on young, unproven players, which was one of the reasons the current rule was put in place.
- Even colleges would be winning in this situation. They will only have dedicated players who want to attend school as well as play basketball. Coaches can keep players there for four whole years and build better, longer lasting programs. Sure, colleges may miss out on a few superstars. But they will also have more time to build superstars.
The end result? New players coming into the NBA have more experience, gained either in college or in the Development League. The D-League gets more attention. And college basketball is more stable and productive, leading to more loyal fans. Everyone wins.
Anyone who loves basketball should support the NBA Development League. Check out the league’s official website and find out if there’s a team near you. If not, you can watch every single D-League game live throughout the season here; find the team affiliated with your favorite NBA team and follow them. Now that I realize why the NBA Development League is important and why I should care, I’ll definitely be checking out the Utah Flash games whenever possible.
Thanks again to Drew Sellers for all the great information!