By Marcus Shockley
When the NBA introduced the concept of the NBDL, way back in 2001, it was seen as a possibly subversive attack by NBA commissioner David Stern on the NCAA and the Final Four, one of the crown jewels in the business of sports. However, from the outset, the league was not clear in it’s mission or even if it was stable. Intended to develop talent for the NBA, the league has focused on attempting to a true farm system, akin to what Major League Baseball has had for decades. Previous minor leagues relied on veterans, many of whom had already spent several years on NBA rosters, but the new league was only for younger talent.
In many respects, the D-League has worked. Young players who aren’t getting minutes on the rosters of NBA teams should be getting regular playing time in the D-League, although teams are not consistent in how they move players around. This season, Gerald Henderson sat for entire games without stepping on the Charlotte Bobcats’ floor, forced to wait until the summer league to try and show his skills and work on his game. Meanwhile, several players have benefited from the system, and there have been several players who began their time in the D-League and then eventually became NBA roster mainstays.
Combined with the surge of players who are barely spending any time in college, the D-League should be full of players who can work their way into prime time by playing against older, better competition. The concept of collegiate athletics means no paycheck for athletes, limited workout time for the school and a host of other concerns. The D-League has none of that. In truth, a player who is 17 years old should be able to play for the D-League even if he’s never played college. That would mean that if he really wasn’t ready for the pros, he’d have to work a few years to get moved up, and the NBA would not be footing the bill for a big rookie contract he had not earned.
But it still hasn’t worked out as well as it should have. The NBA has done a very poor job of cultivating the D-League, opting for marketing efforts that focused on reality television to promote the league, as opposed to the same methods that work in other sports. Minor league teams are tough to market, but the NBA seems mostly content to just pay for the league and let the players play in relative obscurity.
Ideally, the NBA should be cultivating it’s future star players in the D-League, just as the college game does today. Gordon Hayward was not a star when he arrived on the Butler campus, but his (and his teams’) outstanding play and the CBS coverage made him a household name. With the exception of the pomp of the college game, there is no reason why the NBA should have solid players on any roster that people have never heard of.
This means that the NBA has to recognize the levels of talent. The league understands superstardom, but doesn’t know how to market stars at lower levels of play. They have to recognize that they have stars they can market in the D-League, after all, most of those players were already stars in college.