NBA’s D-league finally working




The NBA Development League, or the D-League as it’s commonly known, started in 2001. There have been some significant changes in the league’s function since then.

The D-League for years only served as a last-resort haven for wannebees and used-to-be’s. It wasn’t until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in 2011 that allowed NBA clubs to be like Major League Baseball — send down veterans and rookies and make call-ups when needed. Now, players in their first three NBA years can be assigned to the D-League any number of times.

This season, 11 of 16 NBA D-League teams were singly-affiliated with a “parent” club.

Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson was the 16th call-up when he signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves January 19 on a 10-day contract. He later was signed for the rest of the season. The 6-11 center began the season with the Santa Cruz Warriors, who made the D-League best-of-three finals this season and averaged 10 points, six rebounds and two blocks.

Johnson truly appreciated his D-League stint: “They helped me develop my skills, and that helped a lot.” He finished with a 3.9-point average in 30 contests, including a career-high 15 points against Houston in January. He also blocked a career-high six shots in a March win over San Antonio.

Mickael Gelabale Photos courtesy of Timberwolves
Mickael Gelabale
Photos courtesy of Timberwolves

Forward Mickael Gelabale returned to the NBA after four years — the last time he played was with Seattle (now Oklahoma City) in 2007-08. However, he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during a late-season practice and missed the remainder of the season.

Like Johnson, he also inked a 10-day contract with the Wolves, got extended for another 10 days, then was signed for the rest of the season. Unlike Johnson, the 6-7 native of France began this season in Croatia and has played in Spain as well. Gelabale, who scored 11 points in his first NBA game on January 19, made 13 starts, averaged 7.7 ppg, and shot 55 percent from the field as a regular. He finished with a five-point average and nearly three boards a contest.

“When I came here, I was ready to play,” says the young man, who led the Wolves with a season-high 19 points at Denver in March, two short of the career-high 21 points he poured against the Lakers as a Sonics player in 2008.

Gelabale also played for his country’s team in the 2012 Olympics alongside San Antonio guard Tony Parker, who he calls “the best player in our country.”

Wolves Player Development Coach Shawn Respert said of both players, “Chris has an unbelievable motor when he’s out there playing. You can tell Gelabale’s experience — he understands the game of basketball. It’s amazing that those guys came in and gave us exactly what we thought that would help our team.”

The D-League also is a grooming ground for referees — each NBA referee hired since 2002 has worked there. Also, about 40 coaches started their career there.

I’d suggested years ago that each NBA team should have an assistant coach or two work the D-League to develop players. Draft picks that aren’t ready should be immediately assigned to D-League teams as well.

Baseball has done this forever. Hockey, too. Football doesn’t because the NFL’s longtime minor league — college football — does the developing for them.

Respert, who worked in the D-League’s main offices for two years, admits that “the dynamics of the league” have changed. “Maybe some of the scrutiny about it was [asking at] what age does development stop,” he noted. “What age can’t a player be developed?

“The older players have been forced out, because the younger players are coming in,” he said.


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