By Carlo Rotella
Sunday, March 21, 2010; W10
On YouTube, Deron Washington is forever dunking. Wearing the maroon and burnt orange of Virginia Tech, accompanied by a hip-hop soundtrack or just crowd noise and the calls of excited announcers, he outraces everyone in the open court, or slips through the defense to meet a sweet pass, or slashes past his man off the dribble. Taking a couple of long strides and perhaps a two-footed hop, he rises up with improbable speed and power, canted forward in midair, to cram the ball through the basket so forcefully that his arm appears to go in up to the elbow. In one much-viewed clip from an Atlantic Coast Conference showdown in 2007, he hurdles Duke University's Greg Paulus on two fast breaks -- laying up the ball both times, rather than slamming it, because his baggy shorts keep snagging on Paul-us's head.
College players can get by on dunks and three-pointers, but in the pros they must diversify their arsenals. One morning in December, on the court in the Tulsa Convention Center, where the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Development League practice and play their home games, Washington and the team's other guards and forwards were working on midrange offense. Each in turn faked left, dribbled to his right around the team's coach, Nate Tibbetts, and pulled up for a jump shot. The shooter went back to where he'd started and got in line and, when it was his turn to face Tibbetts again, went through the same sequence. After several repetitions, Tibbetts switched the group to a new variation, and then another, and another.
The 66ers had back-to-back games coming up against the Reno Bighorns, but this scene of instruction was in some ways the true point of the D-League's existence: getting better, perfecting your craft in the hope of moving up. You play hard and well to catch the attention of an NBA team, and if you get the call, you pack your bags and leave your minor league team behind without a second thought. D-League players wait for that break, and work toward it, in a distinctive in-between state. They're as close as a professional basketball player can get to the NBA without being in it, but they still have a long way to go to realize their dream.
The 66ers were young men, most in their mid-20s, but basketball had already taken many of them across the world. They had played on professional teams in Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Poland, Greece and Turkey. Latavious Williams was the exception: Only 19, the first player ever to enter the D-League directly from high school, he had passed up the chance to make money as a pro in China, opting instead for a nominal D-League salary and the most likely route to the NBA.
Washington had played for Hapoel Holon, a top-tier team in Israel, where, he said, "they're, like, robots. They listen to the coach and do it, and a lot of the time that's not a bad thing." The American style is faster and more free-flowing, he said; the Israeli style, like the European, stresses fundamentals. "A lot of Americans are going overseas and picking that up now." Every stop on globetrotting ballplayers' itineraries can teach them something about being a professional.
They had discovered, for instance, that the unquestioning support they grew used to in high school and college -- blind rah-rah fervor of the kind on display during this month's NCAA tournaments -- swiftly gives way to the expectation that, as a pro, you must produce or else. The money can be good overseas, but it creates its own stresses and demands. "You have to learn your role in the system," said Mustafa Shakur, Tulsa's point guard and best all-around player. "You have to learn to be professional and not pout. Over there I had to learn to think the game out."
Zabian Dowdell, a former teammate of Deron Washington's from Virginia Tech who had just joined the 66ers, added: "If the team wins and you did what you were supposed to do, they're fine with that, even if, like, you only scored two points. But if you lost ..." well, there are always other talented Americans where you came from.
One such traveling shooter-for-hire is Chris Moore, a forward who has been all over the world since he played his last game for Virginia Union University in 2005. "I've been in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, South America," he said. "I played in Lebanon right after the war with Israel. I got there a week after the bombing stopped." He was drafted last year by a D-League team, the Los Angeles D-Fenders, but they cut him in training camp. Samples from his Twitter feed from last fall tell the story: "very long hard practice this morning ... got a knee to the groin twice ... practice again tonight ... guys out here competing ... hateration has officially started." His stint in the league having lasted only a few short days, he looked abroad again for his next opportunity to impress somebody, to play his way toward the NBA. For Moore, just getting back into the D-League would be a major step in the right direction.
The pro game teaches these former amateur stars consequences as well as efficacy, and it constantly reminds them that their astonishing talent might not be enough to get them to the top. And, compared with the National Football League (with about 1,700 total roster spots at any given moment) or Major League Baseball (750), there isn't much room in the NBA (450). The diaspora of American college players spreading throughout the NBA's professional hinterlands -- from the D-League to the highly competitive elite leagues such as those in Spain or Italy to the fringes in Egypt, Korea or Venezuela -- includes a lot of guys who once believed, and even perhaps still do believe against the mounting evidence of experience, that they belong among the very best.
A lean 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, extensively tattooed, with long arms and precarious-looking narrow shanks, Washington seems perfectly designed to play on the wing in the high-speed airborne style of the NBA. The son of a professional athlete (his father, Lionel, played cornerback in the NFL for 15 years) and a gym teacher, he also played baseball and football as a kid in Louisiana. Getting serious about basketball as he grew into a beanpole, he left home during high school to play at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, Wis., and then at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, where his teammates included Kevin Durant, who went on to stardom in college and the NBA.
Trevor Brown, Washington's coach at National Christian Academy, said, "When his dad brought him to me, he was, like, 6-5, 155 pounds." Washington had played center until then simply because he was often the tallest kid on the team, but he was too slight for the position. "He was always falling, stumbling; he'd get a rebound and fall down, get hit and fall," Brown said. "When Deron came to me, I said, 'This kid has no skills because he's been tall all his life.' Now, Deron's dad is about 6-2, his mom's maybe 5-9, so at some point he's gonna stop growing. He'll need skills." Brown set out to teach him the game from the ground up. "We had to start him from scratch on ball-handling; he couldn't shoot at all. It took us about two years to develop him as a wing," during which time Washington also worked hard in the weight room and put on 30 pounds.
Flourishing under Brown, whom he still credits as the coach who did the most to shape his game, Washington caught the eye of Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech, who saw terrific possibilities in "an athletic freak" who could fly to the rim and cover opponents of any size. Brown said: "He was Seth's first really highly ranked recruit when Seth was new, and I think Deron got caught up in Virginia Tech trying to win and not develop him. It was a good fit for him because he got to play the best, but it was a little early. They didn't have the ACC-caliber big men they had later, so Deron had to play power forward." The result, as Brown sees it, was that Washington "played out of position at Virginia Tech. He had only one year, his last year, at wing; it was too late to turn him into an NBA wing." Still, Washington averaged 11 points and 5.4 rebounds per game at Virginia Tech and displayed a talent for one-on-one defense, all of which drew the attention of the Detroit Pistons, who drafted him in the second round in 2008.
He played on the Pistons' summer league team in 2008, went to Israel during 2008-2009 to acquire professional seasoning (and helped the perennial also-rans from Holon win the Israeli State Cup), then returned to the Pistons for summer league and training camp in 2009. Detroit signed him to a guaranteed contract and matched him in practices with the former Washington Wizard and NBA All-Star Rip Hamilton, an ideal mentor to school him in the midrange game. Washington's trajectory looked to continue up and up and up into the glorious future.
And then the Pistons cut him. He didn't have enough experience on the wing; his game was still too rough. Once waived, Washington was eligible for the D-League draft, in which he was chosen in the first round, third overall, by the Los Angeles D-Fenders (four rounds ahead of Chris Moore). That was good news for a player in Washington's situation, but it was still a far cry from playing for the Pistons. The NBA draft is a big deal, televised with great fanfare; the D-League draft, like most D-League games, is streamed online.
Washington was still trying to get the hang of the zenlike triangle offense used by both the D-Fenders and the parent team that owns them, the Lakers, when he was traded to Tulsa on Dec. 18, just a few games into the season and a few days after his 24th birthday. Whether the D-Fenders had already given up on their top draft choice, or the 66ers needed a long-limbed defender (or maybe their parent team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, featuring Kevin Durant, did), he could at least hope that Detroit was still watching his progress.
Washington found himself in the sort of existential twilight typical of life in the D-League. Yes, he was a terrific athlete, an irksome defender, a formidable finisher on the break, but his outside shooting wasn't consistent enough, and his ball-handling needed work. In college and in Israel he had always been able to force his way to the rim past lesser athletes, but defenders in the NBA and the D-League, matching his quickness, could strip him of the ball before he launched himself at the basket. He needed to refine his court sense, too -- to make better decisions with and without the ball on offense and to master the team defense routines of helping out and getting help. He preferred to regard his near miss with the Pistons as a minor setback on his way to the NBA. "I took this as a steppingstone," he said, and "getting drafted high means somebody's interested," and "I have to take it one day at a time and be consistent in pushing myself to get better." But he had to worry, too, that his career might have bumped against its natural ceiling.
Twenty-four is young for a poet or bluesman but not for a basketball player. By their mid-20s, when they're just entering their physical prime, most of them are already fairly set in their ways, which have been reinforced by countless repetitions in games and practices. "My game is defense, making hustle plays, getting to the rim, but you can make a lot of money coming off the dribble" to sink midrange jumpers, Washington said. "I have to stay in the gym, work on my weaknesses, repetitions and repetitions until it's in my muscle memory." Then, when it's time to put the new moves to use in a game, "I can just not think and let my body flow." The D-League does offer players like him an opportunity to get better, but how much better could he realistically expect to get?
"The D-League is graduate school," says its president, Dan Reed. It was founded in 2001 to meet the NBA's need for a true minor league, on the baseball model, to feed trained professional talent up to the majors. Players make from $13,000 to $26,000 per season, passing up the chance to make a lot more money abroad to put themselves in a strong position to reach the NBA, where the average salary is around $5 million. At the end of the 2008-2009 season, about 20 percent of players in the NBA had D-League experience. So did a couple dozen coaches, about a third of all referees, and many front office personnel.
The D-League has doubled in size in the last three years to 16 teams, and Reed envisions a future expansion to 30 teams, so that every franchise will have a one-to-one affiliation with a parent team in the NBA. (The Washington Wizards and the Memphis Grizzlies share an affiliate, the Dakota Wizards.) Players sign contracts with the league, not the team, and any NBA team can call them up.
The call-up is the D-League's recurring big moment. As the season wears on, injury, failure and cost-benefit analysis open holes in NBA rosters, and D-League players are available to fill them. They're called up to be 12th or 14th man, to be a good teammate who goes hard in practice and, in games, provides a few crucial minutes of boxing out, making the extra pass and making life difficult for opponents' scorers. Andray Blatche of the Wizards, Rafer Alston of the Miami Heat, Kelenna Azubuike of Golden State Warriors, Aaron Brooks and Chuck Hayes of the Houston Rockets -- these are typical D-League alumni who started out making small contributions and earned greater responsibility over time.
In early January, all of the league's teams gather for the Showcase, four days of four-a-day matchups timed to take place just before NBA teams can start issuing 10-day contracts. There are scouts at every D-League game, but they come to the Showcase in droves, representing every NBA team and leagues all over the world. The Showcase is the players' best chance to advertise their wares to the NBA and the global market. Along the row of laptop-littered tables reserved for scouts, tall guys wearing foreign-tail-ored clothes and carrying man-purses murmur things like, "4.2 is a lot of turnovers, but this kid has ridiculous upside" into cellphones with strong Spanish, Israeli or Russian accents.
This year the Showcase was held in the Qwest Arena in Boise, home court of the Idaho Stampede. Because players in the D-League are trying to get noticed, they typically play hard all the time; having so many scouts and team executives in the arena inspired them to even more furious efforts. But they played their hearts out in eerie near-silence, with few fans to cheer them on. Most of the few hundred spectators scattered around the arena were insiders, and even the most astounding move on the court elicited no more than scattered exclamations and handclaps that raised echoes. The combination of high stakes and a small crowd made the Showcase feel like the untelevised undercard of a big Las Vegas boxing match, when most seats are empty because the fans are still off gambling in the casinos.
Still, there was quiet drama in the air. During the nightcap contest between the Stampede and the hapless Springfield Armor, Danny Ainge, general manager of the Boston Celtics, came down the aisle and chose one of the thousands of empty seats. A player could make his future by catching Ainge's eye. Coaches in the D-League tell players that they should seek to impress with sound team play, by setting a solid screen or using proper footwork, not by hogging the ball and trying to rack up big numbers. "It's easier to shoot your way out of a chance at the NBA than it is to shoot your way into one," as Nate Tibbetts put it. But that's only partially true. Stats-obsessed gatekeepers do pay attention to the numbers, and foreign scouts are often looking for Americans who can carry a team and thrill fans. So there were multiple audiences in the building and multiple ways to impress them.
The next morning, Bruce Kreutzer, the D-League's shooting consultant, dropped by the Albuquerque Thunderbirds' practice at a Boys and Girls Club gym. Kreutzer, who played college ball at SUNY New Paltz and has coached at the high school and college levels, runs a shooting lab at the Suwanee Sports Academy in Georgia in partnership with the former NBA deadeye Mark Price. Sixtyish and trim, wearing sweats, Kreutzer stood on the sideline with folded arms and watched the Thunderbirds race up and down the court, rehearsing fast-break plays.
"In Europe, they're still doing 20 minutes every day on ball-handling," he said, "working on shooting, all the things they learned from us and we've gotten away from." He makes his living filling in the gaps left by the American drift from fundamentals. Kids' club teams sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union now play games all weekend, he said, rather than teach the basics. "College no longer does it. Guys don't stay for four years, and head coaches focus on other things -- recruiting, money." It's often left up to high school coaches like Trevor Brown to teach young players the game.
Kreutzer sees the D-League, in part, as the NBA's attempt to make up for insufficient training at the lower levels. You can't always make up at the age of 24 what you should have learned when you were 12, but he's confident that anyone's shot can be improved (including that of the great LeBron James, who, Kreutzer believes, should shift his release point slightly to the right). "But guys don't always want to tweak their shots during the season," he said. "They're afraid their numbers will go down, and this is a numbers-driven game."
John Coffino, the Thunderbirds' coach, whistled the drill to a close and assembled his players along the baseline. Kreutzer stood at the free throw line with a ball in his hands and addressed them. "The game has gotten faster and faster, and the players have gotten bigger and more athletic," he said, "but the footwork we teach has basically stayed the same as 40 years ago. We need to change that." One way to speed up your game, he told them, is to learn to catch and shoot the ball without ever letting your heels touch the floor. "Here's what we normally do when we get ready to shoot," he said, and took a couple of exaggerated steps, putting each foot down heel first and then rolling forward onto the ball of the foot, to get into shooting position. Then he showed them a more efficient way to do it: He landed on the balls of his feet and went up again from there into his shooting motion. He never actually shot the ball; he just demonstrated proper form. "If you eliminate the heels," he said, "you cut down on the time it takes you to get the shot up, and that's an edge."
The Albuquerque players listened intently to Kreutzer, but he made them uneasy, too. He was proposing to mess with ingrained physical habits that had become instinctive. They had been unthinkingly catching and shooting the ball for most of their lives, and now he wanted them to think about it. When Kreutzer had them get in line to try out the no-heel mechanics, they were tentative and awkward, clanging bricks off the rim. But after a couple of repetitions, some began feeling for a rhythm in the altered footwork, smiling with relief when their shots went in.
Kreutzer moved on to discuss bad shooting habits, such as dropping away the off-hand too early or unnecessarily falling back and to the side. "That ESPN highlight fade, admiring your shot as you fall off with one hand in the air," he said, mimicking the familiar preening move. "Yes, Kobe can get away with it sometimes, but you're just making it harder to put the ball in the basket."
Above all, Kreutzer told the Thunderbirds, you have to be ready -- to shoot, of course, but, more generally, to exploit any opportunity. He said, "Now, Kevin hit a shot from the corner a few minutes ago when you were running a play, and it was all nice and smooth and looked good." Kevin Pittsnogle, a big man with a soft shooting touch who starred at West Virginia when it made runs in the NCAA tournament in 2005 and 2006, made a mock-triumphal face as his teammates threw him mock-impressed looks. "But he wasn't ready," Kreutzer said. Now Pittsnogle looked sheepish as his teammates piped up with sarcastic, belated attaboys. "He was so wide-ass open that it didn't matter," Kreutzer said. "He had plenty of time to get ready, but at the next level you'll need to be ready."
At the end of practice, Pittsnogle was shooting around with Yaroslav Korolev, a Russian drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2005, and a couple of other teammates. Korolev imitated Kreutzer's demonstration of proper cutting technique, picking up and planting his feet and turning on a dime with the exaggerated precision of a silent comedian. They all laughed. Korolev had appeared in 34 games for the Clippers, averaging just under five minutes of playing time and just over one point per game; Pittsnogle had never played even a minute in the NBA. They stopped laughing and went back to shooting, their heels touching the floor every time.
After the Showcase, Washington continued to work his way into the 66ers' defensive and offensive systems, getting more time and starting games. He still fouled shooters too much, but his defense was maturing. The team did not run many offensive plays for him -- he was sometimes relegated to standing in a corner -- but his scoring and rebounding picked up. And he showed flashes of startling speed and agility. The D-League invited him to participate in its slam-dunk competition in Dallas during All-Star weekend.
Zabian Dowdell, his old Virginia Tech teammate, was doing even better. A point guard, Dowdell kept his teammates happy by distributing the ball, and he scored points in streaks without taking too many shots. "He's smooth, and he's got a presence when the ball's in his hands," Tibbetts said. "He's going to be one heck of a player." So it came as a small surprise when Dowdell signed with Unicaja Malaga of the Spanish premier league shortly after the Showcase. Reached on the phone as he was waiting for his ride to the airport, he said that the pay would be much better but that he didn't need the money at the moment; all he wanted was "to play against the best." So why make the move? His conversations with scouts and team executives at the Showcase and his agent's inquiries had convinced him that there were too many guards ahead of him in the D-League and that his most realistic chance at the NBA would be a summer-league tryout after the season, not an in-season call-up. "A lot of people regard the Spanish league as the second best to the NBA," he said, "so I might as well do this in the meantime. I know they'll be watching me there."
By the time Dowdell made his move, Moore, the itinerant forward who was cut by the L.A. D-Fenders in November, was playing for Angeles de Puebla, in Mexico. He still had his eye on the prize: "The ultimate goal for me is to make it to the NBA." But, having risen closer to realizing that ambition and then fallen away from it again, he had to consider that playing his way around the world might be a career in itself and not just preparation for the anticipated good life. "I've learned to enjoy the atmosphere," he said. "I feel good about playing basketball, and the weather's so good here." If the NBA proved to be out of reach, taking pride in his own globetrotting professionalism might have to do. He had plenty of peers in a similar position. "You go around the world, and you see a lot of the same guys, guys you played against in college. You look at each other, and you're, like, 'We out here grinding, making a living.'"A couple of weeks after we talked, the Mexican league's playoffs began. Moore's Twitter feed told the rest of the story in brief: "is hating this new coach very much ... lost game 4. its over now. off to d.r. or venezuela."
On Jan. 14, Deron Washington played well in a win over the Austin Toros. In 27:20 of playing time, he made five of 11 shots, pulled down seven rebounds and displayed an improved grasp of team defense. He was making incremental progress toward a still-distant goal, but it was progress. On that same night, Sundiata Gaines, a 23-year-old rookie guard on his second 10-day contract with the Utah Jazz after having been called up from the Idaho Stampede, got his big chance when Utah's All-Star guard Deron Williams went down with an injury in the fourth quarter of a close game against LeBron James's Cavaliers. Gaines took care of the ball, ran the offense and hit all three of his shots, winning the game with a long three-pointer at the buzzer. The crowd went wild; his teammates mobbed him; Utah signed him to a contract for the rest of the season. Gaines, who had played for Archbishop Molloy High School in New York City, the University of Georgia and NGC Cantu in Italy before joining the D-League, was playing in only his fifth NBA game, and he'd had only one practice with the Jazz. But when the ball came his way with his team behind by two points and the clock running down to zero, he was ready.
Carlo Rotella, director of American studies at Boston College, is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. His last cover story was about the author George Pelecanos. He can be reached at email@example.com.