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Inside D-League Basketball

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Carlo Rotella
Monday, March 22, 2010; 12:00 PM

Young basketball players who aren't drafted to the NBA can hone their skills -- and maybe get a second chance at the pros -- in the NBA Development League, or "D-League."

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Carlo Rotella wrote about the D-League in a Washington Post Magazine cover story, "The Long Shot." He took questions and comments March 22. The transcript is below.

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Carlo Rotella: This is Carlo Rotella, here in Boston. I'll be online for the next hour or so to discuss my piece on the NBA D League in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine. Looking forward to it.

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VA: Hi, you wrote that the NBA have 450 players. How many players in the D league?

Carlo Rotella: There are 16 teams in the D League now, with another one (in Frisco, TX) ready to enter. So that's only a little more than half as many teams as there are in the NBA. Also, there's a great deal of turnover in D League rosters. Players move on to other countries, they get cut, they get hurt, they move up to the NBA, and so on. I don't know how many players actually play in the D League in a season, but with all the traffic in and out, there's a lot of room to get a shot. There's a draft, and players are sent down by NBA teams, but there are also open tryouts, and guys do play their way into the league. That's one of the interesting things about watching a game. You'll have a pampered big-school college star who needs to work on his maturity and his exciting but flawed game going up against a seasoned campaigner who's pushing 30 and has played pro ball in, say, France, Poland, Syria, Korea, Venezuela, the USBL, and some NBA summer leagues.

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Arlington, Va.: How do the people actually IN the NBA view the d-league? Do these guys have a legit chance of moving up, or is it sort of looked down upon?

Carlo Rotella: At this point, I don't think it makes much sense to be snobbish about the D League if you're looking down at it from the NBA. Something like a fifth of all NBA players have D League experience (so, for them, they're looking down at their own path to the big time), and there are a lot of very hungry talents in the D League who would be happy to present themselves to an NBA team as a bargain: pay me some fraction of what you're paying this underperforming current player, and I'll do a better job, hustle more, and make you very happy to get the same production for a lot less money. They won't replace big stars, not right away, but they can put serious pressure on guys who are well down on NBA rosters.

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Arlington, Va.: What happens to the dleague players who don't get the coveted call to the nba?

Carlo Rotella: Some fade away, but a lot of them join the great diaspora of American basketball talent and go abroad to play pro ball wherever they can catch on. To my mind, it's a fascinating understory about American basketball--players who play their way around the world. You can think of playing pro as pretty much the same everywhere--the rules are basically the same, the game is basically the same, even if there are stylistic differences from league to league--but you can also think of it as playing in wildly different contexts. That's why I thought Chris Moore, the forward out of Virginia Union I talked to for the story, was so interesting. He'd been _every_where, and he was starting to see himself as two different and perhaps equally powerful things: a future NBA player, still, and, increasingly, a journeyman ball player whose talent and resourcefulness were taking him around the world while youth and skill allowed for it.

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Washington, D.C.: What surprised you most while writing this story?

Carlo Rotella: A couple of things. First, I guess I had been aware that the college game is too heavily weighted toward dunks and threes, but I hadn't really seen up close how atrophied the midgame has become in some circles. As Deron Washington eloquently put it, you can make a lot of money coming off the dribble, but not as many players make that their game as did in the past.

Second, I was a little surprised to find how unanimous the players were--at least the ones I talked to--about their high school coaches as the ones who had the most influence on their game. Most didn't see college as the place where their game developed the most. The story they tended to tell was that their high school coach taught them the basics and then playing pro taught them the pro game, often abroad and often the hard way.

Third, I was a little surprised by the effect on my shot of just _watching_ Bruce Kreutzer teach shooting. A serious improvement.

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Odenton, Maryland: The fact that impressed me the most reading your article was that when a coach came in to teach the players better footwork, the D-League players more or less ignored him. Hello? What part of learning didn't they understand?

Carlo Rotella: That was my favorite scene in the story, the one where people were really living the consequences of the way the game is taught and learned these days. I wouldn't say they ignored him, exactly. The whole team paid close attention to him, but, as I said in the story, you could see that disassembling and reassembling their shot during the season was distressing to them. I should add that neither of the two guys who are laughing at the end of the scene is still on the team: one went home, the other was traded.

I also watched Kreutzer do a one-on-one shooting session with another player, Kentrell Gransberry from the Springfield Armor, and there he had the guy's absolutely undivided attention for an hour. You can learn a lot about shooting in an hour, if you pay attention--even if you've been shooting the ball at the basket all your life.

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New York, N.Y.: If a player hopes to make it to the NBA, how do playing in a D League compare with playing in a professional league in another country? Doesn't the D League see itself as a feeder to the NBA and thus better prepares players for NBA skills, even if one could be a bigger "star" overseas?

Carlo Rotella: They can make good money abroad--well over a million per season for a star in one of the richer leagues, even up to 2 million, which isn't NBA money but is a very nice deal while it lasts. Even second- and third-tier leagues abroad pay better than the D League. But that's part of what Dan Reed, President of the D League, meant when he described the D League as "graduate school." When you take the D League option you give up the short-term money in order to credential yourself and build skills for a great job up the road, and of course no other league sends as many players into the NBA. Getting from the D League to the NBA is hard, but it's not the irrational fantasy it is for even most talented college players. Taking the short money to position yourself for the jump to the NBA from the D League is a rational choice.

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Washington, D.C.: Do underperforming players in the NBA ever get bumped down to the D League to strengthen their game and then get resigned?

Carlo Rotella: Yes. That's especially the case when an NBA parent team owns a D League team. There are four pairs like that, and the Tulsa 66ers, the team I wrote about, is in one of those pairs. So, in the case of the 66ers, there have been a handful of players who've been down from the Oklahoma Thunder to get playing time, rehab from an injury, etc., and who have gone back up to the parent team. It's not always the case that they're underperforming. Sometimes they're just not going to get the pro playing time they need to develop--often because they're behind somebody in the depth chart who's just better than they are at this stage in the two players' careers--so they get it in the D League.

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Washington, D.C.: How do players get in to the D-League in the first place?

Carlo Rotella: There's a draft, they can try out, they get sent down from the NBA, all sorts of ways. They sign their contract with the league, not with their team, and the league aggressively scouts talent. The highest-rated prospects coming out of college (or high school) still go straight into the NBA, but a lot of other players (the number, as I mentioned before, is something like 20% of all NBA players) come through the D League.

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Washington, D.C.: Do these young men have realistic expectations about their chances of going pro?

Carlo Rotella: Well, we've talked a little about this already, but there's a little more to say. On the one hand, their expectations of making it to the NBA are more realistic than almost anybody else's. The numbers back that up. On the other hand, what does "going pro" really mean. They're already pros. The D League is a pro league, despite the short money, and most of them have played pro somewhere else in the world. The players I talked to were unanimous in saying that playing pro is just different from what they were used to in college. In a way, the jump from, say, Virginia Tech to Hapoel Holon in Israel is bigger than from Holon to the NBA. Also, what does making it to the NBA really mean? A 10-day contract? Several 10-day contracts? A season as 13th man? What these guys have in mind is becoming a regular contributor in the NBA for multiple seasons: a career. Even for players in the D League, arguably as close as you can get to the NBA without being in it, that's a long shot. Perhaps a makeable long shot, but a long shot.

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Wow, salaries abroad are that high?: If you can get paid a million dollars and travel the world for free, why on earth would you pick the D League?

Carlo Rotella: They can be that high, but that's for the elite. You're not going to make anything like that kind of money playing for a second-tier team in Egypt. I think a reasonable rule of thumb is that you can make more abroad than in the D League, but you can make a lot more in the NBA than you can anywhere else.

But there are other factors to consider. Even if you're just doing a cost-benefit analysis, it's worth shooting for the NBA, in which case playing in the D League has greater value than the salary suggests. But they're not just doing a cost-benefit analysis. It's important to them to play against the best, to be the best. As is the case in a lot of other trades, the motivation to make it to the top of this game is a combination of economics and craft. Don't underrate the craft considerations. They have a lot invested in being the best, and to their minds the only way to be the best is to be in the NBA.

But look, I hear what you're saying. See the world, live like a king, play ball, make money...what's not to like? Even so, not everyone's wired to see it that way. Some players I talked to saw it that way, but others described their lives abroad much like their lives in college or in a D League city: practice, lift, eat, rest, video games, call mom, dream of starting for the Lakers, repeat. And some players, like Chris Moore, saw it both ways at once.

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Washington, D.C.: I was surprised by that 20 percent stat, given that I've never heard much about the D League. How come it doesn't get follwoed as closely as, say, college players with a shot at the NBA?

Carlo Rotella: That's actually part of the appeal for me. Some D League teams do draw fans, but I was really taken by the sight of the L.A. D-Fenders, who play their games in the Staples Center in the afternoons before evening Lakers games, playing their hearts out in front of a few dozen scouts, janitors, and hangers around. The contrast to college ball is the most striking. Right now, the college season is at its rah-rah peak, with millions of fans living and dying with each shot, even when a game comes down (as too many college games do come down) to which team misses fewer open threes. Meanwhile, players in the D League toil in something like splendid isolation--sort of like kung fu monks at the Shao Lin Temple in bygone eras--working on their chops. For someone like me, who likes to watch people try to get better at their craft, the D League is in many ways more interesting.

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Washington, D.C.: seems like baseball's minors draw a lot of fans -- families, etc. Does the D-League as well?

Carlo Rotella: Just talked about this before I saw your question, but the answer is no, not in most places. You'd think that a D League team would do all right in cities that don't have any major-league teams, and sometimes that's true, but sometimes it's not.

One thing I was struck by when I was in Boise in January for the D League Showcase: Boise State's football team was undefeated and in a major bowl game, and that completely eclipsed the presence in town of 16 professional basketball teams from all over the nation. There was even a TV set up near the court during Showcase games for those who preferred to keep an eye on Boise State. Granted, that's an extreme case, but it really accentuated the twilight situation of pro players in the D League, hung up between amateur stardom and the professional big time.

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Carlo Rotella: I messed up and somehow deleted a question from Falls Church about salaries. I answered most of it elsewhere, but I'll add a little here. Players go into the D League with their eyes open, making a very complicated calculation that has to be constantly reconsidered. What are my chances at the NBA? Utah's point guard just went down with a knee injury--does that improve them? How much could I be making abroad? What's worth more to me right this second, the better angle on the NBA or the money? What about summer league play as my way into the NBA? Those who can be honest with themselves can make informed decisions to maximize their potential. And, of course, they can improve their games, too, deepening and expanding their skills. Salary--and the potential for future earnings--is just one element of the calculation.

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Carlo Rotella: Time to wrap up on this end. Thanks, all, for your questions and comments.

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