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Two-way contracts have changed the lives of fringe NBA players and given teams a powerful tool

Thanks to a two-way deal, Quinn Cook, left, went from the edge of the NBA to a valuable contributor on Draymond Green and Steve Kerr's Warriors. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
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SAN FRANCISCO — Entering last season, Quinn Cook existed on the fringes of the NBA. After a four-year career at Duke, he was a success in the G League (then called the NBA Development League), winning the rookie of the year award in 2016 and making the all-star team that year and in 2017.

NBA success? That was another story. Cook signed 10-day contracts with the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans in 2017 but was otherwise off the NBA radar. Last fall, he signed with the Atlanta Hawks for training camp, only to be cut loose.

Cook finally latched on with the defending champion Golden State Warriors — by signing a contract new to the NBA: a two-way deal. The contract meant he would bounce between the Warriors, with whom he could spend up to 45 days during the regular season (excluding the playoffs), and the team’s G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Wizards and Capital City Go-Go can model their partnership after G League success stories

The former DeMatha standout wound up playing a significant role for Golden State, appearing in 17 postseason games on the way to an NBA title. Cook was then signed to a guaranteed contract, entering training camp this year assured of a roster spot for the first time in his career.

“I just wanted to learn as much as possible and stay ready, and obviously I wanted to show everybody that I didn’t belong in the G League, that I belonged in the NBA full time,” Cook said last month. “I think that if the two-way wasn’t available last year, I don’t know where my career would be at right now, but I think the timing was perfect.”

When the two-way contract was introduced last season, it was intended to create the exact opportunity Cook found. Rather than simply having players in the G League and allowing any team to call them up (which is still the case for the vast majority of minor leaguers), NBA teams could invest in the long-term future of a player and have him tied to their organization for at least a season. It also allowed those players to get paid at an NBA rate while with their parent team — a vast raise over the meager salaries given to G League players — and created an additional 60 roster spots for players hoping to latch on in the big league.

“It’s just another bite at the apple, so to speak,” Warriors General Manager Bob Myers said. “It’s a chance to retain the rights of a player, especially young players, and have a longer view of them. It’s great. And I think it’s great for the players as well — especially fringe guys that maybe didn’t have that chance [before]. It gives them a chance to have a longer runway to make the team. . . . It seems like it’s working not just for us, but for other teams.”

One of those teams is the Denver Nuggets, who had two players — Torrey Craig and Monte Morris — on two-way deals last season. Both have earned full roster spots this year. While that was always the plan with Morris, a point guard from Iowa State whom Denver drafted in the second round last year, Craig went from playing three seasons in Australia and New Zealand to becoming a member of the Nuggets’ rotation last year.

“I had confidence in using Torrey in some of the biggest games, the biggest moments, last year,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said. “I trust him. He’s a guy who can guard one through four. He’s a guy who has worked on his jump shot to be a more consistent jump shooter. … Torrey will play this year.”

While teams found success grooming players such as Cook and Craig, not all were able to come to as easy of an understanding on fully guaranteed NBA contracts. Ty Wallace, a long and bouncy guard, was impressive last season for the Los Angeles Clippers on a two-way deal. Not surprisingly, the Clippers wanted to keep him, and they made him a restricted free agent this summer. The problem for Wallace was that all the Clippers had to do to achieve that was offer him another two-way contract. So Wallace, confident he had proved himself as an NBA-ready talent after playing in 30 games (and starting 19), waited to see whether a different team would offer him a full contract.

After more than two months, the New Orleans Pelicans offered a two-year deal with a fully guaranteed first season, and the Clippers eventually matched to keep him.

“It’s crazy because, at the start of free agency, you get phone calls and teams were calling, this and that, and you’ve just got to wait and see how the free agent market unfolds,” Wallace said. “It was just one of those things where, again, you just sit and have to wait and be patient about it.”

Wallace was unequivocal in saying he’s in favor of two-way contracts, but he said changing this part of the process — making the qualifying offer for a two-way player a fully guaranteed NBA deal — is one tweak he’d make so others wouldn’t have to go through a similar situation.

“It makes it a little bit better for the players, to not be stuck in the situation where you’re restricted and teams are scared to come out and offer,” Wallace said. “So it actually gives you a little bit of a positive moment.”

Duncan Robinson, who attended Division III powerhouse Williams College before transferring to Michigan after his freshman year, entered the draft process this spring realistic about his slim prospects of being picked. He and his agent, Jason Glushon, began targeting teams where Robinson would be a good fit if he wasn’t drafted. The Miami Heat — thanks to their track record of developing players and synergy with their G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce — stood out. That his former Michigan teammate, Derrick Walton Jr., had been on a two-way deal with the Heat last season didn’t hurt, either.

“[Walton] had given me pretty good insight into what he had gone through,” Robinson said, adding that even if two-way deals hadn’t come into existence, he still would have pursued an NBA career for at least a couple of seasons before considering going overseas, where a player with his skill set — he’s a 6-foot-8 forward with a smooth three-point shot — could have a long, lucrative career.

The chance to be part of an organization he was comfortable with, and to make significant money up front, helped make signing a two-way contract with the Heat an easy decision.

“For me right now, it’s all about development, continuing to improve, and I think that’s something that Miami does really, really well,” Robinson said. “On top of that, I knew I’d be tested, and I knew I’d be given an opportunity.”

Opportunity and development are why the two-way contract was implemented, and with players such as Cook, Craig and Wallace showing its effectiveness, those chances are only likely to grow for NBA hopefuls.

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