Former D-Leaguers who look to make the transition from D-League star in 2006-07 to key NBA contributor in 2007-08.

D-League Difference Makers For The 2007-08 NBA Season

By Chad Sanders with assistance from Matthew Brennan, D-League.com

By now we are all familiar with the recent successes of D-League call-ups Mikki Moore, Matt Carroll and Matt Barnes. Each of these three players saw plenty of action as important additions to their 2006-07 NBA teams and illustrate the growing trend of D-League call-ups providing substantial contributions for NBA teams.

So, who are this season’s D-League difference makers at the NBA level? Keep an eye on these guys when the 2007-08 season tips off on Tuesday, October 30.

Amir Johnson – Detroit Pistons

Age: 20

Amir Johnson.
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Draft History: Johnson was the Pistons’ second round draft choice in 2005, 56th pick overall, an early entry choice out of high school.

D-League History: Johnson played in and started 22 games with the Sioux Falls Skyforce in 2006-07 averaging 18.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 35.1 minutes per game. Johnson shot over 62% from the field and 75% from the line. The Skyforce compiled a record of 17-5 when Johnson was on assignment from the Pistons.

Description: At a long and slender 6-9 and 210 pounds, Johnson reflects the evolving image of the athletic, versatile power forward emerging in the league. After nearly averaging a double-double with 18.9 points and 9.7 rebounds in 22 starts with Sioux Falls in the D-League, Johnson showed his ability to effectively score around the rim, run the floor and control the paint. At only 20 years old, Johnson is still growing and as his body grows so too will his knowledge of the professional game.

Where he fits with the Detroit Pistons: Joe Dumars, esteemed President of Basketball Operations for the Detroit Pistons, shared his thoughts on Johnson with Chad Ford regarding Johnson’s free agency on the ESPN.com Daily Dish, “If Chauncey Billups is the number one priority, 1A is Amir Johnson… no way we let that kid get away from here. We’re gonna’ re-sign him and we’re gonna’ do what we have to do to make sure that he stays here for years to come. We feel like we have a great piece in him,” raved Dumars. “The reason so many people are interested in him is the same reason that we feel like he’s a priority here. He’s a 6-10 kid that has tremendous upside and has shown that he can get out on the floor and make it happen, so he’s going to be a key piece in our future moving forward…”

Mo McHone, who coached Johnson with the Skyforce, raved about his potential in an interview with Hoopsworld.com. He spoke about the hypothetical scenario of Johnson being available in the 2007 Draft after what would have been his sophomore year of college basketball. “If I were picking, would I pick (Greg) Oden and (Kevin) Durant ahead of him? I probably would. But after that, I can’t imagine who I would take over him, after having coached him. I’m not saying there isn’t somebody else out there, but having coached him, watched him and seeing what his potential is … I know this, if you’re in the top 10 and the last guy you ended up with was Amir Johnson, you’d have to be happy. And if you got him at (No. 56) where Detroit got him, you’ve got to be ecstatic.”

By the start of the 2007-08 playoffs, the Pistons core-four (Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace) will have reached an average age of over 30. In other words, while the nucleus of the team that has reached five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals’ and counting is still capable of leading the way, these aging stars will need plenty of help and rest during the regular season to ensure post-season success. That’s where Johnson and his fellow new-comer Pistons, guards Arron Afflalo and Rodney Stuckey as well as forward Jason Maxiell, will come into play. In what should be his first full NBA season, Johnson should be able to provide the Pistons with enough energy, scoring and rebounding off the bench from the power forward position to spell Wallace and fellow veteran forward Antonio McDyess and keep them fresh and healthy a post-season run. With the addition of scoring forwards Kevin Garnett, Zach Randolph and Rashard Lewis to the Eastern Conference, among others, another lengthy, active defender like Johnson is extremely valuable for Eastern Conference contention. His scoring abilities down low will also keep defenses honest enough to free up the Pistons’ outstanding guard combo of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton from collapses and double-teams.

Kelenna Azubuike – Golden State Warriors

Age: 23

Kelenna Azubuike
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
Draft History: Azubuike was not selected in the 2005 NBA Draft as an early entry candidate out of Kentucky, but played in the preseason with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

D-League History: Azubuike entered the D-League in 2005 and averaged 12.6 points in 41 games with the Fort Worth Flyers, earning Honorable Mention All-D-League honors. He returned to the Flyers for the 2006-07 season and dominated the league over the first two months, leading the league with 26.0 points per game when the Warriors made him the first GATORADE Call-Up of the season. Azubuike scored 20 or more points in 11 out of the 12 games he played with the Flyers.

Description: Azubuike is the prototypical NBA shooting guard at a chiseled 6-5, 220 pounds. He clearly demonstrated what the D-League is about by using the playing experience to harness his physical gifts and develop into an NBA-caliber scorer. Azubuike is very athletic and can use his strength and quickness to get to the rim and finish, but he has also grown into an excellent three-point shooter. He connected on .485 (32-66) of his attempts from long-range in the D-League last season, an impressive number as he was a career .373 three-point shooter in college. He is also a solid free-throw shooter, converting on .794 (54-68) of his attempts with Fort Worth.

Where fits with the Golden State Warriors: Azubuike joined the Warriors in January and made an immediate impact in the NBA, scoring 15 points with five rebounds in only his second game. Azubuike went on to score a career-high 28 points and seven rebound while playing all 48 minutes in a loss to the Clippers on January 16. His playing time was reduced upon the return of Jason Richardson and Mickael Pietrus from injury, but he still completed the season with averages of 7.1 points and 2.3 rebounds in 41 games, including nine starts. The second-year pro then averaged 21 points in two Las Vegas Summer League games before sitting out the remaining games with a sprained ankle. The Warriors demonstrated that they liked what they saw from Azubuike when they inked him to a two-year contract over the summer. "It's where I wanted to be," Azubuike said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. "I was confident that I could bring something to the team and they felt the same way."

This season Azubuike should have an opportunity for increased playing time with Golden State due to the trade of former starting shooting guard Jason Richardson. Azubuike will likely battle fellow D-League alum Matt Barnes as well as Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson for minutes at both shooting guard and small forward. The Warriors’ financial commitment to Azubuike indicates that he will be given every chance to become the latest former D-Leaguer to become an NBA starter.

Von Wafer – Denver Nuggets

Age: 22

Von Wafer
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Draft History: Wafer was a second round draft pick, 39th overall, by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2005 draft as an early entry candidate after his sophomore season at Florida State.

D-League History: Wafer played in and started 42 games for the Colorado 14ers during the 2006-07 season, earning First Team All-D-League honors. In 32.4 minutes per game, Wafer averaged 21.0 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 45% shooting from the three-point line, 45% shooting from the field and 77% shooting from the free-throw line. Wafer made 119 three-pointers in those 42 games.

Description: Think scorer, scorer, scorer. Wafer is an offensive assailant who is always in attack mode on every possession. Wafer still has yet to realize his true NBA potential after playing a backup role to a big-time scoring, shooting guard in Los Angeles who also happens to wear #24. In another stint in the league, Wafer was signed as a reserve for the Denver Nuggets who have some serious playmakers manning the wings of their own, namely Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. But at 6-5 and 210 pounds and possessing an uncanny ability to attack the basket at all angles and possessing dangerous range, Wafer has the prototype body build of the NBA two-guard as well as the intangible scoring attitude that characterizes the league’s most effective basket-fillers.

Where he fits with the Denver Nuggets: Wafer shocked everyone at the Las Vegas summer league with his jaw-dropping 42 point performance – a feat accomplished in just 27 minutes of playing time on a scorching 16-26 from the field including 5-9 from three. Nuggets’ head coach George Karl was clearly impressed by Wafer’s performance and shared his feelings about Wafer with The Rocky Mountain News, “We need one more shooter on the perimeter, and he can be a very good shooter,” Karl said. “He did two things that are NBA style: He shot the ball well and he showed speed… He has the ability to play the game fast.”

Wafer averaged 24.2 points per game in summer league play for the Denver Nuggets, not to mention his 21.0 ppg mark in the D-League this past season. Though Wafer is more scorer than shooter, he has the range to keep defenses honest as evidenced by his 44% clip from the arc in summer league and he is surprisingly quick and elusive with his long, lean body. At this point in his career, Wafer most favorably projects as a spark off the bench in the mold of Ben Gordon with the Chicago Bulls in his first two seasons or Leandro Barbosa of the Phoenix Suns. What’s more impressive than Wafer’s ability to take his man off the dribble and hit the outside shot is his relentlessness in doing so, never seeming to tire on the court. If he can maintain that offensive hunger and his supernatural knack for scoring in the league, Wafer should be able to forge a lasting career an instant offense player, comparable to a more athletic but essentially Voshon Lenard-ish player for the Nuggets who lacked bench scoring at times last season. Wafer is the type of player that can come off the bench for long spells to relieve Anthony or Iverson on the wing without the team missing a beat offensively or having to change pace while spreading the defense for the team’s slashers with his outside shooting touch.

Jose Juan Barea – Dallas Mavericks

Age: 23

Jose Barea
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Draft History: Surprisingly, Barea was not drafted by an NBA team in the 2006 draft, but was quickly signed by the Dallas Mavericks as a free agent on August 17, 2006.

D-League History: Barea appeared in eight games for the Fort Worth Flyers during the 2006-07 season, starting six times. In 36.1 minutes per game, Barea averaged 27.2 points, 7.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.25 steals, topping 40 points in two of his eight D-League games. Barea shot 52% from the field, 78% from the line and 44% from three-point distance.

Description: Barea is a flashy but astonishingly effective point guard who handles the ball fluidly and passes the ball even more masterfully. Barea played only 8 games in the D-League this year, but the remarkable numbers he produced (27.2 ppg, 7.8 apg, 5.0 rpg) speak volumes about his effect on the game in a multitude of ways. However, it’s the way that Barea goes about filling the stat sheet - Steve Nash set-up abilities blended with an Allen Iverson attack mode mentality, along with his own added touches of deft spin moves and behind the back passes – that really pleases fans, teammates and coaches alike. At the Las Vegas summer-league scouts raved of Barea’s ability to lead a team in the open floor and finish with either hand, shoot the pull up 15-footer or find the open man with a pin point pass. NBA higher-ups agree that it is only a matter of time before an NBA team gives the reigns to Barea and allows him to unleash his arsenal on the rest of the league.

Where he fits with the Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks showed their commitment to Barea as a future part of the team’s nucleus by allowing the release date in Barea’s contract to pass on August 1. That said, now it’s up to the Mavericks to find spots to allow Barea’s free-flowing game to benefit the team as it looks to contend for a championship in 2007-08. Barea will have to improve his team defensive concepts in order to find time to crack a rotation that already includes sharp-shooting and defensively able guard Jason Terry and ridiculously quick and long armed guard Devin Harris. Head Coach Avery Johnson has already instilled a serious defensive mindset in this team and has shown that he has no place for defensive liabilities on the floor. However, Barea’s value as a passer and scorer as well as his uncanny basketball IQ make him the offensive ideal as a player that can get on the floor and mix it up providing scoring in bunches and more open looks for superstar forward Dirk Nowitzki as well as Terry, and all-star forward Josh Howard. Just imagine Barea barreling down in the open court with Howard filling the lane and Terry and Nowitzki spotting up at the three point line. Scary.

Luke Jackson – Toronto Raptors

Age: 25

Luke Jackson
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Draft History: Jackson was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 10th overall pick in the first round of the 2004 NBA draft.

D-League History: During the 2006-07 season, Jackson played in 23 games for the Idaho Stampede, starting in 16 games. In 29.7 minutes of action per game, Jackson averaged 14.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists to go along with 1.26 steals per game. Jackson was a 48% shooter from the field and a 49% shooter from three-point distance as well as a 79% shooter from the line. He played out a ten-day contract in January after receiving a call-up to the Los Angeles Clippers before returning to Idaho. The Raptors signed Jackson for the remainder of the season in late March.

Description: Jackson is a sniper from deep who is especially fluid in his shooting stroke and shoots with an exceptionally quick release. Jackson demonstrated his shooting accuracy this season in the D-League as he shot better from beyond three-point range than he did from the field, .486 and .480 marks respectively. After shooting a sizzling 34-70 from deep in just 23 games, Jackson caught the eye of several NBA teams, the Toronto Raptors being so fortunate as to win his services for next year.

Where he fits with the Toronto Raptors: At 6-7 and possessing that quick release so coveted in outside shooters, Jackson should be able to provide some outside hits to take pressure and double teams off of Chris Bosh as he continues to grow into a dominant force around the basket. Jackson is another versatile player who can shoot, pass (3.9 apg in the D-League) and run the floor to add to the Raptors’ promising nucleus of young talent.

Shortly after Jackson’s signing, Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo spoke to NBA.com about how Jackson was the D-League player that he thought would be a great fit for the team. “The need that we had was for a shooter, and we were looking for someone with experience, which Luke has, said Colangelo. “He has used the D-League to work his way back from a series of injuries which made him ineffective early in his career, but he’s taking advantage of the D-League opportunity to get back to the NBA level.”

With pass-first point-guards T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon running the show, Jackson should benefit as the recipient of effective penetration-and-kick-outs from the guards. He should fit nicely as the next piece of the puzzle for the raptors who continue to make savvy front-office moves in securing the team’s future. With Jackson on the outside gunning anywhere close to his 48%+ accuracy mark posted in the D-League, Bosh and 2006 #1 draft choice Andrea Bargnani should have room to continue to develop into superstars and the Raptors should become a staple in the Eastern Conference playoffs for years to come.

Lou Amundson – Philadelphia 76ers

Age: 24

Lou Amundson
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Draft History: Amundson was not selected by an NBA team in 2006 Draft out of UNLV but spent time with the Sacramento Kings in the preseason. He then signed with the D-League and was allocated to Colorado.

D-League History: Amundson took the D-League by storm in 2006-07, averaging 11.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks while earning D-League Rookie of the Year honors. The 6-9 forward earned a call-up to the Utah Jazz before finishing the season with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was one of three Colorado 14ers to be named All-D-League first team.

Description: Amundson is the type of player that you can’t help but notice during a basketball game. Although he may look like a taller version of teammate Kyle Korver, Amundson’s game revolves around rebounding, shot-blocking, and dunking instead of knocking down threes. Listed at 6-9 and 226 pounds, Amundson may not be the ideal size for an NBA power forward but his hustle and great athleticism can make up the difference. Great leaping ability makes Amundson a premier shot blocker. He was ranked among the D-League’s leaders with 2.5 per game last season and turned away eight shots in the 76ers’ last four games of the 2006-07 season. On offense, Amundson is a presence on the offensive boards, pulling down eight offensive rebounds in his first NBA game of extended playing time against the Pistons late last season.

Where he fits with the Philadelphia 76ers: Amundson is coming off an impressive showing at the Las Vegas Summer League and the Rocky Mountain Revue, where he averaged 15.4 points and 9.8 rebounds. Amundson was named to the All-Revue team in as the 76ers compiled a 5-0 record in Utah. The 76ers have been pleased by his progress over the summer. “He's an energetic guy,” Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks said in an interview with Phillyburbs.com. “He's a guy that goes to the glass, blocks shots and does a lot of little things like that. You can never have too many energy guys.” 76ers director of basketball operations Tony DiLeo added, “I think every team needs a player like him. He’s just relentless. He hustles, takes charges, dives on the floor.”

Amundson will head to training camp with the 76ers and attempt to make the 15-man roster. He will have his work cut out for him as the team added a bevy of frontcourt players during the offseason through the draft (Jason Smith, Herbert Hill), free agency (Calvin Booth), and trades (Reggie Evans), plus the potential return of Shavlik Randolph from injury. Even if Amundson does not fit in with the 76ers to start the season, plenty of NBA teams should be willing to pick up a player with the energy that he brings to the court.