Developing a Champion

The Los Angeles D-Fenders became a hotbed for NBA Development League prospects in their first year back after a one-season hiatus.

On May 15th, the D-Fenders were named the inaugural NBA D-League Development Champion, capping off the team’s record-breaking year that included the mark for most wins in a single season. The honor is given to the NBA D-League team that best embodies the league’s goals of developing NBA basketball talent through NBA GATORADE Call-Ups and assignments.

“I think it shows the dedication we have here in getting the best talent available out there for our D-League team,” D-Fenders President/CEO Joey Buss said. “The purpose of that obviously shows that the better talent you have for that team, the higher the likelihood that those players can go on and make an impact in the NBA. Our goal here, to serve the Lakers, is to find those players specifically for them, and then also develop players that they currently have in addition to that.”

In the race for the Development Champion crown, the D-Fenders amassed an impressive 31.25 points after totaling eight NBA Call-Ups, one staff call-up, and seven player assignments. The next closest teams were the Austin Toros (22.50 points) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (21.50 points). Points are awarded to teams for call-ups and player assignments.

After just 36 games, it seemed like the D-Fenders were a lock to win the award even though it’s not something they were necessarily targeting. By February 27th, Gerald Green (New Jersey), Jamaal Tinsley (Utah), Ishmael Smith (Orlando), Courtney Fortson (Los Angeles Clippers), Malcolm Thomas (San Antonio) and Associate Head Coach Clay Moser (Los Angeles Lakers) had been called-up.

Add in a second call-up each for Fortson and Thomas to Houston, along with Jamario Moon’s signing with Charlotte near the end of the season, and the D-Fenders oversaw the development of six D-League players.

“I think a lot of our call-ups were due to a snowball effect,” Buss explained. “What I mean by that is we had a few call-ups at the beginning and then we replaced those players who then also got called up.”

Glenn Carraro, in his first season as the general manager for the D-Fenders, was instrumental in acquiring new talent every time a player moved up to an NBA team.

“Our goal is to develop players for our Laker team,” Carraro said. “If they get called up and play well for other NBA teams, that’s great too.”

Thanks in part to a compressed 66-game schedule, the Lakers made use of their minor league club more than ever, assigning Devin Ebanks, Andrew Goudelock, Darius Morris, Christian Eyenga and Derrick Caracter to the D-Fenders. Prior to the 2011-12 season, Jordan Farmar, Coby Karl and Sun Yue were the only Lakers who had suited up for the D-Fenders.

“It was a great opportunity that the Lakers gave us with those players,” Buss noted. “To be able to see them in action and really get their development going so that they could return to the Lakers a little bit more prepared [was great] and it really helps out with the fans.”

Not only did it benefit the fans, but it proved advantageous for Lakers management. In fact, Lakers Executive Vice President of Player Personnel Jim Buss, General Manager Mitch Kupchak, Head Coach Mike Brown and his staff often attended D-Fenders games to see the player development first-hand.

“I think it definitely helps when there’s a special camaraderie in the building,” D-Fenders’ Head Coach Eric Musselman said. “Hopefully when Mitch sent a guy down from the Lakers, we did our job, which is to try to help that player build his confidence up, get his timing back, because usually those are players that aren’t playing many minutes. We have to serve a purpose for the Lakers.”

Winning the first-ever Development Champion award undeniably topped off a ridiculously successful season for the D-Fenders. The team won an NBA D-League record 38 games, claimed the Regular Season Champion award and reached the NBA D-League Finals for the first time in franchise history. While the D-Fenders fell in the final game of the best-of-three Finals series versus Austin, the accomplishments of the team stand among the greatest in the NBA D-League’s 11-year history.

Musselman gives credit for the success this season to the front office and to his assistant coaches Conner Henry and Phil Hubbard along with player development coach Larry Lewis. As Musselman puts it, the coaches did “just did a phenomenal job pre-practice as well as post-practice” of helping the players develop and aiding in the team’s record-breaking season.

Meanwhile, Joey Buss looks back on the year and is “more than satisfied with how this season played out, especially with getting the Development Champion [award].” “One of our purposes here is to serve the Lakers and I think that is the best way to serve the Lakers through that medium,” Buss continued. “You can’t not be happy with how this season played out.”