Hannah, Smith Stand Out Among NBA D-League's Finest at 2012 Elite Mini Camp

The 2012 camp brought together nearly three dozen of the NBA D-League's very best NBA Prospects. A few managed to stand above the rest.

Just across the river from Obama for America’s national headquarters, Leo Lyons spent most of Monday and Tuesday campaigning.

Over the course of four years at the University of Missouri and two more years in the NBA D-League, the 6-foot-9-inch power forward’s built up a bit of a reputation among NBA front-office electorate. The voters – in other words, NBA scouts – know he can score. They know he can stretch the floor. But they’d like to see, as voters do, a little more.

“It’s definitely been an uphill battle [in terms of perception],” he said. “It’s been really tough for me mentally and physically. I go out there and grab 16 rebounds and they still say I wasn’t working hard enough. Sometimes you feel like you can’t win, but I just keep on pushing.”

Which is why, at the end of the first day of the NBA D-League’s two-day Elite Mini Camp at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Lyons could barely walk.

Leo Lyons (center) runs through a drill with fellow Top Prospects Osiris Eldridge and Tyrell Biggs. Lyons consistently ranked near the top of the Prospect Watch all year long, despite a drop in numbers after going from Austin to Dakota. Photo Gallery
Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

"I was super-focused,” he said. “I didn’t leave anything on the court. I played til I had cramps. I almost collapsed in our fourth quarter, I was so tired.”

Lyons certainly wasn’t alone. As one of nearly three-dozen players invited to the league’s annual Elite Mini-Camp – a sort of micro-Showcase that puts Top Prospects in front of more than 50 scouts and front-office personnel – the last two days gave him an opportunity to show off parts of his game that often fade into the background during the season. An opportunity to alter some misconceptions. To glow on someone’s radar. And an opportunity to do so, most importantly, while competing against only the leagues’ very best prospects.

“In my mind, the NBA’s obviously the best players in the world and these guys are the second-best,” said Bob MacKinnon, head coach of the NBA D-League’s Springfield Armor and one of the Mini-Camp’s coordinators.

“I think I got my name out there,” said Canton Charge point guard T.J. Campbell. “That’s what everyone’s trying to do, and I think I did a good job getting to my name out to anybody who’s watching.”

So it’s no coincidence that the Elite Camp takes place in the two days before the NBA Pre-Draft Camp, when somewhere near 50 of the best amateur prospects in this year’s Draft class come to Chicago to show off for scouts before the NBA Draft. Both events bring the prospects to the front-office personnel. Both give talent evaluators an intimate look at players’ skill sets.

Except this one doesn’t come with a seven-figure price tag at the end of it.

“I think if you’re looking for players who are ready to help your Summer League team and fight for a spot on your roster in the 11 to 15 spots, this is where you’re gonna find them,” he said. “This is where you’re gonna find guys who aren’t gonna cost you a ton of money, who are already professional.”

So, for two days, MacKinnon and his other coaches – including NBA D-League head coaches Jay Larranaga (Erie), Alex Jensen (Canton), Nate Bjorkgren (Dakota), along with assistants Joel Abelson (Idaho), Steve Gansey (Fort Wayne), Chris Carrawell (Springfield) and Gene Cross (Iowa) – ran the Prospects through three full games and hours upon hours of situational drills. The games showed how well the players faired against a distilled talent pool. The drills showed how they’d work in a pick-and-roll scheme. Or transition. Or, simply, just how much they’ve bothered to keep themselves in shape in the nearly two months since most of their seasons ended.

“Going through the drills and the games, I like to watch games that play hard, from the first drill in the first minute to the last 30 seconds of a game that’s over,” said Canton Charge head coach Alex Jensen. “Not the guys that have those peaks and valleys, effort-wise.”

Which made somebody like Springfield’s Jerry Smith – an NBA D-League All-Star in 2011-12 who earned a Call-Up to the Nets in March – stand out from the start.

“You always wonder what kind of shape guys will come in with, because it’s the offseason and they’re on their own,” Jensen said. “But he came in and he’s in great shape. He played hard. It was very impressive.”

Smith, who placed himself near the top of the list in the MVP race this year, had some company. In a two-day event, amidst the best pro talent outside the NBA, it’s tough for anyone to really shine, MacKinnon said. But a few managed.

And none more than Dakota Wizards guard and 2012 NBA D-League Defensive Player of the Year Stefhon Hannah, said Fort Wayne’s Gansey.

Not only did Hannah stick to his man like a missed payment, his offensive game looked as NBA-ready as anyone’s, the coach said. Factor in Hannah’s 12-game stretch to finish the regular season that saw him average 24.5 points (including highs of 43, 37 and 29) and more than two steals a night, and the second-year guard out of Missouri left arguably the biggest imprint on the Camp of anyone in attendance.

“You can tell he’s been working on his offensive game,” Gansey said. “That’s one of the things he’s been showcasing. Toward the end of the year, he became a tough guy to go against. He was a good leader [at Mini-Camp]. His team went 3-and-0 when they played 5-on-5.”

“Everybody who played with Hannah looked good,” Gansey said. “He made guys look really good, with easy buckets, easy shots.”

Two of Gansey’s players with the Mad Ants – Darnell Lazare and Ron Howard – were both recipients of those easy shots, and both left the camp having shown themselves well, the coaches said.

As did Dakota forward Marcus Dove, whose size, versatility and bounce kept clipboards busy for two days. Not to mention fellow big Kyle Goldcamp, who looked consistently like the best big man in attendance, after a season that nearly earned him Most Improved honors. Or the Springfield quartet of Smith, JamesOn Curry, L.D. Williams and Dennis Horner.

For Horner – the man who became the first player to jump from Open Tryouts to the NBA this year – it was Austin’s Luke Zeller who impressed most. Horner’s already a rebounder and a force on the inside, but to stick in the NBA, he said, he’ll need to develop a consistent shot from the outside. Which made it all the more striking to watch the 6-foot-11 Zeller hitting three after three.

“I haven’t played against him all year,” Horner said. “He can do everything.”

Zeller's performance came as a bit of a surprise, following a season in which he contributed to the Austin Toros' championship efforts, but ceded a lot of playing time to Eric Dawson and Julian Wright in the frontcourt. But few big men in the NBA D-League have the range he does, and in the right NBA system, he (and clone Brian Butch) could turn into a viable threat from outside.

And when he plays for the San Antonio Spurs in the Vegas Summer League from July 13-22, he’ll have a chance to prove it.

“I learned a lot playing on [the Toros],” He said. “You want be able to fit into different roles and play a different role here, versus the Toros, is just like adding tools to my toolbox in terms of being effective in different spots.”

The majority of the prospects still haven’t made final arrangements for Summer League, but the NBA invites should start rolling out soon, giving prospects their long-awaited chance to compete against current NBA talent. For still more, a bid to the NBA D-League Select team awaits.

For now though, after two days spent trying to alter their futures, it’s time to take a breather.

Said Hannah with a laugh: “I’m a little burnt-out.”