Earning a 10-day contract is a goal for seemingly all D-Leaguers. From there, the uphill battle is just beginning.
NEW YORK -- Imagine working for something your entire life and then having only 10 days to validate it or risk losing it. Sounds foolish right?
Well, that's a fact of life for former NBA D-League players like Hornets guard Donald Sloan and Hornets forward Lance Thomas who, both currently on a 10-day contract, are trying to make their mark – and ultimately stick – in the NBA.
The 10-day contract is a tool used by many NBA teams to evaluate talent on a short-term basis without guaranteeing long-term money. These deals become available to teams starting Jan. 5 each year and a team may sign a player to only two 10-day contracts per season. After that, the team is forced to either waive that player or sign him for the remainder of the year. That guaranteed contract is the D-Leaguers Holy Grail.
While 10-day contracts have been the springboard for many NBA careers – most notably Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen, Anthony Mason and Kurt Rambis – that does not mean that it is an easy proposition for any player.
"It's a roller coaster,” said Sloan, then on his first 10-day contract with the Hornets, before New Orleans’ 89-85 win over New York on Feb. 17. “It's up and down. As soon as you get in you feel like you have to go a hundred miles an hour.”
Sloan has played for the Hornets and Hawks of the NBA and the Erie BayHawks of the D-League so far this year. In eight NBA games, Sloan has averaged 2.3 points and 1.6 assists. While in the D-League, the 6-foot-3 combo guard thrived and averaged 24.8 points and 8.4 assists a night. Sloan was signed to another 10-day contract with the Hornets on Feb. 20.
Fighting for a call up is a fluid situation and D-Leaguers never know when they’re going to get that coveted chance. Many times a player gets called up after an injury to an NBA player, but an opportunity can also arise during an especially rough stretch in a team’s schedule or just because a NBA coach is trying to shake things up. In any case, D-Leaguers need to be ready at a moment's notice. They are professional basketball’s mercenaries.
“I played every game like if I played great that game I would be out of the D-League,” Thomas said in his Hornets’ warm-up gear before he had two points in eight minutes against the Knicks. “Every game I just had a killer mindset.”
Thomas is also currently on his second 10-day contract with the Hornets. After averaging 15.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in 15 games for the Austin Toros of the D-League, the 6-foot-8 forward has averaged 2.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 10 games with New Orleans.
One of the toughest things about the 10-day contract, aside from having to immediately and seamlessly integrate into a new team, is managing how and when to impress the organization. With such a small window, players have limited chances to stand out and prove they belong, but at the same time they need to fit into the team’s system.
In regards to this, Sloan joked that everyone tells him to just "play his game" although, given his new standing on an already established team, that is far from possible.
“You don't get to play the way that got you there,” Sloan said. “Whenever you're out on the court, you're pretty much going to be the fifth option, and that’s coming from a situation where you were the number one option, playing your game. It's a little different, but I think the longer you stay and the more you get to know players, you kind of find your niche and find what you’re supposed to do.”
In a predicament like this – one where your fate is determined by the turn of a page on a calendar – it is paramount for players to control their emotions even if they are constantly counting the days. Thomas, who says his time in the D-League helped him to learn how to play more assertively, has dedicated himself to bringing that attitude to the Hornets.
“I know it’s 10 days, but I’m just going to play confident,” said Thomas. “I’m not gonna play timid and stuff like that. This is what I worked for so I‘m going to play confident and see what happens.”
That way of thinking has served Thomas well in the past. During his time at Duke, basketball fortune did not come relatively easily either. Despite playing on highly ranked teams for his first three years, Duke never advanced past the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament until his senior year.
“We were a No. 1 seed and I was treated like an underdog,” said Thomas of his senior year. “We were expected to lose almost every round except the first round. I can kind of relate that to what I’m doing now with this 10-day. It’s just like, time is ticking. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna tuck your tail and be soft or are you going to fight? I’m fighting. I’m confident in what I can do. There’s a bunch of teams in this league, one of them is going to like something I do.”
Thomas’ Duke squad, despite earlier hardships, went on to defeat Butler to win the 2010 National Championship. That story is a glimpse of what kind of player and person Thomas is, and what kind of individual it takes to succeed in the grueling process between the D-League and the NBA. Never was this more evident than when Thomas was waived by New Orleans on Dec. 31, a fate many D-Leaguers have experienced from NBA teams.
“I didn’t hang my head when I got waived,” said Thomas, with a quiet confidence that has come to define him. “I realized what I had to do. When they released me, they created a monster. I was on a mission when I got back in the D-league, and I just played as hard as I could for as long as I could.”
Players with Thomas’ motivation are what make the D-League so competitive. While playing overseas may be more lucrative for some players, it is the direct pipeline to the NBA that makes the D-League appealing for so many. As Thomas says, there are countless players – either players that haven’t tasted the sweet nectar of the NBA yet, or ones that already had a chance and got sent down – that are “real hungry” for that precious opportunity to make it to the Show. That is what the D-League is all about – even if a substantial breakthrough only means a 10-day contract.
"The level of play is great,” Sloan said of the D-League. “I think any number of guys can be the eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh or twelfth guy on any roster in the NBA right now. The talent level and expectations for those guys are that high.”
With such competitive balance, even supremely skilled D-League players, like the NBADL’s all-time leading scorer Blake Ahearn, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since the 2008-09 season, can find that 10-day contract to be elusive. And then, once in the NBA, the harsh realities of the league may stifle a player’s dream, even if he is doing all the right things when called up.
Sloan’s transition, as pointed out by Hornets guard Jarret Jack, is a tough one. For a “pick and roll” guard, especially one that has to bide his time behind two other facilitators in Jack and Greivis Vasquez, getting the necessary reps with teammates is a difficult proposition. It is one, however, that Sloan will have to overcome to make the team. As for Thomas, he has been trying to impress his teammates with his work ethic.
He has a great motor,” Jack said of Thomas. “Plays hard all the time. He has that thing that you don’t have to push him to play hard, he does it automatically. I’m happy for him. I hope he’s able to last out the entire season, but you know how the business of basketball works sometimes.”
The “business of basketball” is something you’ll hear talked about a lot in locker rooms, especially with fringe players. While true, citing the nature of the game is seemingly little comfort to the legions of players with NBA dreams. In the 2011-12 season, 23 players have been called up from the D-League to the NBA, including eight on only 10-day contracts. Aside from that lucky 23, the rest of the league is in a holding pattern.
If one thing is for certain, it’s a matter of coming back from inevitable disappointment that defines pro careers at this level.
“I’m just going to keep fighting,” said Thomas. “I’m never going to be discouraged by something that wasn’t what I wanted. If I am waived after these 10 days it’s not going to stop me from working hard.”
Ten days. That’s all you get. It is, as Sloan described, an “emotional wreck”. A 240-hour grind that tests both your physical and mental toughness.
And, as in Sloan’s and Thomas’ case, if you are lucky enough, you earn the right to do it all over again.