NBA D-League Dreams: The Maybe-Matchups

As the NBA and NBA D-League align closer and closer together, more big names will spend more time on assignment and rehab stints. And if the timing works, these are five of the rising-star showdowns to look for.
Over the five months that made up the 2011-12 NBA Development League season, players moved to and from the league and the NBA a record-eviscerating 124 times. Sixty times, players went from the NBA D-League to the Association. Sixty-four times, NBA players went on assignment to the Development League.

The previous mark? Ninety-six.

For all the reasons to suspect that the 2012-13 season might not reach the GATORADE Call-Up mark set last year (60, surpassing the previous high of 40) – more time between NBA games and some NBA-ready players (Malcolm Thomas, Jerry Smith, Justin Dentmon) going overseas – the more substantive stuff argues for the affirmative: greater emphasis on single-affiliations, more proof that NBA D-Leaguers can impact the league (Jeremy Lin, Gerald Green), rosters permanently expanded to 13 players (from 12) and an ever-expanding trust in the NBA D-League on the part of the NBA.

But if upward movement – a sort of new-money, social mobility – defined the 2011-12 season, look for a sort of long-term strategy of growing young talent within the confines of the NBA D-League to take over the league this year and in the ones to come. Instead of letting raw talent rust on the end of the bench, teams may very well start sending rooks and other projects to the NBA D-League for 30 to 40 minutes of action a night to fine tune their existing skill sets.

Last year, the big name was Marcus Morris, the Rockets’ lottery pick who went to Rio Grande Valley. This year, we could have a whole lot more in store. And these are the potential matchups that could await us.

Fab Melo (Celtics) vs. Andre Drummond (Pistons)

Ok, so if Drummond keeps playing the way he did Thursday against the Raptors (12 points, 7 boards, 2 blocks), he’ll finish somewhere on the podium for Rookie of the Year. And that might turn out to be the way it all works out.

But, according to Golden State Warriors assistant GM (and Santa Cruz Warriors head GM) Kirk Lacob, players drafted No. 9 through No. 30 have right around the same probability of sticking around the NBA as do players drafted in the second round. And when you take into account that Drummond just turned 19 years old – an age when a royal bounty of his peers are still slamming Snooze during 11 a.m. lecture classes – inconsistency probably still lies ahead. Meanwhile, the Pistons had success last year when they sent down Vernon Macklin, who shredded the league and came back to Detroit with a little more polish and a lot more fire.

Meanwhile, in Celtics camp, a number of reports portray Melo -- the No. 22 overall pick in this year's draft and himself a 22-year-old, seven-foot stack of raw materials – as the remainder in the Celtics’ frontcourt calculus.

Drummond (UConn) and Melo (Syracuse) matched up in the Big East, and if they’re both down early in the year, they’ll get a chance to collide when the Mad Ants (Detroit’s affiliate) and Red Claws (Boston’s) meet four times in the first month of the season. Bill it as The Gore and Pain in Fort Wayne (and Maine).

Festus Ezeli (Warriors) vs. DJ Mbenga (Mavericks)

Mbenga, a Congo-born center a two-time NBA champ with the Lakers, came into the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks in 2004. And it looks like he’ll finish there, too – unless, of course, he hangs it up with the Texas Legends.

When Mbenga signed with the Mavericks in mid-September, he did so with the understanding that he’d start his comeback with the Legends as a result of the Affiliate Player Rule, which allows NBA D-League teams to claim up to three players in their affiliate’s NBA camp. And on Oct. 2, when the Mavs cut Mbenga, the process began.

Meanwhile, in Golden State, one of the single best stories in the NBA could take a spin or two in the NBA D-League if he has trouble cracking the NBA Warriors’ lineup. Right now, according to Warriors beat writer Matt Steinmetz, he looks to be the No. 2 center on the depth chart, but the Nigerian-born Ezeli could stand to benefit from a long run in a place where he can develop his overall (not just defensive and shot-blocking) game.

The Legends and Warriors meet three times between February and March.

Tony Wroten (Grizzlies) vs. Jared Cunningham (Mavericks)

Tony Wroten can play. And so can Jared Cunningham.

But the question, as it always is for budding guards trying to slot into low-capacity backcourts, will they have a chance to do so in the NBA this year?

Wroten’s already seen himself linked to the NBA D-League, after Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said in July that, while the 19-year-old showed himself well in workouts, he still had a way to go to break into a deep Memphis lineup.

"We'll see how fast he progresses," Lionel Hollins told the Seattle Times. "It will be difficult for him because we're deep there. If he doesn't make it, there's a chance he could spend time in (NBA D-League) Reno.

"Like a lot of one-and-done guys, Tony still has a lot of work to do on the defensive end. He's never been called on to play defense the way we will want him to play at this level. It's a big adjustment.”

As for Cunningham, who shared a spot on the All Pac-12 First Team with Wroten (Washington) last year, the former Oregon State megastar surprised a few by declaring for the draft – despite projections that include comparisons to Gary Payton and Russell Westbrook. However, there’s not much more the 21-year-old could have accomplished in Corvallis, leaving 11 school records in his wake. But even finishing second in the Pac-12 in scoring and first in steals isn’t enough of a track record to find regular time in a Rick Carlisle lineup as an NBA freshman.

Wroten and Cunningham could certainly carve out roles for themselves, but if they don’t, make sure to highlight two March matchups between Texas (Dallas’ affiliate) and Reno (Memphis’) on your e-calendar.

Avery Bradley (Celtics) vs. Ricky Rubio (T-Wolves)

Although the latest news on Avery Bradley contains, at last, some hope -- he says he’s progressing faster than expected in recovering from the shoulder injury that ended his 2011-12 season -- that doesn't mean he'll be back with the Celtics until December or January. And even then, don't count on him going right to Boston.

Not only are we entering a new epoch in the NBA D-League, one in which teams can send veterans (players with three or more seasons of experience in the NBA) to the D-League for rehab (as the Mavs did with Yi last year), but the Celtics and Red Claws just nestled a whole lot closer this offseason. All that – combined with the fact that so much of Bradley’s value comes in his defense and, with that, his conditioning – makes him the most likely of the currently injured set of NBA players (Andrew Bynum, Eric Gordon) to start the year on a rehab stint. Well, maybe Roddy Beaubois, too. And John Wall. *Seriously

And Ricky Rubio.

Rubio, who tore his ACL in March, might not return until the holidays – or later --but he’s made huge strides (not leaps, mind you) over the past few months. And the Timberwolves, who looked like playoff contenders and boosted their Twitter following by more than 115 percent in five months thanks in large part to Rubio (and K-Love), know how precarious that progress can be. It’ll take Rubio some time to adjust back to the speed of the game in the NBA – physically and mentally – and for a player looked at by management as a pillar for the franchise, expect the Wolves to give him that. Potentially in Sioux Falls. Especially given that the Wolves finally have some depth in the backcourt. To do what Rubio does – ie: play like he’s one of the guys pulling the strings in The Hunger Games – he needs quickness, confidence and cutting ability, and he can work his way back to all three in Sioux Falls.

Oh yeah, Bradley’s speculative Maine Red Claws and Rubio’s speculative Sioux Falls Skyforce meet three times in the month of December.

Draymond Green (Warriors) vs. Evan Fournier (Nuggets)

The 2011 Draft featured four international players in the Top 10. 2012? Not as much. Fournier became the first foreign player off the board when he went No. 20 to the Nuggets. But in many ways, he looks like as much of a lock for a decade-long NBA career as any of the four who went in 2011.

Fournier tore up the nets at Summer League, scoring 14.8 points per game (though on only 40.7-percent shooting from the field) and hitting more than 36 percent of his 3-pointers. He never quite got into the flow, though. As his teammate Kenneth Faried said, Fournier still had to get used to sharing the ball on the NBA level, instead of just taking over, as the 19-year-old did in France. His defense needs work, too. Fournier notched seven fouls in three separate Summer League games. To flesh out the young Frenchman’s game, look for George Karl – whose son Coby has NBA D-League experience – to get Fournier some formative time with the Iowa Energy.

Green, for his part, could turn out to be one of the better second-round picks of the past five years. Going to the Warriors at No. 35 overall, he fell out of his projected spot in the first round because of defensive concerns – because, well, Green (who joined Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson last year as the only players to record multiple triple-doubles in the NCAA Tournament) can do pretty much everything else. But if he had trouble defending in school, the NBA won’t get any easier. To fit into Mark Jackson’s ever-evolving defense-first philosophy, he’ll have to improve there. Expect him to do at least some of that in Santa Cruz.

The Energy meet the Santa Cruz Warriors on Mar. 16.

John Wall vs. Anybody

In addition, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 Draft. With John Wall out another six weeks after going down with a stress-related knee injury to his knee on Sept. 28, his return date’s looking like somewhere near the end of December or early January. Sure, the Wiz want him back. But, like the Nationals showed by shutting down Steven Strasburg, the Wizards don’t want to jeopardize his long-term (or even short-term) health by rushing him back for a few extra games at the NBA pace. Don’t be shocked if he spends a few games with the Iowa Energy, ramping up into full game shape and scraping off the rust. Plus, his team’s a friend to the NBA D-League, having called up three players and assigned one in 2011-12.