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Prospect Watch: What's The Difference?

With NBA D-League All-Star voting wrapping up on Friday, we take a look at what differentiates a prospect from an All-Star.
Andre Emmett (center) has gone on a rampage since returning to the NBA D-League.
And for the first time in his career, it's happening on both ends of the floor.
Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images


In a little over three weeks, the best players in the NBA Development League will take the court in Orlando for the 2012 NBA D-League All-Star Game.

And when the NBA next comes calling, it could very well be one of the guys sitting at home that answers the phone.

It’s the nature of the NBA D-League that the All-Star team and the list of its top prospects don’t always completely overlap. From NBA-ready players who haven’t been with their teams long enough to learn everybody’s names to shot-blockers that go quiet on the offensive end, the top prospect list tends to be a little more complicated than All-Star balloting.

For one, an ideal Prospect – capital P this time – is something more than just a world-class player. By definition, has to be. To get to the next level, greatness is a given. But to make the leap from the NBA D-League to the NBA, he’s got to have something else.

And any number of these would be a good start.

Be A Jack Of One Trade

Do one thing. Do it extremely well. There’s certainly space for great all-around players in the NBA, but chances are they’re already there. For an NBA Development League player, a call-up generally means playing a specific role on an NBA squad. Take Malcolm Thomas: After Greg Stiemsma made the big-man-deficient Celtics out of training camp, Thomas was the best-available shot blocker when he was called up to the Spurs.

Walker Russell punched his ticket to the Pistons as a nearly one-dimensional point guard, opting to pass, or look to pass, or think about passing or at the very minimum entertain what might happen if he passed. With only 16 games under his belt in the NBA D-League this year (he also spent training camp in Detroit), he’s still only five total assists behind cumulative leader Dominique Coleman, who’s played 26 games.

Defensive Ability

Like a scout at Showcase told us, if you can’t defend somebody in the NBA D-League, you definitely can’t defend somebody in the NBA. Only a few players in the NBA D-League build reputations on their ability to take over the game on the defensive end – Tulsa’s Jerome Dyson for one; Reno’s Mo Charlo is another – so those who do tend to stand out. Those who only play on one side of the floor can stand out, too – they just tend to keep doing so on the farm.

Personality & Character

Thirty points a night in the NBA earn you some leeway for a tantrum every now and then. Thirty seconds a night, said a scout we met at Showcase, earns you the right to remain silent and let your game speak for you. NBA teams tend to pass on players that they think will cause any chemistry issues on the Show; on the other end, though, guys like the perma-smiling Mike James can add some life to a locker room.

Great Media Day Photos

It worked for Squeaky Johnson.

Consistency

NBA teams like to know what they’re getting from call-ups, and players who can give the same performance, night-after-night, are a safer bet than the ones whose stat lines look like heart monitors.

Energy

In a hyper-condensed season that’s already wearing rosters thin, call-ups are lifelines. Players who can fly up and down the court for 40 minutes in the NBA D-League – then contort themselves into a bus seat and do the same thing, across state lines, the next day – show scouts that they’ll certainly be able to do the same for 10-15 minutes a night in the NBA.

Athleticism & Adaptability

Like Anthony Mason, Sr. told us at Showcase, call-ups have to be willing to do whatever NBA teams ask of them. In his case, that meant going from a 2-guard in college to a demolition crew in the NBA. Guys like Lance Thomas – who’s shown an ability to defend anybody from the wing to the rim – provide a lot of potential value in their scalability.

Intelligence

After getting the call-up, players have to learn a system right away. Occasionally, even that night. The single-affiliation system helps the transition process, but it certainly helps a prospect’s chances if he can absorb an entire preseason’s worth of training during a pregame speech.

Ball Control

Turnovers tend to be pretty effective scout-repellent. For people like Austin’s Justin Dentmon, the league’s top combo guard, his 4.6 turnover-per-game clip (and 1.18 assist-to-turnover ratio) subdue a lot of the enthusiasm that his 24-point, 5.4-assist per game averages generate.

Timing

It’s, as much in the NBA D-League as anywhere else in life, everything. When Mike James got called up to the Bulls after Showcase – just two games after signing with the Erie BayHawks – he went up because Chicago was looking for a proven veteran to bolster their point guard corps in the wake of a Derrick Rose injury. He filled the hole and fit the moment. For others, it’s just a matter of waiting for fate to smile down on them.

NBA Pedigree

Having some experience in the NBA helps. James’ NBA pedigree helped his call-up cause, and Manny Harris’ success in the big league last year has kept him atop the prospect charts since his return. However, it certainly doesn’t make a player a sure thing: the flood of former NBA players that hit the NBA D-League before Showcase has begun to thin out a bit (Greg Ostertag and Ricky Davis have left the league, for example).

No. 1: BEN UZOH
Guard, Rio Grande Valley (Tulsa)

Uzoh suffered through his worst shooting performance of the season in a win over Fort Wayne on Jan. 25, going only 4-of-13 from the floor -- following a 13-for-15 night four days prior -- but he did tack on five boards, four assists and four steals. And keep in mind: that was his worst game in the league this year. He then came back and scored a combined 38 points against the Legends on consecutive nights, averaging six rebounds, 3.5 assists and just 1.5 turnovers in 34.5 mpg across the two. Throw in the fact that he's already proven himself a capable NBA-level defender and you've got a repeat seat as the No. 1 guy on the list.

No. 2 MANNY HARRIS
Guard, Canton Charge (Michigan)

We put Harris on the back burner last week, writing that he needed some more time to heal from a foot injury that knocked him out of Cavs training camp. Turn the heat back up. Earning NBA D-League Performer of the Week honors for his efforts, Harris rattled off three of his best games of the year, recording a 25.0-point, 7.3-rebound and 4.3-assist average – including a 22-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist night against Bakersfield on Jan. 27.

His minutes have tracked upwards, too – he averaged 34 a night last week, after 28.6 a week prior – and he’s looking more and more like the guy who sailed a thousand scouts’ pens when he returned to the court at Showcase. He shot 52 percent last week, but his best night as a prospect may have come when he went 3-for-11 from the field: knowing that his shot wasn’t sinking, he forced his way to the foul line over and over, sinking 14 of 16.

No. 3 ANDRE EMMETT
Forward, Reno Bighorns (Texas Tech)

Six years ago, the leading scorer in Texas A&M history came to the NBA D-League looking to prove he could score with anybody in the NBA. Now, he’s doing everything he can to prove that he just belongs there. Without giving up a bit of his scoring touch (Emmett’s shooting 54 percent from the field…and 52.3 percent from 3-point range), he’s also defending more, rebounding more and overall, just doing more. A long stint abroad – where he once scored 71 points in a Chinese Basketball Association game – either got the one-on-one bug out of his system or made him hungrier for the NBA, and now, Emmett looks poised for a chance.

No. 4: EDWIN UBILES
Forward, Dakota Wizards (Siena)

Ubiles’ rebounding numbers have also taken a hit lately, but he’s making more than 50 percent of his shots over the past two weeks and making himself a presence on both sides of the court. One of the most athletic players in the league, Ubiles has a frame and skill set that could see him in an NBA rotation sooner than later.

No. 5: ELIJAH MILLSAP
Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders (Alabama-Birmingham)

Millsap’s now scored 20 points in five of his last six games – the only aberration being a scoreless (and shotless) night against the Charge on Jan. 28 that came after a 27-shot night against Bakersfield two days prior. He’s shooting (and missing) more than he had been and forcing the issue a little too much – and not putting up the rebounding numbers he’d shown himself capable of – but in terms of athleticism and upside, few can rival Millsap.

No. 6: JUSTIN DENTMON
Guard, Austin Toros (Washington)

Dentmon, as usual, had no trouble scoring in his one game last week, tossing up 28 points in 43 minutes (on 12-of-22 shooting). Meanwhile, he notched five assists and seven rebounds and – maybe most encouraging of all – only turned the ball over three times. It’s not a great stat, but for somebody who had nine of ‘em two weeks ago against Reno (and 12 combined in the two games before), Dentmon helped his cause by holding onto the ball against an unrelenting Reno defense.

No. 7: BLAKE AHEARN
Guard, Reno Bighorns (Missouri State)

Ahearn hasn’t missed a free throw since the first day of winter (Dec. 21). During that time, he’s gone 16 games and 102 foul shots without clanking another one, which puts him far beyond the NBA D-League record (his own) and six ahead of the NBA record of 99 – set by Micheal Williams in 1993. The only other mark to beat? John Wooden’s all-time professional basketball record of 134, which he set back in 1937-38 season, while a member of the excellently named Indiana Kautskys. He also recently became the league’s all-time leading scorer, passing previous leader Desmon Farmer.

Ahearn’s an example of being on the wrong side of timing and perception (the latter claiming that he can’t run an NBA offense) – but his point guard skill set has blossomed this year, and no one in the history of this league has shown the night-by-night consistency he has.

No. 8: MARCUS LEWIS
Forward, Tulsa 66ers (Oral Roberts)

Foul trouble in Saturday’s loss to Fort Wayne ended Lewis’ double-double streak at eight games (and 16 in 17 games) and his double-figure rebounding streak at 17. But before that, he’d averaged 15 rebounds in his last four games, including 11 on Friday night against the Mad Ants. His scoring totals have taken a hit over the past two weeks, with Lewis racking up only 12 points per game over his last six, but he only had six turnovers in his past three games, after some issues earlier in the month. Lewis looks like a prime call-up for after the All-Star break, when the season reaches a sprint and big men reach a lumber, but watch out for any big bodies in street clothes – right now, few people outside the NBA can get their team the ball with the consistency Lewis can.

No. 9: MORRIS ALMOND
Guard, Maine Red Claws (Rice)

Almond, an NBA player from 2007-09 who had been playing all over the Old World since 2010, burst back onto the NBA D-League scene last week with a huge set of games for the Red Claws (the last team he’d played for in the NBA Development League before going overseas). In week two, he produced more of the same – which is to say the ability to score largely at will and a penchant for rebounding that he’d never shown in his previous three seasons in the league. Up to this season, he’d averaged less than 4.5 boards per game.

In five games so far – a small sample size, sure, but one big enough to detect a change of heart – he’s already posted three games with nine or more boards and a 7.6 rpg average. Oh yeah, he’s also dishing the ball better than he ever has and turning the ball over less than half as often as he had going into this season.

No. 10 JAMESON CURRY
Guard, Springfield Armor (Oklahoma State)

Curry, who looks to be fully healed from an ankle he tweaked at Showcase – or at least healed enough to start pushing Dentmon for the title of League’s Best Combo Guard – put up yet another strong week last week, racking up an 18.5-point, five-assist average in two games. Curry just turned 26, but he commands respect and admiration among his peers like somebody 10 years older.