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Prospect Watch: The Pivot Point

Historically, the majority of call-ups happen after the All-Star break. What does that mean for a season that's already sending players to the NBA at a record pace?
With the NBA season about to double-up in intensity, big men like Zach Andrews could soon be headed up. With or without the dress.
Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

We try not to spend too much time looking back. Jeremy Lin excluded. The NBA Development League is, after all, rooted in the future. As our boys at Ridiculous Upside say, it’s where potential is much cooler than reality.

But we can make an exception here. Because, in 2011-12, reality’s been pretty great. Nearly historic, in fact. With 29 GATORADE Call-Ups already this season, featuring 26 different players, this NBA D-League season is on pace to absolutely annihilate the existing records of 40 Call-Ups and 27 players set in the 2009-10 season. All this, not to mention, in a shortened season.

So here, with five weeks left in the regular season – and, if history’s any indication, the majority of call-ups still to come – let’s take a moment to see what’s behind us and what’s, most importantly, still to come.

The Draft

The 2011 NBA Development League Draft powered by Cisco WebEx was the first one to feature a player that went from Open Tryouts to the NBA (Dennis Horner was selected in the 3rd round by the Armor, then started the NBA season with the Nets), and has already seen six players chosen make it to the NBA.

Of the first seven players selected in this year’s Draft, three of them have hit the NBA this year. Others, like No. 6 pick Edwin Ubiles, look like locks to get there before the season’s end. Looking back, who stood out? And who was a great, late pick?

Notable Picks

No. 1 Pick: Jamaal Tinsley

Tinsley played eight games with the L.A. D-Fenders before heading up to the Jazz for training camp. After making the roster to start the season, he hasn’t been back since.

No. 7: Cory Higgins

Higgins, who got picked up by the Erie BayHawks, has been up with the Bobcats since Jan. 1, where he’s averaged four points and 11 minutes per game, including a 13-point, 3-assist night against the Wizards on Jan. 25.

No. 47: Dennis Horner

Horner wasn’t even the Springfield Armor’s first pick. That honor went to fellow Open Tryout guy Jonathan Thomas, Horner’s teammate at N.C. State, who was the highest-ever selection for somebody who attended open tryouts. But it was Horner who impressed Avery Johnson enough to earn a spot with the Nets to start the season.

No. 64: Courtney Fortson

The first pick in the fifth round, Fortson spent some time with the L.A. Clippers earlier this season, and now runs point for the L.A. D-Fenders.

First Half Superlatives

Team of the Half

L.A. D-Fenders – Sneaking in just under the buzzer, Eric Musselman’s gang finished the first half in a frenzy, piling up nine straight wins heading into All-Star weekend. With Gerald Green’s call-up earlier this week, they’ve also now sent the most players (5) to the NBA this season, and they still have Zach Andrews, Elijah Millsap and Courtney Fortson on the roster.

Player of the First Half

Blake Ahearn, Reno Bighorns – Ahearn, who broke the NBA Development League career scoring mark in January, would gladly trade in all his NBA D-League records for another shot at the NBA. And in the first half of this year, he did everything possible to get there. In addition to his record-obliterating streak of 110 free throws – which broke his own D-League record, surpassed the NBA mark and fell only short of John Wooden’s all-time professional record – he also led all qualified players in scoring, at 24.4 points per game, while also dishing out 5.4 assists and picking up 1.2 steals per game. If the season ended this weekend, Ahearn would be the MVP.

Second Half Sleeper

D.J. Kennedy – Kennedy’s knee ripped apart two weeks before March Madness in 2011, and with it went his hopes of starting the 2011-12 season in the NBA – lockout or not. But he’s turned himself into one of the league’s best triple-double threats, and he’s looking like an elite swing man with the capacity for a long NBA career.

Trends of the Second Half

Swing men

Guards were all the rage in the first half, as NBA teams went hunting for players that could help run their offense (without turning the ball over) while the team congealed late after a hyper-short training camp. Guys like Tinsley and Mike James were able to provide a steady hand, giving their teams the luxury of finding their identities. But in the second half, teams are going to need athletes who can slide into multiple positions while, just as importantly, taking a beating.

The intensity ratchets up in the second half as the Playoffs draw nearer, so guys who can defend, score a little bit, rebound the ball and, of course, administer a few bruises come in handy. If you’ve been waiting for guys like Edwin Ubiles, Elijah Millsap, Leo Lyons and others of their ilk to get the call, wait for the home stretch.

Open Door Immigration

In the weeks leading up to the 2012 NBA D-League Showcase, a flood of former NBA players rushed into the league, hoping to prove to a few dozen scouts that they’ve still got it. For guys like Mike James, it worked. For Mikki Moore – the Idaho Stampede center and former NBA big who got thrown out of his first game – the process wasn’t as quick. But players around the world are taking notice of the frantic pace of call-ups this year, so expect to see a load of players in Europe and Asia make their way to the NBA D-League in the next few weeks.

The Search for Another Lin

Be grateful for what we all just lived through. In the only story this year bigger than the Return of the McRib, Jeremy Lin’s rise from NBA D-Leaguer to global rallying cry – whether you were riding the subway in Beijing or Brooklyn, you’d see Linsanity t-shirts – has scouts and execs scouring the minors for any other potential stars that conventional talent evaluation might have missed.

Potential NBA Stars: Gerald Green (just got called-up to Nets), Justin Dentmon, Andre Emmett

Top 15 Prospects

With Gerald Green and Manny Harris now up in the NBA -- and, we're guessing, for a long time -- the Prospect landscape no longer has a clear-cut No. 1, towering above the rest. It does, however, have a litany of suitors to the throne, including a surge of power forwards that have given the NBA D-League some much needed punch in the post.

Guard, Reno Bighorns (Texas Tech)

Had the end of his 10-day contract not coincided with the All-Star break (allowing Emmett to play in the All-Star Game), the Bighorns’ guard might very well still be up with the Nets. He didn’t see a great deal of time on the floor when he was in Jersey, averaging 7.5 a game in six appearances, but he shot 57 percent from the floor, and should soon be headed back up to the Show.

Forward, Dakota Wizards (Siena)

Ubiles fits the mold of an NBA bench player. He’ll defend. He’ll create space and find open teammates. He’ll rebound (although probably not as well as he could, given his size). But he’s been on our radar since the start of the season, and he’s only gotten better in his all-around game. He still struggles from the outside, however, and for as much time as he spends around the perimeter, his 31-percent mark from 3-point range could make some scouts very skittish. Although, more 41-point nights like the one he had on Tuesday night should help to make them a little more comfortable.

Guard, Springfield Armor (Oklahoma State)

Curry’s built like an NBA point guard. He moves like one. He passes like one. He defends like one. Soon, we’re guessing, he’ll be one. With Walker Russell now out of the league, Curry’s the leading assist-man in the NBA D-League among qualified players. He’s not in Russell’s class in terms of distribution, but he does have a far better ability to create his own scoring opportunities and knock down shots in traffic.

Guard, Austin Toros (Washington)

After the All-Star Game, Dentmon talked about how he’d gotten away from his game as a pure playmaker by “thinking too much.” In his defense, he’d spent two seasons shredding defenses like old tax returns without a single call-up, so he started trying to fix the perceived holes in his game – turnovers, consistently smart decisions – and ended up sacrificing the strengths. It was like watching Slash pick up a sax. Dentmon’s turnover numbers have fallen, but so has the flash that’s made him one of the league’s most exciting players. Expect a big second half, followed by a call-up when somebody could use a spark at point – especially a team out of the playoff hunt that’s looking for a test drive. They’ll be getting the NBA D-League’s answer to a Mini Cooper (the cool one they use in The Italian Job).

Forward, Austin Toros (Missouri)

Lyons, after starting the season in rehab, could very well finish the season in the NBA. As far as swingmen go, he’s the single best rebounder in the league, and he’s got the size and hops to defend both forward positions in the NBA. He’s had a bit of a battle with consistency – which will raise some red flags among scouts – but when he’s going (like his recent 19-point, 16-board night against West-leading L.A.; or the 37 points and 34 rebounds in consecutive nights against RGV) those flags look a lot like green lights.

Guard, Erie BayHawks (Bowling Green)

McLeod, at 32, is the elder statesman of NBA D-League point guards, but he can still run with the young guys. A veteran of 200 NBA games, he’ll be headed up to the NBA if a team’s in need of somebody who knows how to handle NBA personalities, which is another way of saying egos. Plus, he’s got an assist-to-turnover ratio above 2.0 this year, and he’s putting up 15 points a game.

Guard, Reno Bighorns (Missouri State)

Ahearn’s so steady, you could march to him. The NBA D-League’s all-time leading scorer will take care of the ball, run the offense and nail the open shot (although he does have trouble creating his own shot against top-tier defenders). And you don’t want to judge defense in an All-Star Game, but his biggest obstacle – the idea that he can’t defend NBA point guards – jumped out on Saturday, when Springfield’s Curry broke him down time after time.

Forward, Tulsa 66ers (Oral Roberts)

Lewis, like In-N-Out Burger, does one thing well. In-N-Out does beef patties. Lewis does rebounds. Nobody else is in his league.

Forward, Springfield Armor (N.C. State)

Horner’s rap sheet uses a lot of the same words common to both scouts and toy stores. Springy. Bouncy. Stretchy. Ok, maybe replace ‘stretchy’ with ‘long’ for Horner’s wingspan, but either way, he’s the kind of rebounder and defender that can add depth to an NBA lineup come crunch time.

Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders (Alabama-Birmingham)

Millsap’s play of late has nearly knocked him out of the Top 10, as the former No. 1 Prospect has turned out a string of performances in which he’s basically gotten lost on the court. He’s far from the dominant force that he was during the early part of the season, settling for outside shots instead of forcing the issue on the inside. However, a lot of his hesitance can be attributed to Gerald Green’s rise in the L.A. lineup. During that time, Millsap turned into more of a distributor and a facilitator, which, though it came at a cost of his scoring numbers, might have actually helped his cause for the NBA.

No. 11: D.J. KENNEDY
Guard/Forward, Erie BayHawks (St. John's)

Kennedy, like Ubiles, came into the season flanked by questions about his injury – an ACL tear that ended his St. John’s career two weeks shy of the NCAA Tournament in 2011. Maybe he can still feel some lingering effects of it, but anybody else would be hard-pressed to notice. He’s turned into a nightly triple-double threat, averaging 17.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game in the eight games before Erie’s matchup with Fort Wayne on Tuesday night. He’s another one of those NBA D-League “tweeners,” but expect him to squeeze into a lineup before the season’s done.

Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders (Bradley)

Andrews is a big, big man. With a body to bang on the inside and the hops to clean up the glass – which he showed off during Saturday’s NBA D-League Slam Dunk Contest…while wearing a dress – he won’t be in the NBA D-League for much longer. Big men are always in high-demand, and the league hasn’t had a lot of them in stock this year. But when they’ve had quality post players, like in the cases of Greg Smith, Greg Stiemsma and Eric Dawson, they’ve gotten snatched up quick.

Guard, Maine Red Claws (Rice)

The former Jazz guard’s scoring has stayed steady – including a twine-tingling 57.9 percent from the floor in 14 games this year – but his rebounding’s taken a hit lately. After opening his Red Claws career in late January, Almond had eight or more boards in four of his first seven games. In his last seven, he hasn’t had more than six. However, he’s taking smart shots and drawing trips to the line with regularity, so if a team’s looking for a shooter, they’ve got one here.

Center, Springfield Armor (Cornell)

Foote played a few inches shorter than seven feet tall in Saturday’s All-Star Game, scoring only four points in 20 minutes against a Western lineup without a true center. However, he did pick up seven rebounds, which, if you do the math, comes out to 14 over the course of a 40-minute effort. He’s not Greg Stiemsma, but he is averaging 1.2 blocks per game, and you just can’t teach height – although you can teach law, which is what Foote plans to pursue after basketball.

Guard, Iowa Energy (Cal St.-Northridge)

Finally. Efevberha, who captained Nigeria (and led the team in scoring) during the 2009 African Championship, has lit up the scoreboard since joining the Energy in late December. And, in contrast with his three prior stints in the NBA D-League, he’s done so efficiently. After never shooting better than 42 percent from the floor in any season, he’s at 51.1 percent this year, including a 47.7 percent mark from 3-point range. But his shooting ability is only a value-add at this point. A pot-sweetener. What could earn the Cal St. Northridge grad his first-ever trip to an NBA lineup are the rebounding and block numbers he’s put up lately – including a 15-board, 4-stuff night against Fort Wayne on Feb. 21.