Prospect Watch: Big Time

Long looked over, the NBA Development League's post players are about to take center stage.

It’s tough, when you happen to be seven feet tall, to hide.

But in the 10 weeks since NBA teams broke camp and the season began, that’s what’s happened to the NBA Development League’s best post players. Of the 17 GATORADE Call-Ups that happened after the initial 12-man rush out of NBA training camp, only four have been true big men. Five if you count L.A. D-Fenders forward Malcolm Thomas – which, for solidarity’s sake, we will. Point guards have been the prize. Swing men, the second serving.

But things are … well, things are about to get painful. With seven weeks left until the start of the NBA Playoffs, a season that's already been condensed is about to get accordioned. And as the stretch grows more physical, big men are likely to bear the brunt.

Luckily for NBA teams, the NBA D-League’s slowly re-stocked its paint patrol. By far the league’s weakest point just six weeks ago, suddenly the NBA D-League features at least a half-dozen NBA-ready post players and, in case of emergency, a full list of 10 guys that can come up and blockade the lane.

So, this week, it’s time to think big. Here are the top 10 Prospects in the NBA D-League standing 6-foot-9 or above.

No. 1: ERIC DAWSON
Forward, Austin Toros (Midwestern, Tex.)

In two games with the Spurs this year, Dawson averaged 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds. But the numbers are a little misleading: Dawson saw 32 of his eventual 34 minutes in his debut, when he scored nine points with six boards in San Antonio’s loss to Portland on Feb. 21. You’ll remember that game as the night Gregg Popovich sat Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to get them a breather heading into All-Star weekend, but Dawson may remember that game as the one that proved he can hang – and bang – in the NBA.

He returns to the Toros as one of the top two rebounders in the NBA D-League (Tulsa’s Marcus Lewis is No. 1), and he’s already averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds in the two games he’s played since coming back to Austin. At 6-foot-9, he’s not tall enough to be considered a viable NBA center (at least not yet), but he could be an effective 4-man off the bench.

No. 2: MALCOLM THOMAS
Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders (San Diego St.)

Thomas didn't stick with the Spurs, but he should get a shot with somebody else before long – mostly because nobody seems to be able to get a shot off with him around. He went up to San Antonio in mid-January on the strength of his ability to sky and swat (and the Spurs near-complete inability at that time), and ever since coming back to L.A. later that month, he’s done more of the same. He’s also picked up his rebounding, pulling down 10.1 boards a game over his last seven, after averaging only 6.2 in his first five after returning to the D-Fenders.

No. 3: LEO LYONS
Forward, Dakota Wizards (Missouri)

Lyons has swiftly turned himself into the league’s most explosive power forward. He won’t be called to the NBA to handle the scoring load, but, in a pinch, he’s got enough size and the ability to get to the hoop – combined with a solid perimeter game uncommon for players of his size – to get an extra 6-to-8 points a night. However, his ticket to the NBA will come from his ability to throw his body around down low, a willingness he’s shown with an 18-rebound night, two 16-board nights and three more double-digit efforts in his last nine games.

No. 4: HAMADY NDIAYE
Center, Maine Red Claws (Rutgers)

Hamady’s not there yet. On the plus side, he’s built like a silo. On the downside, he’s got the offensive abilities of one, too. The all-time shot-blocking leader in Rutgers history can defend around the rim as well as any big man in the NBA D-League, but he still gets himself out of position far too often, and thus struggles with foul trouble.

That said, the former Washington Wizard is averaging 2.25 blocks per game in 12 NBA D-League games this year – including a stint with the Iowa Energy earlier this season that began with an eight-rejection effort against Sioux Falls on Jan. 6. Given his size and athleticism, he’s far from the post player he could be, but there’s room to grow: the Senegal-born Ndiaye didn’t start playing basketball until high school.

No. 5: DERRICK CARACTER
Forward, Rio Grande Valley Vipers (UTEP)

Caracter saw time in 41 games with the Lakers last year, but didn't crack the lineup in 2011-12. Now, after getting waived by L.A., on Feb. 7, he’s the property of Nick Nurse and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. His story's a long one -- longer than we'd care to lay out here, although the Times is up to the task -– but the talent’s there. As elite a combination of size and skill as you’ll find in the NBA D-League, he’ll need to prove that his reputation for taking nights off is a thing of the past in order to make sure he can be the big man of somebody’s future.

No. 6: MIKKI MOORE
Center, Idaho Stampede (Nebraska)

Seeing Bobby Simmons earn a call-up last week had to be a little frustrating for Moore, who’s turned back into a dominant center of late. However, there’s reason to see it as encouraging, too, for the 7-foot veteran of 11 NBA seasons.

First, Moore and Simmons (who’d already had nine NBA seasons under his belt heading into this year) had similar stats during their time in the NBA D-League this year (Simmons was at 13.5 ppg and 7.6 rpg before his call-up; Moore’s at 12.5 and 8.1, respectively). Second, as NBA teams seek some sort of continuity in their line-ups, NBA-tested Prospects have taken some precedence over the uninitiated in earning call-ups this year. Moore never had the ceiling the Simmons did, but he’s still seven feet tall and, after some early questions, can clearly still move.

No. 7: JEFF FOOTE
Center, Springfield Armor (Cornell)

Foote can take over a game. He just doesn’t do it nearly often enough to be considered an elite big man, yet. However, he’s taken massive strides (figuratively; at 7 feet tall, he already took literal ones) under Bob MacKinnon in Springfield, going from a wait-til-next-year Prospect coming out of Nets camp to a potential post presence down the line for an NBA team in need. He’ll get pushed around by bigger bodies and won’t block a ton of shots, but he can fly up and down the court and tends to take good care of the ball on the low block.

No. 8: KEITH BENSON
Center, Sioux Falls Skyforce (Oakland)

Benson, the Atlanta Hawks’ only pick in the 2011 NBA Draft (at 48th overall), was the final player cut from Hawks camp. Since then, he’s quietly moved up the charts of the NBA D-League’s premier post players. He got a late start in the league, after the Skyforce picked him up in late January, but ever since then he’s done exactly what got him a look from the Hawks in the first place: swat.

Benson’s every bit as good a shot blocker as N’Diaye or Thomas, and probably a better rebounder than both (7.5 rpg in only 28.5 mpg). Although he’s still got a way to go in terms of filling out his 6-foot-11 frame, the two-time Summit Conference Player of the Year and all-time shot-block leader in Oakland University history has the sort of spring and raw ability that could provide a big defensive boost to an NBA lineup.

No. 9: TREY GILDER
Forward, Sioux Falls Skyforce (Northwestern St.)

Gilder’s already played two seasons in the NBA D-League. But none like this one. Not only is he scoring three more points a game than he had in any previous stint (and shooting better than 50 percent from the field once again), he’s also backing up those numbers with rebounding and defensive stats that show how much his game has grown. Before this year, he’d never pulled down more than 5.6 rebounds per game in a season.

This time around, he’s just a hair shy of eight per game. Meanwhile, he’s blocking an average of 1.4 shots and coming up with 1.4 steals a night while shooting the best free throw percentage of his career. Gilder’s only 6-foot-9, 185 pounds, but the versatility he provides on both sides of the floor make him analogous to a player like Larry Owens, who went up to New Jersey on a 10-day contract earlier this year.

No. 10: ZACH ANDREWS
Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders (Bradley)

Andrews, like most of the bigs on this list, can still use a lot of seasoning. But, as we’ve seen in the past, he couldn’t be in a better place for it. D-Fenders coach Eric Musselman has only added to his status as NBA launching pad, sending prospect after prospect to the Show during his time in the NBA D-League and CBA before that. This year, he’s already sent five players up.

As for Andrews, he’ll be getting a steady diet of Musselman’s gospel of consistency. The big-bodied (6-9, 230), big-leaping (he soared in the 2012 NBA D-League Slam Dunk Contest) NBA D-League All-Star has had his struggles with night-in, night-out performance, but he’s the kind of body that could clog up an NBA lane with ease, and the kind of athlete that’d make life tough on his fellow forwards.

Recent Returnees

Ten-day contracts make for a sort of revolving door in the NBA D-League, where Top Prospects vary from week-to-week, as contracts either expire or begin to kick in. And, in case you weren’t hawking the transactions page, here are the names you might have missed (Eric Dawson and Hamady Ndiaye excluded):

Ben Uzoh, PG, Rio Grande Valley Vipers: Formerly the league’s No. 1 Prospect before a call-up to the Cavaliers, Uzoh’s been back with the Vipers since Feb. 21. He remains the most athletic point guard in the league, and an absolute defensive menace, so look for him to take his services back to the Show sooner than later.

Andre Emmett, SG, Reno Bighorns: Had the All-Star break not happened right at the end of Emmett’s 10-day contract with the Nets, the Bighorns star might still be up with the Nets. However, with Jersey not wanting to waste four days of a 10-day without any games going on, he’s back in Reno.

Donald Sloan, PG, Erie BayHawks: Sloan got a second 10-day contract from New Orleans, but the Hornets didn’t pick him up for a guaranteed contract. It was impressive enough that Sloan stuck around for two runs in NOLA – with an array of point guards ahead of him on the depth chart – but the Hawks and Hornets both liked what they saw from him this year, and as long as he keeps progressing on offense, he’s looking like somebody with a bright NBA future.

Squeaky Johnson, PG, Austin Toros: The fleet-footed Johnson’s been back with the Toros since the Hornets waived him ahead of the guaranteed contract deadline, and he’s teamed up with Justin Dentmon since then to create the NBA D-League’s best 1-2 punch at the point. Just like Dentmon, Johnson will always be a little undersized (at 5-11), but he continues to show the knack for defense and distribution that got him an NBA call-up in the first place.

Overall Top 15 NBA D-League Prospects

No. 1: Andre Emmett, SG, Reno Bighorns

No. 2: Edwin Ubiles, G/F, Dakota Wizards

No. 3: JamesOn Curry, PG, Springfield Armor

No. 4: D.J. Kennedy, G/F, Erie BayHawks

No. 5: Ben Uzoh, PG, Rio Grande Valley Vipers

No. 6: Eric Dawson, F, Austin Toros

No. 7: Justin Dentmon, PG, Austin Toros

No. 8: Marcus Lewis, F, Tulsa 66ers

No. 9: Morris Almond, G/F, Maine Red Claws

No. 10: Blake Ahearn, PG, Reno Bighorns

No. 11: Malcolm Thomas, F, L.A. D-Fenders

No. 12: Leo Lyons, F, Austin Toros

No. 13: Elijah Millsap, F, L.A. D-Fenders

No. 14: Hamady Ndiaye, C, Maine Red Claws

No. 15: Keith McLeod, PG, Erie BayHawks