Prospect Watch: The Plugs

The madness around the Trade Deadline created some vacuums in NBA lineups -- and a few NBA D-League players look up to the task.

The dust might have settled. But that doesn’t mean the teams will.

When the NBA Trade Deadline blew by last Thursday, the league’s biggest prize didn’t move. But it seemed like almost everything else around him changed. Over the final 24 hours leading up to the Deadline, three-dozen players and draft picks changed hands, pushing the Dwight Howard saga to the side stage – for a few minutes at a time, at least.

Then, in the days following the flurry of trades, the NBA D-League saw the biggest rush of GATORADE Call-Ups it’d seen since NBA teams first broke camp before Christmas. From Thursday through Sunday, six players shot up to the NBA, including two players receiving their first-ever Call-Ups – Springfield’s Jerry Smith (who went to the Nets) and Dakota’s Edwin Ubiles (who ended up in Washington).

All that movement meant one thing: when you shake up a landscape, you end up with some cracks to fill.

And all season long, the NBA D-League’s been up to the task. A year that’s seen a record number of players (28) earn GATORADE Call-Ups has also seen people like Gerald Green, Lance Thomas and Walker Russell, Jr. turn themselves into impact players in the NBA.

And with a few holes remaining – not to mention teams out of the Playoffs hunt with the leeway to give Prospects some run – here are the guys who can fill in next.

Houston Rockets
Derek Fisher’s decision to buy out of his contract put the Rockets in a bind. When Houston traded for the five-time champ, the Rockets got a player who can bring a steadying, veteran influence to a young team looking to grow into a consistent contender. Who could replace Fisher? As far as proven, ring-laden, veteran leadership goes, almost nobody at this point. But if the Rockets are looking to replace the basketball player that Fisher’s become, they’ll have some options. For right now, that person’s Courtney Fortson, the L.A. D-Fenders point guard who earned a call-up for the second time this season. But if the Rockets are looking to shop around at point, the NBA D-League can help:
If they want a veteran combo guard...
Guard, Springfield Armor (Oklahoma State)

Curry’s in the midst of his best-ever season in the NBA D-League. The former phenom has shown that he can do much more than just score (although, at 17 ppg, he’s shown he can still do that, too), dishing out 6.2 assists per game for Springfield this year. Most importantly, he’s done a number in changing a reputation that – largely unfairly – painted him as a ‘character problem’ by turning into one of the most-respected leaders in the league. Others: Will Conroy, Maurice Baker

If they want a shooter...
Guard, Reno Bighorns (Missouri State)

Ahearn looks like the favorite to take home NBA D-League MVP honors. Yet in a season that saw him surpass the NBA consecutive free throws mark and become the NBA D-League’s all-time leading scorer, he still hasn’t gotten an NBA bid. He can run an offense, stick the open shot and get two points virtually every time he gets to the foul line – but his deficits in size and quickness still speak louder to scouts than everything he’s got counting for him.

If they want a passer...
Guard, Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Washington)

Since Walker Russell got the call-up to the Pistons in January, nobody’s come close to matching the assist numbers Russell put up. Except for Conroy. The former NBA point guard will be 30 in December, but, like Russell (who turns 30 in October), his game’s peaking late. Among players who’ve played at least 15 games this year, only Texas’ Antonio Daniels (at 8.5 assist per game) comes anywhere in the vicinity of Conroy’s 9.5 apg average. From Feb. 10 to Mar. 2, Conroy recorded eight straight games of double-figure assists, including 18 dimes in two straight games. Turnovers (3.3 per game) can be an issue, as can his shooting (38.5 percent this year) – although you should expect the lifetime 47.3 percent shooter in the NBA D-League to improve that number – but if an NBA team is seeking a pass-first point, Conroy’s the obvious answer.

If they want a defender...
Guard, Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Tulsa)

Uzoh still has a lot to work on in terms of becoming a true NBA point guard, but his strength and athleticism put him far above anyone else in the NBA D-League, and that could make him an instant lineup insertion for a team looking for lockdown defender. See also: Donald Sloan.

Toronto Raptors
A desire to shed Leandro Barbosa’s contract made the Raptors get rid of the electric Brazilian for a second-round pick, and also created a bit of a scoring void in the backcourt. Toronto hasn’t yet called up a player this year, but if the Raptors are looking for a couple pure scorers, they’ve got some help on the farm.
Guard, Austin Toros (Washington)

You can take two paths with Dentmon. You can look at the shortcomings – and you don’t have to look hard. Dentmon’s undersized, at 6 feet (maybe in midair), 185 pounds. He turns the ball over nearly four times a game and doesn’t defend quite well enough to make up for it. Or, you can look at what’s even clearer: that Dentmon’s become the most explosive point guard not playing in the NBA right now. He’s returned to the form that made him our No. 1 Prospect at Showcase, scoring 21 points or more in seven straight games and dishing out five or more assists in five of those games (with highs of 35 and 31 points, and 12 and eight assists). Dentmon’s ready for a test-drive. Or, more appropriately, a joyride.

Guard, Reno Bighorns (Texas Tech)

Emmett didn’t see the court much in his stint with the Nets this year, then came back and took it out on everybody in the NBA D-League. He’s scored 23.5 points per game since returning to the Bighorns just before the All-Star break, and he’s still shooting a career-best 52.5 percent from the floor. At this point, it doesn’t look like anybody can cover Emmett in the D-League – the question is whether or not he can cover anybody well enough to earn a spot in Mark Jackson’s rotation.

Guard, Maine Red Claws (Rice)

The man with the record for most points in a single NBA D-League game (53, in 2008) has become a more seasoned scorer and all-around asset in his return to the league. He’s rebounding and he’s defending – all while still putting up 29 points or more in five of his last eight games.

Guard, Maine Red Claws (Miami (Ohio))

Hayes, last week’s Performer of the Week, has been all over the score sheet of late. His March has featured two games of 26 points and one of 52 (one shy of Almond’s record), not to mention two games of double-digit rebounding and assists.

Golden State Warriors
After trading away Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson (the latter of whom then went to San Antonio, in exchange for Richard Jefferson and T.J. Ford) the Warriors find themselves looking toward 2012-13. Which makes this a perfect time, and a rare opportunity, to take a look at the guys in the NBA D-League with the best shots at long careers in the NBA – instead of just the role players that’ll plug a hole in a team in need of a quick fix.
Guard/Forward, Erie BayHawks (St. John's)

Going into the season, Kennedy was dogged by questions about how well his knee would hold up after tearing it in the weeks leading up to the NCAA Tournament last year, while a senior at St. John’s. Now, it doesn’t look like even those questions can keep him down. He’s scored 16 or more points (including a high of 29 against East-leading Canton on Mar. 17) in 10 of his last 11 games, with rebounding highs of 11 and 10, to go along with a 10-assist night against Dakota on Feb. 18. Kennedy might already have a job in the NBA if not for his knee. Expect him to find one soon.

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

With Gerald Green now under contract with the Nets until the end of the year, Millsap’s back in form. After deferring to Green when they were both playing for the D-Fenders – “He was hot, and it wasn’t my job to score anymore … [I wanted to] show people I can play with guys like Gerald who can score, and still get 15-17 points a game” – Millsap’s once again the top scoring threat for Eric Musselman’s team. And, on cue, he’s scored 19.25 ppg over his last four, including a triple-double (20-10-10) on Mar. 3.

Others: Marqus Blakely, Mike Efevberha

Boston Celtics
The C’s, who’d reportedly been interested in carving away some pieces of the Big 4 (Rajon Rondo included at this point) before the Deadline, ended up keeping the team intact. The only problem with that is that they’re still searching for a big man. And while the NBA D-League hasn’t had an abundance of elite post talent this year, it now features a handful of players who could slide into a lineup immediately.
Center, Springfield Armor (Cornell)

Now that Foote’s back from his call-up the Hornets, he slides back into the No. 1 spot for NBA D-League big men. He’s improving every day, and his soft hands and defensive intensity will keep Foote a top prospect until he’s a full-time NBA player.

Center, Idaho Stampede (Nebraska)

Now that Foote’s back from his call-up the Hornets, he slides back into the No. 1 spot for NBA D-League big men. He’s improving every day, and his soft hands and defensive intensity will keep Foote a top prospect until he’s a full-time NBA player.

Center, Maine Red Claws (Rutgers)

The former Wizards center hasn’t come close to touching his potential. He has, however, managed to get his hands on pretty much anything else that comes his way on the court. Rutgers’ all-time leading shot-blocker has continued the penchant for rejection in the NBA D-League this year, averaging 3.1 blocks per game in the month of March. At 7-0, 235, Ndiaye’s got the build for the league – he just needs some polish. In other words, KG would have an apt pupil to work on.

Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders (Bradley)

Andrews won’t score a whole lot. Not to say that he can’t – he just prefers to use his 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame on the boards or diving for loose balls. His motor never stops, and his D-Fenders teammates can’t stop saying enough great things about him.

Others: Brian Butch, Dan Gadzuric
Portland Trail Blazers
They’ve been suffering for a while in Portland. And when the Blazers essentially started anew on Thursday – trading away Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace and waiving Greg Oden – they opened an array of holes on their roster. And while Portland’s looking toward next year, the Blazers could use some immediate help on the inside.
Forward, Tulsa 66ers (Oral Roberts)

The Bard of the Boards has played 39 games this year. He’s had double-digit rebounds in 35 of them. And while Lewis won’t be able to pull down rebounds at this kind of clip against people like, say, Dwight Howard, his ability to put himself in position and willingness to fight for every loose ball could make him an NBA sleeper at forward.

Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders (San Diego St.)

Thomas, at 6-foot-9, won’t take up the space that players like Moore or Ndiaye will. But he can jump and swat shots with the best of the NBA D-League’s forwards. The Spurs liked him enough to give him a call-up earlier this year, and although he didn’t play enough to show all that he’s got, his recent 15.2-point, 10.1-rebound average over his last 10 games may get him another shot to do it.

Memphis Grizzlies
Long in search of an outside shooter, the Grizzlies added Gilbert Arenas on Tuesday. But the enigmatic Arenas, who hasn’t played in the NBA at all this season, is a bit of a wild card. Meanwhile, trading Sam Young to the Sixers took away some of the team’s depth at guard. So, if the Arenas move doesn’t pan out or if the Grizzlies feel the need to add yet another backcourt player, the NBA D-League has a couple options.
Guard, Canton Charge (Hofstra)

Agudio can get lost on the court sometimes, as he waits for teammates to get him the ball on the perimeter. But once it’s there, you can’t miss him. The sharpshooter’s made 56.2 percent of his 3-pointers this year – by far the best mark in the league – on 121 attempts. With Zach Randolph’s impending return, Agudio could turn into a dangerous outside option when teams favor the lane.

Overall Top 15 NBA D-League Prospects

No. 1: Andre Emmett, SG, Reno Bighorns

No. 2: JamesOn Curry, PG, Springfield Armor

No. 3: D.J. Kennedy, G/F, Erie BayHawks

No. 4: Ben Uzoh, PG, Rio Grande Valley Vipers

No. 5: Jeff Foote, C, Springfield Armor

No. 6: Justin Dentmon, PG, Austin Toros

No. 7: Marcus Lewis, F, Tulsa 66ers

No. 8: Morris Almond, G/F, Maine Red Claws

No. 9: Malcolm Thomas, F, L.A. D-Fenders

No. 10: Blake Ahearn, PG, Reno Bighorns

No. 11: Leo Lyons, F, Dakota Wizards

No. 12: Elijah Millsap, F, L.A. D-Fenders

No. 13: Dennis Horner, F, Springfield Armor

No. 14: Jamario Moon, F, L.A. D-Fenders

No. 15: Brian Butch, C, Bakersfield Jam