Prospect Watch: The Call-Backs

For four months, the world's best NBA Prospects have been auditioning for a shot at the big time. Now, with the Playoffs about to begin, eight teams -- and nearly 100 players -- get one more shot at the Show before the season ends.

In the two months since the streak came to an end and the cameras rolled out of Reno, Blake Ahearn’s played some of the best basketball of his 27 years.

Ahearn’s record-shattering run of 110 consecutive foul shots – which broke the NBA D-League mark that he, himself, had set; surpassed the NBA mark of 97; and only fell short of the mark set by the man who basically invented fundamentals (John Wooden’s 134 in a row is the standing professional record) -- ended on Feb. 1.

In the 15 games since – including a 21-point effort in the All-Star Game, which actually brought down his average – he’s averaged 23.2 points a game. And shot 51 percent from the floor. And 95 percent from the foul line.

Yet still, after almost five full years in the NBA D-League and two stints in the NBA that lasted about as long as the news cycle, Ahearn hasn’t earned a single GATORADE Call-Up in 2011-12. And on Saturday, when the Reno Bighorns take on the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the frontrunner for league MVP’s season will come to an end.

Ahearn, of course, won’t stop. He’ll keep shooting and shooting and scribbling down notes about every single one of those shots, just like he has since fourth grade. For others, though, the audition’s not over yet. For eight other teams – five of whom have already locked up spots – the Playoffs signal the opportunity to show off for the scouts one more time. NBA teams can still call up NBA D-League players until the final day of the NBA regular season (April 26), so the Playoffs will give Prospects one last shot to turn some heads and, most importantly, raise some phones.

So, with eight teams – and close to 100 players – getting what’s effectively an encore, here are the acts to watch for the five teams already in the Playoffs and the three more in Playoff position (in order of current seed).

Los Angeles D-Fenders
JAMARIO MOON
Forward, L.A. D-Fenders (Meridian C.C.)

Moon’s been here before. It took him six years to get to the NBA the first time around, when he left junior college to declare for the NBA Draft – and, in effect, unemployment – in 2001. But back then, when he was bouncing around the CBA, NBA D-League and a few jaunts to Mexico, he dominated. Just like he’s doing now.

The NBA D-League Player of the Month has been good for 16.9 points and 8.3 rebounds night since he joined the D-Fenders in early March, and although he’s struggled from the floor in his past two games (going a combined 6-of-25), he’s still rebounding and defending like a player who knows he’ll need to do just that – and only that – if he gets to the NBA.

ELIJAH MILLSAP
Guard/Forward, L.A. D-Fenders (Alabama-Birmingham)

February wasn’t great to Millsap. With Gerald Green taking on most of the scoring load in L.A., the team’s former leading scorer notched 10 or fewer points four times between Jan. 28 and Feb. 19 – a span of nine games. Then Green got called-up to the Nets and Millsap exploded, averaging 20 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists over the 11 games after the All-Star break, including a 20-10-10 night on Mar. 3 for his second triple-double of the season (of nine, total, across the whole league). He still struggles with his jump shot, but few players in the NBA D-League project as well to be an impact player in the big league as Paul’s little brother.

ZACH ANDREWS
Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders (Bradley)

Stats tend to tell a pretty accurate story in the NBA D-League. Sure, there are some players in the NBA whose contributions don’t work their way onto the box score – like, say, Bruce Bowen, whose defensive abilities recently earned him a retired jersey in San Antonio. But in the NBA Development League, players that belong in the NBA tend to stand out. Assignment players record triple-doubles. Guys that stick in the Show stand near the top of the league in something (Detroit’s Walker Russell, in assists; LA’s Gerald Green, in acrobatics).

In the case of Andrews, LA’s 6-foot-8 Swiffer, the numbers do tell a story, too. You just have to dig for it. Turns out the guy who’s diving for every loose ball and grabbing every rebound anywhere near his orbit has one of the league’s top Net ratings, a measure of how well his team does with him on or off the floor. With him in the game, the best team in the league is nearly 11 points better.

Others: Kareem Rush, Orien Greene

Austin Toros
JUSTIN DENTMON
Guard, Austin Toros (Washington)

Dentmon didn’t do a whole lot during his time in San Antonio, scoring four points and recording exactly one rebound, one assist and one steal (to go along with one turnover) in 19 combined minutes with the Spurs. He made up for it the day he got back, putting together two of the best games of his NBA D-League career in his first two games back with the Toros, with a combined 43 points and 19 assists (and 7 boards) on Mar. 30 and 31. After the All-Star Game, Dentmon admitted that he spent a few weeks this year thinking too much and trying to avoid mistakes, instead of just eviscerating opposing defenses like usual. Now, he’s had his taste of the NBA – and what it requires – and he’ll be looking to prove that he deserves another look.

ERIC DAWSON
Forward, Austin Toros (Midwestern, Tex.)

Dawson’s been playing a game of power-forward-pong for months now, bouncing to and from the NBA. He’s had two GATORADE Call-Ups so far this year – both to the San Antonio Spurs – and even saw 32 minutes (not to mention nine points and six boards) in his first game, on Feb. 21. But after that initial showing, Dawson recorded just seven more minutes of play across three games, and now finds himself back in the Toros’ frontcourt. That’s not particularly good news for Dawson – but it is for the Toros.

Since the season began, Austin’s leaned on its 6-9 forward for his work on the boards (10.4 a game) and the scoring sheet (17.3 points a game). And when the Toros took a mid-season swoon between mid-January and mid-February, it corresponded directly to Dawson’s brief, then aborted, decision to play abroad in Slovenia. As long as he’s in the NBA D-League, he remains the league’s premier Prospect at forward, and as long as he’s in Austin, the Toros have a chance to be champs.

SQUEAKY JOHNSON
Guard, Austin Toros (Alabama-Birmingham)

The Hornets saw enough out of NOLA native Squeaky Johnson to keep him there until the guaranteed contract deadline, and although he won’t burn out the scoreboard like Dentmon does, he’s one of the league’s top defenders at the point position. Despite being undersized, at 5-10, Johnson’s quickness and ability to play the angles makes him a solid candidate to back up a depleted NBA point guard crew.

Others: Da'Sean Butler, Luke Zeller

Bakersfield Jam
BRIAN BUTCH
Center, Bakersfield Jam (Wisconsin)

There aren’t many guys like Brian Butch. The 6-foot-11 center – once an elite high school prospect, then a staple at Wisconsin for four years – would probably have a regular gig at the end of an NBA bench by now, if his body would stop getting in the way. Few big men in any league can shoot the way Butch (who’s gotten 43 percent of his total field goals from behind the 3-point line) does, but spending time on the perimeter on the offensive end hasn’t cut down his rebounding totals, as Butch is still pulling down 10.1 a game. He played on the Pan American Games team with Celtics center Greg Stiemsma, and could soon find himself playing opposite his fellow former Badger big man in the NBA.

JEREMY WISE
Guard, Bakersfield Jam (Southern Miss.)

The point guard out of Southern Miss has slowly crept up the Prospect charts all year, finally working his way into the upper tier of point guards in a league packed with them. At 6.4 assists a game, he’s averaging 1.3 more assists this year than in either of his two years before, while also upping his rebounds per game to 4.2. And, as Sam Farber pointed out in his AP Hoops piece two weeks ago, the Jam offense runs through Wise, who assists on 36 percent of his team’s field goals when he’s on the floor.

Others: Trey Johnson, Derrick Byars, Juan Pattillo, Osiris Eldridge, Renaldo Major

Springfield Armor
JAMESON CURRY
Guard, Springfield Armor (Oklahoma State)

Athletic, measured and tested, Curry’s molded himself into the one of the league’s top three playmakers at the point guard position. Now in his fifth year in the NBA D-League after going to the Bulls in the 2007 NBA Draft, Curry’s never rebounded better (4.3 per game), and his distribution numbers (6.3 apg) have him 1.2 assists above his career mark. But Curry’s true value rests in his ability to scale himself seamlessly to the point or shooting guard positions. That asset, combined with his experience, makes him one of the league’s better options for an NBA team looking for a player that’ll take care of the ball and keep their offense ticking.

JEFF FOOTE
Center, Springfield Armor (Cornell)

The 7-foot center out of Cornell’s already had an NBA stint this year, when he played 39 minutes across four games for the Hornets a few weeks ago. Overmatched by NBA bigs (he scored four points and got six rebounds in that time) in his first taste of the Show, Foote nonetheless showed how far he’s come this year. From a guy making backup plans in case the basketball gig didn’t work out to a guy playing 10 minutes a game in the NBA, expect the evolution to continue in the Playoffs.

Armed with an understanding of what it takes to play in NBA lanes, he’s already upped his game in his return to the NBA D-League, putting up 10.6 boards and 16.6 points in his last three games with Springfield.

JERRY SMITH
Guard, Springfield Armor (Louisville)

A few months ago, Smith was just a guy who’d surprised everybody with his ability to excel at the pro level, after a modest career at Louisville. Now, he’s on the short list of 2011-12 NBA D-League MVP candidates. Able to hit from outside and finish at the hoop, Smith’s backed up his offensive abilities with a constant commitment to the defensive end. Now, back from a stint with the New Jersey Nets, he’s put up 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals in his four games since returning to the Armor.

Others: L.D. Williams

Dakota Wizards
EDWIN UBILES
Forward, Dakota Wizards (Siena)

One of the league’s Top Prospects all year long, Ubiles finally earned a Call-Up to the Wizards on March 18. While Ubiles didn’t dazzle at the NBA level – he shot only 27.8 percent from the floor – he did make contributions, grabbing 2.5 rebounds in 13 minutes a night in Washington. And although his 10-day contract wasn’t extended, Ubiles proved that he could create (if not always make) his own shot at the NBA level, as well as use his frame and athleticism to affect the game on the boards. Now, back with the Wizards, he’s using it to affect the game everywhere. In his three games since returning to Dakota, he’s scored 21.3 points with 4.3 rebounds per game, helping the Wizards lock up a Playoff spot on Monday.

Others: Leo Lyons, Maurice Baker, Stefhon Hannah, Marcus Dove

Canton Charge
ANTOINE AGUDIO
Guard, Canton Charge (Hofstra)

Agudio can shoot. Well. Better than any other player in the NBA D-League from 3-point range, in fact. And while he doesn’t do a whole lot else, his 55.9 shooting percentage from behind the arc makes him an alluring candidate for a team like the Magic, who rely on the inside-out game to create openings for their outside shooters. Agudio has trouble creating his own shot, but once he has an opening from the outside, he’s one of the most dangerous players on the continent.

Others: Tyrell Biggs, TJ Campbell

Erie BayHawks
D.J. KENNEDY
Guard/Forward, Erie BayHawks (St. John's)

On his best days, Kennedy looks like a guy who could’ve started the season in the NBA. And the former St. John’s star – who dragged himself back from an ACL injury that ended his collegiate career in March of 2011 – has had a number of those kinds of nights this year. The only problem is that he’s tended to follow up weeks where he averaged close to a triple-double with games where he struggles to break into double-figures. But by and large, Kennedy’s leaped to the head of the class in NBA D-League swingmen, playing guard with the rebounding acumen of a forward and forward with the distribution ability of a guard.

JOEY GRAHAM
Forward, Erie BayHawks (Oklahoma St.)

In his six games since signing with Erie, Graham’s made 55 percent of his shots, scored 20 a game and added 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists. The former Oklahoma State bruiser has gotten himself into foul trouble of late – a warning sign for scouts looking for defenders who move their feet – but for those in search of a capable big body to stick in the paint, Graham’s up to the task.

KEITH McLEOD
Guard, Erie BayHawks (Bowling Green)

McLeod’s been working his way back from an injury that knocked him off the Erie roster a month ago, but when he’s back to full strength, the veteran of 200 NBA games stands in the same stratus as Texas’ Antonio Daniels – himself a veteran of nearly 900 NBA games – in terms of point guards that could fill in immediately if a team has an injury situation like the Bulls do with Derrick Rose.

Others: Mychel Thompson

Iowa Energy
MIKE EFEVBERHA
Guard, Iowa Energy (Cal St. Northridge)

Efevberha’s never scored like this before. Or played like this before, for the matter. The guy who debuted in the NBA D-League in 2006 (and played six minutes a game for the Idaho Stampede) hadn’t ever shot better than 43.5 percent or scored more than 15 points a night in a season. This year, he’s at 48 percent and 19.3, respectively. The most consistent force for the Energy all year has had a few off nights, but he’s found ways to make up for rocky shooting performances by chipping in 4.5 rebounds and somewhere around one or two steals a night.

Others: Moses Ehambe, Paul Harris