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Prospect Watch: Week One

Get to know the guys with the best shot of donning NBA threads by season's end
Jamal Sampson, who pulled down 20 rebounds on Saturday, is one of a few players who could soon be on their way back to the NBA.
NBAE via Getty Images
If the current pace holds, 6-foot-11 Bakersfield Jam center Brian Butch should make his 200th 3-pointer of the season sometime in mid-April. Right around the time Canton’s Travis Franklin records his 200th steal. And somewhere around the time Erie big man Chris Daniels notches his 200th foul.

Ok, ok, maybe it’s not the best idea to hold out hope that Idaho’s Will Foster is going to block 250 shots this year. But just because we’re only two games into the NBA D-League season for most teams, that doesn’t mean we have to – or even should – avoid projections altogether. Especially this year.

With a proposed 66-game schedule pending approval, the 2011-12 NBA season looks to be one that’ll force teams to dig deep into their lineups and, by proxy, the NBA D-League to find players who’ll be able to grind at the highest level on a nightly basis.

To that end, here are the guys you’ll want to know.
The Usual Suspects
Former NBA players and NBA D-League Fixtures

Point Guard, Reno Bighorns
Ahearn, who’s seen two separate stints in the NBA, is off to one of the hottest starts of anyone in the NBA D-League. With 26 and 30 points, respectively, in back-to-back games against the Bakersfield Jam on Friday and Saturday, Ahearn’s shown more of the scoring spark that he brandished back in his days with the Erie BayHawks in 2009-10, when he put up 25.7 points per game in 13 contests.

What’s more is that the scoring – which has him tied for first in the league, at 28.0 ppg – hasn’t come at anyone else’s expense: Ahearn’s fifth in the league in assists per game, after dishing out 6 and 8, respectively, in the two games. Meanwhile, he’s still taking the easy ones, going 24-for-25 from the free throw line to shoot .960 through two games (just .004 above his career average).
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A floor general who doesn’t miss from the stripe

Center, Bakersfield Jam

Brian Butch, Bakersfield's 7-foot perimeter threat
Photo: NBAE via Getty Images
Butch, the former D-League All-Star Game MVP who didn’t play at all during 2010-11 due to a kneecap that drifted somewhere around his mid-thigh, came back to score 28 points and pull down 14 boards for the Jam on Friday night in his first D-League game since April of 2010. He then followed it up with a pretty much identical effort on Saturday night, going 27-and-13 to help Bakersfield to a 2-0 record to start the season.

Oh yeah, of those 55 points? Thirty of them came from 3-point range, as the 6-foot-11 Butch went 10-for-19 (.526) from behind the arc over the two games.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A big man who stretches the other guys’ defense

Guard, Austin Toros

Dentmon turned a lot of heads this summer. Albeit, they were heads in Guadalajara, Mexico, but heads all the same. After leading the U.S. team to a third-place finish in the Pan American Games in Mexico, the blink-quick point guard who was traded from Texas to Austin in the offseason came out and scored 28 points to lead the Toros to a season-opening win. It took only 14 field goals to get there, too, as Dentmon went 5-for-8 from 3-point range and tacked on a 7-for-8 effort from the line.

He had seven assists, too, although he balanced them out with seven turnovers.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A guy who can put pressure on defense from the PG position and, in turn, create for the rest of the team

Forward, Reno Bighorns
You know what you’re getting with the 6-foot-11 Fazekas, who played for the Mavericks and Clippers in 2007-08 (and made his NBA D-League debut the same year): effort. And rebounds. And, of course, he didn’t disappoint. He also threw in some points in his two games over the weekend, averaging 19 to go along with 9.5 rebounds per game between Friday and Saturday, as his Reno Bighorns fell twice to the Bakersfield Jam.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A balanced post player who takes care of the ball and wears down his opponent

Forward, Bakersfield Jam

Is this the year for Renaldo Major?
Photo: NBAE via Getty Images
In his first two games with his brand-new team (after a post-Draft trade that sent him to Bakersfield after four years in Dakota), Major’s showing why he was so beloved with his old one. Two games do not an accurate sample size make, of course, but he’s off to a blistering start across the board: 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, five assists, three blocks (!!!) and two steals per game.

And that’s only in 34.5 minutes per contest. After years of frustration – including a heart issue that sidelined him for a year in 2007-08 – Major’s looking to play his first NBA minutes since 2006-07, when he saw game time with the Warriors. And he couldn’t have started the year much better.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A guy who can – and will – do a little of everything

Guard, Sioux Falls Skyforce
The sharpshooter, who was on the Celtics when they won the title in 2008, had two clean games in his first two appearances of the year, averaging 22.5 ppg on .583 shooting (including a 45.5 percent clip from behind the arc) to keep himself as a true prospect to join an NBA backcourt this year.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A PG who can draw out defenses with his jumper

Center, Texas Legends
The big man who’s played 72 total NBA games with five different teams hauled down 20 boards in by far the most dominating rebounding effort in the history of this two-day-long season. He also added 12 points. And a number of welts.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A bruiser who’ll get you the ball (or keep it in your hands)

Guard, Erie BayHawks
Sloan was a big reason why the Reno Bighorns nearly reached the NBA D-League Finals last year, scoring 17 points per game in the Playoffs.

Now, with a year under his belt, Sloan’s the D-League equivalent of a seasoned veteran – and looking like one. He struggled with his shot on opening night (5-for-19 from the field), but finished with a near-triple-double, posting 21 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. Then, a night later, he led all scorers with 34 points (going 13-for-23 from the floor), with 10 assists to make himself look like one of the league’s premier playmakers.

He looks to have made a leap from the foul line, too, going 17-for-19 so far, after shooting only .722 last year.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A guy who can create if you cover him and finish if you forget him.

Guard, Los Angeles D-Fenders
Tinsley, the one-time NBA star who went No. 1 in the D-League Draft, didn’t have a bad weekend, but it wasn’t anything particularly spectacular. He went 17-5-5 in L.A.’s opener on Friday night, then came back with 12 points, five assists and four boards in the D-Fenders’ second game against Dakota in as many nights on Saturday. Better – or at least louder – days look to be ahead for the guard that once put up eight assists a night, once he and his new team build up some chemistry.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A proven commodity who’s excelled at running NBA offenses

The Newcomers
Draft picks, free agents and fresh faces

Forward, Los Angeles D-Fenders
Costner was the star of the show two nights in a row for the D-Fenders, a squad that features a full-fledged former NBA star in Tinsley. Scoring 23 on Opening Night and then 30 on Saturday, he also added five and seven rebounds, respectively.

He’ll have to be careful, though: with 47 field goal attempts between the two games, he leads the league in both total FGA and average FGA. To stick on this list, he’ll have to make his possessions count – or the shots fall in – more.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A sturdy forward who can get to the rim

Center, Erie BayHawks
The 7-footer took a game to get going for Erie, but once he did, he starred. Pulling down 17 rebounds in the BayHawks’ loss to Rio Grande Valley on Saturday night, he showed a nose for the ball (and accompanying wingspan) that could get a man of his stature to the next level.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A talented 7-footer who’s still got a ton of upside (just, ya know, not in terms of growing)

Forward/Center, Iowa Energy
Maybe Famous was just getting warmed up. The third-round pick of the Iowa Energy – which seemed to us to be an absolute steal – only scored 12 points in his NBA D-League debut on Friday (although he did have 11 boards, mind you).

Then he came out and stomped all over the Skyforce on Saturday, racking up 29 points and 12 more rebounds against a more-seasoned Greg Stiemsma. There aren’t many big men quicker than Famous, who will encounter the normal rookie ups and downs as he learns the game, but as raw material, he’s pure potential.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A rare combination of size (6-foot-11) and quickness

Guard, Bakersfield Jam
Farrakhan, out of Virginia, was one piece of Bakersfield’s prize crop of first-round draft picks, and is now in charge of running what looks to be one of the league’s best offenses. So far, so good. With 16 assists combined in his first two games, to go along with 18.0 points per game, he also limited his turnovers, coughing up the ball just three times in each game.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A strong, well-built point guard with excellent vision

Forward, Tulsa 66ers

Edwin Ubiles projects as one of the more versatile players in the NBA D-League
Photo: NBAE via Getty Images
In his previous two seasons in Tulsa, Lewis averaged right around six points and 4.5 rebounds per game. This year, through two games, he’s at 17 points and 16 boards a night. He’ll most likely regress toward the mean, but don’t expect him to regress all the way there. The Pan American Games team member put in a ton of work in the offseason, and he’s seeing results early. Pay attention: Lewis looks poised for a breakout year.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A scrapper with size who’ll defend and get himself in position

Guard/Forward, Dakota Wizards
In Saturday’s game, Ubiles lost the scoring feel he had in his NBA D-League debut on Friday (going 3-of-10 shooting, after a 10-for-23 performance in the opener), but he still contributed across the board. Between the weekend’s two games, the 6-foot-6 swingman averaged seven rebounds, five assists, 2.5 steals and a block.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A guy whose size and quickness make him a presence no matter where he is on the floor

Guard/Forward, Maine Red Claws
Wright didn’t play a ton of minutes in Maine’s opener on Friday because of foul trouble, but he did some great work when he was out there, dumping in 16 points and pulling down 10 rebounds in 27 minutes. If the No. 3 pick in the Draft can work on his footwork and limit the turnovers, he should be NBA-ready sooner than later.
Look Him Up if You’re Looking For: A young, raw, but explosive talent

The Don't-Sleep-On-Us-Brigade
(working title...submissions welcome)

  • Dominique Johnson (Texas) – 28 points, four rebounds, three assists in 43 minutes
  • Charles Garcia (Sioux Falls) – 28 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game; 6-10, 240
  • Travis Franklin (Canton) – 5 steals, 8 rebounds, 25 points (including 11-of-12 shooting from the free throw line) in Canton’s inaugural game
  • Greg Stiemsma (Sioux Falls) – 12 rebounds per game, 5 blocks per game, 11.5 ppg; 6-11, 260 (basically Butch’s doppelganger, without the three-flurries)
  • Mychel Thompson (Erie) – 19.5 points, 9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3.0 blocks per game
  • Lance Thomas (Austin) – 25 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals per game; Duke product, Pan Am Gamer