With training camp around the corner, NBA teams have some holes to fill. Who's up to the task?
Moses Ehambe (left) and Mychel Thompson could soon be headed off to NBA training camps after red-hot starts.
NBAE via Getty Images
Four years ago, Walker Russell, a 6-foot point guard out of Jacksonville State built like a shower curtain rod, stepped onto the floor at Madison Square Garden and let himself dream a little.
Russell, the son of a New York Knicks scout by the same name, had been invited to Knicks training camp after a three-year career at Jacksonville State in which he set the school’s Division I scoring record (a mark later broken by current Iowa Energy forward Nick Murphy). He was undersized, he knew. But, as he stood on that floor that day in 2007, looking around at all the guys who knew what it was like to play there when those 24,000 seats were filled, he knew he could be one of them.
He didn’t have a chance.
“I was so star-struck,” said Russell, now a point guard for the NBA Development League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants. “Like, ‘Am I really in this situation?’ I didn’t take advantage like I would now. I learned there’s no days off. I was just star-struck, seeing [Stephon] Marbury and all these guys I’d seen on TV.
“It was all about trying to fit in instead of trying to take somebody’s job.”
Russell, who was named the NBA D-League’s Performer of the Week on Monday, will most likely join several dozen D-Leaguers headed off to NBA training camps over the course of the next week. And this time he intends to make it stick.
He’s learned a lot since 2007, he said, including what it means to be a professional athlete. Namely, that you’re never off duty.
“I learned at the end of the day there’s no day off,” he said. “You can come out and you can have bad day, and they can look at you and write you off – it’s all about the first impression. It’s like when you meet a girl – the first impression is always the last impression. I learned always be professional, and soak up all I can from the veterans.”
And above all, after four years playing internationally and in the NBA D-League – a league specially designed to pit players against each other for NBA bids – he’s learned what it means to stand out in training camp by, well, fitting in.
“[My advice is to] just do what you do,” he said. “Do what got you to that call-up. If you’re a defensive player, be a defensive player – don’t just go and shoot. They called you up for a reason. Whatever it is you do best, do that. They’ve got people who can score. You just be that piece of the puzzle they need.”
And with 30 teams set to open camp this weekend, that’s a whole lot of puzzle pieces. Here’s where the NBA D-League can help.
Note: Most players will have a few positions of crossover (Defenders can still be Distributors, after all), but each of the prospects below has a special skill that could turn those training camp invites into one-way tickets.
The guys that make everybody else look good.
Point Guard, Los Angeles D-Fenders
Tinsley has taken some time to warm up this year, as the former NBA star’s wavered between starry nights (like his 13- and 15-assist nights on Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, respectively – both team records) and out-and-out nightmares, like his five-point, five-assists night (on 1-of-13 shooting) on Dec. 3. But remember, this is Jamaal Tinsley, the eight-year NBA vet who spent most of those eight years dribbling between sandbag-footed big men’s legs
WALKER RUSSELL, Jr.
Point Guard, Fort Wayne Mad Ants
After getting an idea of what NBA teams wanted to see from him, Russell concentrated on two things this summer: his defense and his 3-point shooting. “There’s not too many true point guards anymore,” Russell said. “It’s a lot of combos. … I have to make that shot consistently and play defense consistently.” Well, he’s yet to hit a three (he’s 0-for-5, but he’s got some time to get on the board), but Russell’s best asset – his ability to find the gaps in traffic – has only gotten better. He’s averaging 11 assists per game through Fort Wayne’s first three, exceeding the mark of 10.8 apg he set in the 2008-09 season with the Mad Ants.
Guard, Erie BayHawks
Sloan doesn’t have trouble finishing. With 25 points and more than five rebounds per game, he doesn’t have trouble with much, really. It’s just that he’s at his best (and most useful) when he’s creating. And with two point-assist double-doubles this year – not to mention 8.4 assists per game – he could make a lot of people look very good on an NBA roster.
: Mustapha Farrakhan (G, Bakersfield Jam); Vance Cooksey (G, Texas Legends); Brandon Ewing (G, Iowa)
Broad-shouldered, board-cleaning big men
Forward, Iowa Energy
Famous’ emergence has been one of our favorite stories thus far in this short season. He bulked up in the offseason, filling out a 6-foot-11 frame that was desperate for it, and has scored 21 points and notched 12.1 boards per game. Going into this year, the third-round draft pick attracted words like ‘raw’ and ‘unseasoned.’ Chances are there’ll be an NBA team willing to help him get some polish.
Center, Texas Legends
Sampson, who has 72 NBA games to his name, grabbed 20 rebounds in the first game of the year. He picked up 10 more in Game Two, before suffering an ankle injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since Nov. 30. But as long as he can get himself back on the court soon, Sampson remains one of the premier big men in the league – and a virtual lock to get a spot in a training camp.
Center, Erie BayHawks
Daniels, Erie’s 7-foot, 265-pound tower, has already made his mark this season. After grabbing only six rebounds in his first-ever D-League game, he came back to get 17 in his second one and hasn’t looked back since, recording four double-doubles in his past four games. His 16.2 ppg and 12.8 rpg averages speak for themselves, but let’s amplify the sound a little: Daniels is averaging only 32 minutes per game. In short, when he’s on the court, he’s making an impact.
: Fazekas (F, Reno Bighorns); Dennis Horner (F, Springfield); Brandon Costner (F, L.A. D-Fenders); Darnell Lazare (F, Fort Wayne)
The Energy Guys
Just add them and stir
Guard, Austin Toros
Dentmon, who ran the show at the Pan American team this summer, is one of those combo guards that Walker Russell was talking about. He dished out seven assists on Nov. 26 and went 5-for-8 from 3-point range on the same night. Always moving, Dentmon’s a spark-off-the-bench waiting to happen.
Guard, Los Angeles D-Fenders
Ever since Millsap – the younger brother of Paul – came via trade to the D-Fenders, he’s electrified the lineup. The 6-foot-6 guard scored at least 21 points in each of his five games, with a high of 28. He has at least three steals in every game, and five twice. He even grabbed 15 rebounds against Sioux Falls on Dec. 3. And he’s ready for a shot.
Lockdown defenders who can change the makeup of a game by neutralizing a starter on the other team – and with limited minutes, they can afford to pick up a few fouls, too. Most of them do.
Guard, Tulsa 66ers
Russell didn’t hesitate when he called Dyson the best defender in the NBA D-League. “He always gives me trouble,” Russell said. The rangy wing out of UConn improved his strength and quickness in the offseason, and while he’s shooting less than 40 percent from the field this year, he’s also part of Tulsa system under coach Nate Tibbetts (who’s now on the bench in Cleveland) that’s long preached tenacity on both ends of the floor.
Forward, Tulsa 66ers
Lewis, Dyson’s teammate at Tulsa, brings an equal measure of defensive tenacity to the court. But while Dyson hangs around the perimeter, Lewis owns the lane. At 6-8, he doesn’t have the length of a pure shot-blocker like Stiemsma, but he more than makes up for it in quickness and positioning. Hardcore fans will remember that it was Lewis’ two blocks at the end of the game that gave this summer’s U.S. Basketball Pan American Games team its first win of the tournament…and even if you don’t, here’s proof
Center, Sioux Falls Skyforce
Stiemsma’s always been a tall dude. But he’s never used his body better than he has this year, averaging 4.5 blocks and 10.8 rebounds per game in 2011-12 (up from 3.8 and 7.1, respectively, in 2010-11). He doesn’t score a ton, but he doesn’t have to – his presence does a good job of making sure that the other team’s big man won’t do much of it, either.
Forward, Austin Toros
Now in his second year in the league, Thomas looks like he’s on the path to stardom. Which, means, of course, an NBA look. He’s far surpassing his numbers from last year – a season in which he started 46 games in Austin – with a 19.3-point, 10.0-rebound average through the first three. But what makes Thomas, who played under Mike Kryzewski at Duke, so attractive to NBA teams is his scalability. He fits in at the No. 3 position, although his size and speed allow him to match up against anyone from a shooting guard to a (smaller) center – and after playing mostly No. 4 at Duke, he’s used to holding his own on the inside.
: Antonio Anderson (G, Maine); Durrell Summers (G, Maine); Will Foster (the 7-foot-5 center in Idaho)
Everything’s better when it’s free, right? And when NBA teams put their reserves in to give their starters a breather – especially in key situations – guys who can knock down foul shots and hold onto the ball come at a premium.
Guard, Reno Bighorns
Ahearn holds both the career and single-season NCAA records for free throw percentage, at 94.7 percent and 95.7 percent, respectively. In four-plus NBA D-League seasons, he’s made 95.5 percent of his foul shots, which means that of 873 free throws, he’s missed only 43 of them
. Now, toss in the fact that he’s the leading scorer in the league and a guy with NBA experience, and you’ve got a prime target for a one-way ticket to the bigs.
Guard, Maine Red Claws
Hayes had a big week last week. First, he scored 20 in a loss to Erie. Then he came back and hung a combined 50 points (18 on Saturday, 32 on Sunday) against Springfield and Fort Wayne in a two-day span. During that stretch – which include a leg-liquefying 46 minutes on Sunday – he made all but one of his 21 free throws, which puts him at a .913 mark this year.
Power, speed and agility...and a lot of upside
Guard, Bakersfield Jam
Once again, Major’s contributions don’t fit in a single column (or two or three or four). The NBA D-League vet brings everything to the table, from a shooting percentage that’s never been below 50 percent in any of his four-plus seasons in the league, to a defensive motor that never turns off. But this year, Major’s made big strides in his distribution game, dishing out seven assists in two games and racking up five assists per game – far above his career average.
Forward, Dakota Wizards
Ubiles hasn’t done any one thing exceptionally well this year – after his 25-point outburst on opening night, he’s settled into a 16.0 ppg groove; he hasn’t posted double-digits in rebounds or assists on any given night – but he’s done pretty much everything well. He’s had five or more assists in every game but one, and six or more rebounds in all four games. But he’s a perfect size for a swingman, and he’s got the lift of a pole-vaulter. He’ll need more time against top-tier talent to prove he belongs, but a player this flexible should be able to squeeze into a spot somewhere.
Forward, Erie BayHawks
Thompson, like Famous, went in the third round of this year’s NBA D-League Draft, which means that he, like Famous, was an absolute steal. Averaging nearly 20 points a game, Thompson’s also showing up across all categories, from rebounds (five a game) to steals (two a games), reflecting a player who stays engaged on both sides of the floor. Oh yeah, he’s also making almost 50 percent of his shots from three – and, with 7.4 of them per game, he’s taking a bunch of them.
Forward, Maine Red Claws
Wright projects as kind of an NBA ‘tweener,’ which means he’ll most likely have to show some sustained success – and a more consistent jumper (he’s gone 4-for-14, 12-for-17 and 5-for-15 this year) – to stick at the higher level, but he’s off to a real good start. The No. 3 pick in the draft is putting up 17 points a game and nearly 11 rebounds a contest for Maine, while averaging a block and a half a game while he’s at it.
: Cedric Bozeman (G/F, Reno Bighorns); Brian Hamilton (F, L.A. D-Fenders)
Sharpshooters and Specialists
Gentlemen with jumpers.
Guard, Sioux Falls Skyforce
Pruitt, who played for the Celtics during the championship season in 2008, has never shot the 3-ball better. Firing at 47.4 percent through four games, he’s also making 52.4 percent of his shots from the floor and 78.3 percent from the line (up 13 percentage points from his lifetime clip).
Guard, Iowa Energy
The well-traveled Ehambe came to the Energy late last season, then absolutely erupted in the postseason. This year, as one of two returning players on the defending champs, he’s become the go-to-guy, firing daggers from the perimeter. Ehambe’s shot better than 50 percent from behind the arc in three of five games this year, and is hitting on 48.6 percent of his threes on the year.
Center, Bakersfield Jam
Make no mistake: the 6-foot-11 Butch can beat you on the inside. But he’ll kill you from the perimeter. In addition to his 12.8 rebounds per game, the Wisconsin product has hit 44.4 percent of his 3-pointers this year, getting 12 of his 20 field goals and 36 of his 79 points from behind the arc. “I don’t think people realize yet that he’s pick-and-pop,” Russell said.
: Anthony Goods (G, Dakota); Corey Allmond (G, Fort Wayne); Sam Coleman (G, Rio Grande Valley)