Playing For Keeps
The guys with the best shots of landing spots on NBA rosters, in descending order.
Austin Toros / New Orleans Hornets
This was a shock.
When the new-look, new-era, new-everything New Orleans Hornets tipped off their preseason against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday, Thomas was one of five Hornets on the court. He then went out and played 36 minutes – more than any other D-Leaguer, not to mention 10 more minutes than LeBron James played in the Heat’s opener on Sunday.
Over those 36 minutes, Thomas did what he was supposed to, scoring seven points and leading the team in rebounding and posting a plus-6 rating.
Few NBA D-Leaguers – if any – made the leaps that Thomas made in the offseason. In his second season in Austin, the Duke product has dwarfed his output from 2010-11, averaging nearly a double-double in his first four games. Additionally, a trip to the Pan American Games in November has Thomas game-ready at a time when most of his teammates in camp are still gasping for air.
He doesn’t project as much of a scorer in the NBA. Not yet, at least. But he doesn’t need to be. At 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, his job will be to get the ball and defend from the point to the low post. In the words of Hornets24/7, he’ll need to be a “glue guy,” which is, conveniently, exactly what Monty Williams was looking for when he invited the nine non-contract players to camp. [http://www.hornets247.com/blog/2011/12/12/hornets-training-camp-spotlight-lance-thomas/]
With Chris Paul gone, the Hornets will be a team searching for an identity this year, but look for Lance Thomas to be a part of that formation.
Note: D-Leaguers Justin Dentmon and Moses Ehambe were waived by the Hornets on Monday, cutting the Hornets’ training camp roster down to 16. Of that total, six are playing without an NBA contract and four of them – Thomas, Brian Butch, Carldell Johnson, and Jerome Dyson – are from the D-League.
Sioux Falls Skyforce / Boston Celtics
Stiemsma scored one of the biggest baskets of opening weekend, getting a game-winning, try-again-try-again-tip-in to send the Celtics to a 76-75 win over the Raptors on Sunday.
And while his numbers from Sunday – four minutes, three rebounds (two of them on the put-back) – certainly didn’t make him a shoo-in for the C’s opening day roster, one number does: 6-11.
As in, six feet, 11 inches.
It’s looking more and more like the Celtics, who’ve been hollowed-out in the middle after the departures of Shaq, Kendrick Perkins and Big Baby Davis, are prepared to start the season with Jermaine O’Neal and Stiemsma as their No. 1 and 2 centers, according to ESPN.com.
Stiemsma, an expert shot-blocker (4.5 a game in the D-League this year!), still needs to add strength and some size, but he could find himself in high-demand against a bigger Knicks core when the C’s open the season on Christmas.
L.A. D-Fenders / Utah Jazz
Canton Charge / Utah Jazz
UPDATED: Dec. 22, 4:17 p.m.
Heading into the week, it looked like Keith McLeod -- the veteran of 200 NBA games, 119 of which came with the Jazz -- had the inside track over Jamaal Tinsley -- the former NBA star and No. 1 pick in this year's NBA D-League Draft -- in the best position battle involving any NBA D-League players. Tinsley had more experience (and success), but McLeod knew the system better.
Then came the news that the Jazz made four cuts on on Monday, including McLeod.
It's not official that Tinsley will be with Utah when the season opens up, but at this point, it's a pretty good bet that that 10-year veteran won't be returning to the D-Fenders anytime soon.
Dakota Wizards / Golden State Warriors
Maine Red Claws / Golden State Warriors
In another deep-bench battle, Ubiles – the Dakota Wizards’ 6-6 swingman out of Siena – and Wright – the Maine Red Claws’ 6-8 swingman out of Dayton – look to be the final two combatants for the final roster spot in Golden State.
Neither player has a whole lot of experience yet, whether you’re talking about competing against top-tier talent or just general seasoning. And although they’re fighting against the stigma of playing mid-major college ball, they’re both in the top 10 of NBA D-League players in terms of sheer athleticism.
Right now, the Warriors’ roster stands at 16. And according to CSN Bay Area’s Matt Steinmetz, Ubiles’ teammate at Siena, Tommie Mitchell, looks to be the odd man out.
From there, Warriors coach Mark Jackson can open the season with 15, and although that’s not guaranteed, deep benches will be at a premium after a preseason shorter than Rick Perry’s attention span. Ubiles and Wright – both of whom have now had a month to round into game shape – a can run and run, which will give Jackon an asset off the bench when his regulars get gassed.
It all comes down, as Steinmetz writes, to whether or not the Warriors want to take the chance of letting Ubiles and Wright go to the open market.
Erie BayHawks / Cleveland Cavaliers
Thompson, the brother of Warriors rookie Klay, looks to have his nails sunk into the final roster spot in Cleveland. The first-year swingman out of Pepperdine blew out to a hot start in the NBA D-League, and was the only one of the two non-contract rookies still on the Cavs’ roster to play in the team’s preseason opener on Friday.
Thompson played 26 minutes in Cleveland’s win over Detroit, and although he struggled from the floor (1-for-7), he picked up three rebounds, blocked a shot and only turned the ball over once. The Cavs wanted to see how he’d react against NBA talent, and, outside of an off night shooting, he did just about everything else.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s down to 17 players, with a few media sources reporting that Maine guard Kenny Hayes will likely be the cut that brings the total down to 16 and the competition down to Thompson vs. Manny Harris, a shooting guard who spent time with the Cavs last year. However, Harris hasn’t been able to practice due to an ulcer on his foot, possibly opening the door for Thompson.
Now, a few potentially helpful wrinkles: Cavaliers coach Byron Scott has known Thompson since he was born, after playing with Mychal Thompson (father of Klay and Mychel) in Los Angeles. And the Cavs, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, have a history of taking undrafted players – they had four on their roster to open the season last year.
Erie BayHawks / Atlanta Hawks
Sloan was first off the bench to replace starting point guard Jeff Teague in the first quarter, and rattled off three assists (and just one turnover) in 16 minutes. He did shoot just 1-of-6 from the field and got beat a couple times defensively early on, but stemmed the tide over the course of the game.
However, Monday’s addition of veteran point guard Jannero Pargo via free agency might make things a little crammed at the point. Stay tuned to see if Sloan can take the third spot at 1-guard while Kirk Hinrich recovers from shoulder surgery.
Squeaky Johnson lets it all hang out at Media Day.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
Austin Toros / New Orleans Hornets
You know him as Squeaky. He knows NOLA as home.
Squeaky, Thomas’ teammate in Austin, is as high-energy a player as there is in the NBA D-League. The point guard didn’t see even close to the time that Thomas saw in the exhibition game, but he made it all count, scoring 10 fourth-quarter points to showcase the explosiveness that made him a local legend when he was playing high school ball at John F. Kennedy and Abramson schools.
If the Hornets don’t go out and grab another point guard via free agency, Johnson – more than Toros teammate Justin Dentmon (who played 4:45 on Friday, recording a minus-9 total) – looks to have an outside shot to stay up with the club.
Either way, he has the Media Day Picture of the Year so far (right).
Rio Grande Valley Vipers / Miami Heat
Of the three guys up in Miami camp (after Cameron Jones was waived by the Heat on Dec. 16), Harris has by far the best chance of earning his way onto the Heat’s opening day roster. Not that it’s a great one, because Miami’s one of the more talented teams in the last two centuries or so.
But Harris went a long way toward proving his ability to compete in the NBA with a marksman effort from behind the arc in the Heat’s first preseason game on Saturday, going 4-of-5 from 3-point range.
Fort Wayne Mad Ants / Indiana Pacers
After a strong start to his D-League season, Lazare booked 10 minutes for the Pacers on Friday night, but came up largely empty, outside of a steal, a board and a minus-17 total.
Big Names, Homeward Bound?
Top-tier talent still at camp that looks to be headed back to the NBA D-League.
- Brian Butch – Butch didn’t play on Friday, implying that the Jam’s star center might not be the big man the Hornets are looking for.
- Dennis Horner – Horner logged 16 minutes, four points, four boards, three assists and a block in the Nets’ loss to the Knicks on Saturday, but with Kris Humphries still unsigned, the N.J. native might be headed back to Springfield knowing he can compete in the NBA if he puts in a little more work and time.
- Jarrid Famous – The story of the young season in the NBA D-League saw only 1:57 for the Pacers on Friday night, and may soon be headed back to Iowa to refine a game that should have him back in the NBA at some point this year.
- Elijah Millsap – Millsap exploded onto the scene in the D-League, but didn’t see any time for the Lakers on Monday night, as L.A. fell to the crosstown rival (and attention-hogging) L.A. Clippers.
- Durrell Summers – Summers played a handful of minutes in Charlotte’s win on Monday night, picking up a rebound in 4:45, but will he have a spot in the Bobcats’ rebuilding project?
- Jamal Sampson -- The former NBA big man has been hampered by a bum ankle in the preseason, and limited court time may have him headed back to the Legends.
- Walker Russell, Jr. – Russell, the NBA D-League Week One Performer of the Week, didn’t play in the Pistons’ opener on Friday.