In Reno, Proof of the Evolution of Assignments

Single-affiliates get to send their NBA players to an NBA D-League team that runs their system under their staff. Which makes assignments to multiple-affiliates all the more interesting.

Names to Know

  • Tony Wroten, G, Reno Bighorns/Memphis
  • Kevin Murphy, G, Reno Bighorns/Utah
  • Tyler Honeycutt, C, Reno Bighorns/Sacramento
In the first game in the history of the Santa Cruz Warriors -- and less than three months after the team got final approval to move from Dakota to the South Bay -- the Golden State Warriors' NBA D-League affiliate will tip off on Friday against four teams.

They'll be taking on the Reno Bighorns, for one. That's the one that'll show up on the schedule. But they'll also be up against Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz. Or at least one member of each.


Because when the Bighorns hit the court for the first time in 2012-13, they'll do so with a representative from every one of their NBA affiliates on their roster. Center Tyler Honeycutt came down from the Kings. Swingman Kevin Murphy, from Utah. And Tony Wroten, perhaps the most prized possession, came from probably the best team in the NBA, after going in the first round of this year's Draft to the Grizzlies.

For all the movement toward single-affiliation -- a record 11 of 16 NBA D-League teams came into 2012-13 with just one NBA affiliate -- a few perks remain in the world of multiple-affiliation. The ability to act as something like a youth hostel is one of them, with players coming to your team from up to four different NBA teams. And that willingness to send players to the NBA D-League without your NBA staff running operations (like a single-affiliate would have) reflects just how much the NBA D-League has grown in the eyes of NBA execs.

"The way the league was designed from the beginning, we're starting to see it now," Mokeski said. "Not only in Call-Ups, but now we're seeing NBA teams with single-affiliate hybrids. That's obviously how they're really using it. Now we have it that a player from every one of our affiliates is gonna be with us for opening night.

"That's the growth of our league and the trust of NBA teams in the NBA Development League," he continued. "That also shows how far general managers and head coaches in the NBA have come. I think for a few years the Development League was a like a throw-in. Now they see it as a tool they can use to make their players better to come back and be successful with their organization."

The numbers tell one part of the story. The 27 Assignments so far in the 2012-13 season -- through a single week of NBA D-League action and just three weeks since the start of traning camp -- are almost halfway toward breaking the single-season record set last year (64).

But a little deeper inspection tells a far richer tale, Mokeski said.

Not only have assignments started to last longer -- instead of one game here and there, they'll last a few weeks, to let players get into the flow of the system -- but they're also taking place earlier in the season. Those few extra days of practice help a player get accustomed to his team and keep him from just getting his individual work in at the cost of the whole team.

Most NBA teams also send their players down with the equivalent of a checklist. Work on this. Polish that. Play defense.

And gone, for the most part, are the days of NBA teams sending players down and expecting them to immediately turn into the hub of an NBA D-League team's hopes. Gone, even, are the days of expecting them to play a certain number of minutes if they're not contributing to the team the way they're asked.

"I think it's kind of changed," Mokeski said. "When I came into the league, it was an unwritten rule that when an NBA player came down you tried to get him 25-30 minutes. I think that's changed, and I think that's the growth of the league. When an NBA player comes down and he's not doing what you're doing or playing the way the parent club wants him to to play, if you keep him on the floor for 30 minutes that's not the message you want to send.

When the Indiana Pacers assigned Miles Plumlee and Orlando Johnson to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants a week ago (an NBA D-League team Indy shares with three other clubs), it marked the first time the Pacers had ever assigned players to the NBA Development League.
"It's really grown over the years, where NBA teams are using our league a lot more with a specific intent," he said. "They have a game plan now. Five to six years ago, it was like, 'let's send him down and get some run in a game for 30 minutes.'

Now teams have a more specific game plan. They want him to come down and work on X, Y and Z, so that's helped the process."

It's also helped the assignments get meaningful work in.

The whole throw-em-down-to-the-affiliate-for-a-night scheme worked, basically, like a blind date. There was a lot of standing around. A lot of monologuing. Not a lot of eye contact. And all in all, people would have rather been texting.

Now, the longer players can spend with a team -- even if it's for a couple days, like Wroten has with Reno -- the more they're able to get into rhythm with the system. Even if NBA D-League teams aren't single-affiliated, they still tend to run their offense according to a single NBA system or, at the very least, a single system with a few riffs.
"It's very hard to send an NBA assigned player to a D-League team in the middle of the season," Mokeski said. "When you look at our roster, we have Darnell Jackson, Garrett Temple, Marcus Landry. We have high-level players that are borderline NBA, and you can't expect to send down an NBA assignment player not getting his minutes [and work him immediately into the lineup], because frankly, in the NBA practice time's at a premium, so he really hasn't been playing competitive basketball for a month or more."

More and more, though, Mokeski's finding that for as much as players come to the NBA D-League to improve their game, they're looking to learn, too. And in a league that's now packed with former NBA players, it's not tough to find teachers.

"It goes both ways," the coach said. "Last year we had Bobby Simmons, who was the Sixth Man of the Year. He was down with us getting in shape. ... He was an example to everybody. Hassan Whiteside. Tyler Honeycutt. I just told them watch what Bobby does. He's the first guy at practice. He's stretching, getting his shots in. He stays latest. He shows the assigned players how to do it."

"Then there are other situation where a player might come down, and he'll talk to our guys like, 'we're working on pick and roll coverage, and that's one of the things we work on in Memphis.' That gives a reassurance that down in the Development League, our job is to prepare you and our job is to win games to not only get your Call-Up, but to be successful with it."

Like, say, Simmons was last year, after the big man signed with the Clippers and stuck around until the season ended. Or even Blake Ahearn, who set the league's all-time scoring record and its consecutive made-free-throws record before getting a Call-Up to the Jazz near the end of the year.

And no matter if you're a Prospect or an Assignment, the sentiment's the same, Mokeski said.

"The next step is to stay up there," he said. "I tell people when they get their 10-day, I say congrats, I loved your time here. Don't take this personal but I never want to see you again. I want you to stay up there."