Three Former D-League Players Look To Crack NBA Starting Lineups

by Matthew Brennan, D-League.com

Ramon Sessions (right) could be teaming up with Michael Redd in the Milwaukee backcourt this season.
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October 6, 2008: 111 players with NBA D-League experience are taking the court this month in NBA training camps as teams prepare for the 2008-09 season. Many players are looking to earn their first roster spot in the NBA after showcasing their skills in the D-League, but a select few have been given the opportunity to take the next step in their NBA careers and earn starting positions for their teams.

Here are three players who have played in the NBA D-League over the past two years who could enter the new season in the starting lineup for their teams. Two were second-round draft picks who used the D-League to gain experience and contribute on the NBA level, while the other was undrafted out of college and advanced to the NBA through a GATORADE Call-Up.

Ramon Sessions, Milwaukee Bucks

Sessions developed from late second round pick to NBA D-League star to the Bucks' starting point guard last season. The rookie guard from Nevada became the first player to play in the D-League and win an NBA monthly award in the same season, picking up T-Mobile NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honors for the month of April. Sessions set a new Bucks team record with 24 assists in a game against Chicago, becoming the first Bucks player to have over 20 points and 20 assists in the same game.

The trade of Mo Williams to Cleveland in the offseason opens the door for Sessions to become the full-time starter for the Bucks this season. He will be competing in training camp with newly acquired veterans Luke Ridnour and Tyronn Lue for minutes at point guard. All three players should get plenty of time to impress new head coach Scott Skiles in the preseason, starting with their first game against the Minnesota Timberwolves before they head to China. Sessions got the start and scored 11 points and dished out six assists in Monday's loss to Minnesota.

Sessions, taken 56th overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, was assigned to Tulsa to start the D-League season and quickly made an impact when he earned NBA D-League Performer of the Week honors after opening weekend. Before his recall to the Bucks shortly before the All-Star break, Sessions averaged 20.9 points, 7.6 assists and 6.6 rebounds in 24 games for the 66ers. He was inititally sidelined by a wrist injury before making his NBA debut on March 10, but finished the last month of the season as a starter for the Bucks.

Amir Johnson will be playing a bigger role for the Pistons in his fourth NBA season.
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Amir Johnson, Detroit Pistons

Pistons' fans are hoping that this is the year that Johnson lives up to the outstanding potential that he displayed during a D-League stint with Sioux Falls in 2006-07. A tremendously athletic 6-11 forward, Johnson entered the NBA directly out of high school (he would be a senior in college this season) and played sparingly for the Pistons until last year, when he appeared in 62 games off the bench. This preseason could be the time for Johnson to really get the chance to show that he can play a big role for the Pistons as he has been named a starter at power forward for their preseason opener. New Pistons coach Michael Curry, who served as Director of Player Development for the D-League in 2005-06, made it official over the weekend as Johnson started the Pistons' preseason opener against the Heat, scoring two points with four rebounds while being limited by foul trouble in his first NBA start.

"Amir does things without having to have the ball," Curry said to the Detroit News on Saturday. "He's able to pick up baskets through his activity, by running the floor and playing off the other four guys. He does all the intangible things, and through that he's able to create offensive opportunities for himself."

Curry continued in his praise of Johnson, comparing his ability to put his mark on a game to that of former Pistons star Ben Wallace, who helped lead the Pistons to an NBA title.

"Ben could make a tremendous impact on a game without having any plays run for him. Amir is like Ben in that sense," Curry said to the Detroit News. "Amir can impact a game by how he rebounds, he can impact on the speed in which we play, offensively and defensively. His presence will be a welcome addition to that group."

Johnson dominated the NBA D-League on assignment in 2006-07, averaging 18.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 3.1 steals while on assignment to the Sioux Falls Skyforce. The Skyforce went 17-5 with Johnson in the lineup as they cruised to a playoff berth.

The Warriors are giving C.J. Watson a shot at the starting point guard position.
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C.J. Watson, Golden State Warriors

The first GATORADE Call-Up of the 2007-08 season, Watson stuck with Golden State for the whole season but did not see a lot of playing time with Baron Davis taking most of the minutes at point guard. Now, with Davis gone to the Clippers, and Monta Ellis out with an injury, Watson could have a chance to become a starter at guard for the Warriors.

Watson got the nod in the Warriors' preseason opener, scoring six points in 18 minutes in a loss to the Hornets. His main competition for minutes until Ellis returns will come from former Net Marcus Williams, accquired in a trade over the summer, and newly signed veteran Dan Dickau.

"It's C.J.'s job right now to lose," head coach Don Nelson said after last Wednesday's practice to the Contra Costa Times. "From what I've seen in this camp so far, he's done the best job. I see all three of the point guards playing this year."

The 6-2 Watson hopes to join teammate Kelenna Azubuike as players who have gone from D-League stars to the Golden State rotation. A first-round pick by Rio Grande Valley in last November's NBA D-League draft, Watson excelled for the Vipers, averaging 26.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 16 games. He signed with the Warriors in January and went on to appear in 32 NBA games off the bench.

"He's grown so much from last year to this year, and I'm excited that he knows that he's going to play," teammate Stephen Jackson said to the Contra Costa Times about Watson. "It's unfortunate that Monta went down. But sometimes when things like that happen, it's a blessing for some other people. One thing about C.J. is that he's a humble kid. He appreciates the opportunity he's getting and he's definitely taking advantage of it."