Training Camp Bubble Watch, Part One: Old Faces, Tall Fences

Of the 123 NBA D-League alums in NBA training camps, there are 10 Top Prospects from 2011-12 battling for final spots on NBA rosters.
A few, already, have burst.

In the two weeks since NBA training camps first opened up, a half-dozen of the NBA D-League’s Top Prospects from 2011-12 have had their dreams deflated by the reality of NBA roster sizes.

Former Rio Grande Valley guard Vance Cooksey was the first to go, after the Bulls – basically in the midst of a global talent search to find ways to live without Derrick Rose – waived him on Oct. 4. Three days later, the Grizzlies let go of former Fort Wayne Mad Ants forward Jarrid Famous and Canton Charge swingman D.J. Kennedy, who’d blown up the NBA D-League in 2011-12 and performed capably enough at Summer League to find himself cast as a trade chip in July.

Last Wednesday, the 76ers bade goodbye to journeyman center Mikki Moore (word out of Philly is that the Sixers already found their starting center) and Xavier Silas, the latter of whom almost made the team out of training camp last year, then got a Call-Up down the stretch.

The Warriors cut NBA D-League Defensive Player of the Year (and owner of the NBA D-League’s hottest late-spring stock) Stefhon Hannah on Sunday. And just hours ago, on Monday at noon, the Hawks cut their roster to 17 by releasing Keith Benson, whose growth in the NBA D-League and subsequent showing at Summer League (not to mention his 10-point, two-board night against the Spurs on Oct. 10) appeared to improve his chances to stick around with the team that drafted him (then cut him, then picked up him again for another look in Vegas).

But, of the 52 players in NBA camps who played in the NBA D-League last year (which does include the guys who came on assignment from NBA teams) and 123 total with NBA D-League experience, the majority are still with their clubs.

Here are the 10 Top Prospects - defined loosely as the players who haven’t yet established themselves in the NBA – who find themselves sitting firmly on the bubble in training camp.

Point Guard, Indiana Pacers

Blake Ahearn’s time in the NBA D-League has made him the basketball equivalent of a soap opera star. He’s famous for his longevity. So much so that he’s even become pretty close to a household name among avid NBA fans – especially after surpassing the NBA record for consecutive free throws (110 in the end) and setting the NBA D-League all-time scoring record in 2011-12. He’d just rather be somewhere else.

But it’s gonna be tough for that Somewhere to be Indianapolis. He’s still on the roster, competing with former D-Leaguer Sundiata Gaines for the final point guard spot (behind George Hill and D.J. Augustin) on an Indy squad looking to solidify itself as one of the East’s elite teams.

So yes, the task could be easier elsewhere. But Ahearn’s hanging on, propped up by his 3-point and foul-shooting abilities (sharp and automatic, respectively) and his acumen (even sharper than his 3-point abilities) but held back by limited athleticism, feeble defense and a pretty packed Indy backcourt.

Point Guard/Shooting Guard, Dallas Mavericks

Akognon, like fellow NBA D-League alum Malcolm Thomas, razed the competition at Summer League this year. And, like Thomas, the combination of those performances and his non-NBA track record wasn’t enough to secure a guaranteed deal.

But it was enough to warrant a call from Mark Cuban. Which, in turn, convinced Akognon to opt out of his contract in China and join the Mavs as non-guaranteed, training-camp invite. But on a team laced up with contracts, he is essentially the outsider. Especially given that Dallas doesn’t particularly need a score-first point guard at the moment (for Akognon’s 19.3 ppg average in Vegas, he dished out just 0.7 assists).

Assuming (pretty safely) that Darren Collison, Delonte West and 24th overall pick Jared Cunningham man the point, Akognon’s main competition likely comes from Dominique Jones, the third-year Mavs point guard who spent three games in the NBA D-League last year. They’re similar players, though Dallas certainly has more time and money invested in Jones, who also needs to spend less time freewheeling and more time creating, Rick Carlisle told the Dallas Morning News.

As expected, Akognon hasn’t gotten a ton of run yet. In the Mavs’ two games in Europe, he played less than five minutes combined (including three seconds in the season-opener in Berlin), though he did can a 3-pointer in his only shot of the game when the Mavericks lost to FC Barcelona.

Center/Forward, Utah Jazz

At his best, Butch presents the sort of challenges that Steve Novak does. To his opponents and his team.

A bomber in a banger’s body, Butch has long made his way through the basketball ranks – from former McDonald’s All-American in high school to star at the University of Wisconsin to NBA D-Leaguer to NBA Call-Up to Pan American Team center – from the 3-point line. Of his 16.9 career ppg average in his two NBA D-League stints (2009-10 and 11-12), more than a third of that’s come from behind the arc. At 6-foot-11 with a release as quick as a temper, he can turn a defense inside-out by dragging taller defenders out of the lane. Meanwhile, with an 11.3 rebounds per game note, he’s shown the ability to clean the glass with regularity. And if it weren’t for a ghastly knee injury during 2010 Summer League (and another knee problem that cut short his 2011-12 campaign), he might have already had his shot to play in The Association.

But without the size (and inclination) to meddle in the middle on a consistent basis – Butch scores in the post about as often as Nate Robinson – he’ll struggle to compete in the NBA at the 5, despite presenting a matchup wrinkle from the outside as a 4. He looks a lot like former Wisconsin alum Greg Stiemsma, but doesn’t defend or block shots anywhere near as well as the new Timberwolves backup center.

He did his homework on the Jazz, though, ultimately picking Utah for camp because “they’ve had a lot of success with stretch bigs,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. Thus far, he’s seen 15 combined minutes through two games, pulling down 7 rebounds (a 3.5 rpg clip, which would put him at sturdy 14.8 per 36 minutes) but missing all six shots he’s taken. With 19 men still on the Jazz roster, four cuts still await, though it looks like three center spots are already locked up, with Al Jefferson, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors.

Point Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves

Conroy, a virtual NBA D-League lifer at this point, did the NBA world a service this offseason when he helped drive his old University of Washington teammate Brandon Roy back into the league.

Now, after 12 games in the NBA (most recently in 2009-10) and 212 across six seasons in the NBA D-League, he’s looking to make his own return. But the time’s getting thin.

Few people – Ahearn included – have accomplished what Conroy has in the NBA D-League. The record-holder for points in a season (1,300 in 2008-09) and a game (53, tied twice by Morris Almond) and No. 2 overall scorer in league history (behind Ahearn) is also the leading assist man in league history (with an 8.7 apg average) over a career that’s seen him play the second-most NBA D-League minutes of all time.

Exactly. Conroy’s spent a lot of time on the brink. An all-around talent and high-level distributor with a propensity for turning the ball over and getting his rest on defense, the 29-year-old has stayed close to the league because of his ability to run the point and, thus, fill in capably for an injured player. Which makes him so alluring (at least temporarily) in Minnesota, where Ricky Rubio won’t be ready until roughly the holidays and No. 2 point guard Luke Ridnour is hobbled with back spasms. That leaves just Jose Juan Barea ahead of Conroy (Alexey Shved is playing more 2-guard than 1 right now), which meant Conroy got quite a look over the T-Wolves’ first two games, averaging 24.5 minutes in two appearances. After easing into things against the Pacers on Oct. 10, he went wild two days later against the same team, giving 30 minutes of Will Conroy: 7 points, 6 assists, 6 turnovers. The Wolves have three more cuts to make, but if Conroy can hang onto the ball a bit better, he’s got a shot to escape the axe.

Center/Forward, Utah Jazz

Gilder, who’s playing with Butch in Utah, made a leap in 2011-12. The well-traveled big man, who played in crumbs of two games for Memphis in 2009-10 (in addition to Summer League with the Grizz and 2011 training camp with the Jazz) set new highs for his NBA D-League career almost across the board. From scoring (19.2 ppg, after never going above 14.3 in either of his two seasons before 2011-12) to rebounding (7.7, up from a high of 5.5) to foul-shooting (his 84.1-percent mark bested his previous mark of 76 percent), he played like a new player.

Unfortunately, the part of his game that’s held him back the longest – that, as a 6-foot-9 power forward, he weighs only 185 pounds – stayed fairly flat.

He’s competing essentially for the same reserve big man role that Butch is. And while he doesn’t have the outside game that Butch does, he has a slight edge on defense and in pure athleticism. Don’t count Gilder out.

Point Guard, Atlanta Hawks

Unless he’s trying to find something that fell behind a bookcase, size won’t ever really be on Squeaky’s side. What will be, however, are his defensive skills and his work ethic. And his haircut. But mostly his work ethic. At 5-foot-10 and 29 years old, he doesn’t have the makings of a star. But he can certainly make the ones on other teams shine a little less bright. The former Austin Toros made the Hornets out of camp last year, and impressed the Hawks enough in those 15 games and in the 23 he played in Austin in 2011-12 to earn a shot with Atlanta this year.

It’ll be a fight, though. Even though scouts and front office personnel sing in 30-part harmony about the virtues of defense in getting players from the NBA D-League to the NBA, the Hawks are stocked up in the back court. Not to say that Johnson’s not up for the challenge. He just needs to prove that he’s a valuable enough defender in practice – and a point guard who won’t cough the ball up in a reserve role – to stick around in ATL.

Point Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers

In 2011-12 Sloan was basically a well-compensated basketball hobo.

Over the course of the shortened season, the former Erie BayHawks point guard saw time with three NBA teams, starting with the Hawks, going to NOLA and finishing with 25 games in Cleveland. Bouncing from 10-day contract to 10-day contract, he took the minutes where he could. Because there weren’t many. But teams liked his defense, his care with the ball and his aggressiveness – especially for a guy that was expected to just keep things from breaking down when the first two point guard options were on the bench.

Then Summer League came around and Sloan showed how much potential he brings when he’s given some more regular time. As one of the most outstanding Prospects – outside of Malcolm Thomas, Sloan was probably the one who showed himself best – in Vegas, Sloan was a bolt of electricity, showing the explosiveness to get into the lane and ball and body control to finish, find the open man or get back out.

He’s kept it going in the preseason, putting up 10.5 points on only six shots a night (he’s a combined 7-for-12 in two games) and 3.5 assists. This could be the year that a team commits to him. Because over the last 32 games with Cleveland, from last year’s regular season through Summer League through now, he hasn’t let this opportunity go.

The issue, as always, is money. As the Beacon Journal reports, if the Cavs keep three point guards, Sloan’s got a spot. He might even end up as the backup to Kyrie Irving. But if they opt for two, it’s him vs. Jeremy Pargo (who came over in the D.J. Kennedy deal)…not to mention Pargo’s guaranteed contract. Stay tuned.

Center, Sacramento Kings

As a two-year veteran of the NBA (though his experience totaled up to 83 minutes), Ndiaye barely squeezes into this list. But because the Wizards let him walk halfway through last season and he ended up playing – on his own accord – in the NBA D-League (for the Iowa Energy), we’ll let him qualify.

The Senegal-born Ndiaye may never turn into more than just a shot-blocking, garbage-picking 7-footer. Which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound too terrible. But Ndiaye’s only gotten better at what got him NBA looks to begin with – hanging near the basket, swatting away shots like the moderator’s questions at a presidential debate and sending the action back the other way. His offensive game is mostly a raw specimen that consists of firing shots at the rim and a lot of hope (in fairness, he didn’t start playing basketball until he was 16) but, as we learned from Stiemsma last year, there’s generally a few spots available in the NBA for very large people who make it just terrible on opposing offenses.

Forward, Toronto Raptors

Wright will play in the NBA this year. It might not be in Canada, where he hasn’t seen the court for the Raptors thus far in the preseason. But it will be somewhere in North America. And maybe, briefly, somewhere in the NBA Development League.

For Wright, the game’s not the question. He played in 19 games for the Golden State Warriors in 2011-12 (including a 25-point, 8-board night against the Spurs in April), in addition to 13 in the NBA D-League, where he averaged 17.8 points, 8.8 boards and 1.4 blocks and showed off his special house blend of size (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) and quickness (quick). But the issue, as it is for the rest of the NBA D-League Tweener Parade (see: Edwin Ubiles, Justin Dentmon and Elijah Millsap from 2011-12), is where to put him.

And judging by the cast in Toronto, it probably won’t be there.

Center/Forward, Phoenix Suns

Zeller – the guy who hit one of the biggest shots in the history of Indiana high school basketball in 2005, which, to paraphrase The Big Lebowski, puts him in the running for biggest worldwide – plays a lot like Butch. He lingers on the outside and relies on his long-distance stroke to help his team. Unfortunately, Zeller hasn’t shown that he can do much more. He doesn’t rebound much for his size (6-foot-11, 245) and he doesn’t have enough strength to body up on the inside without racking up fouls. More of a mid-range shooter – more of a well-rounded basketball player who happens to be nearly 7 feet tall, really – who’s converting to a 3-point specialist to up his NBA potential, Zeller still looks like he hasn’t found his game in the context of the big leagues.

But he might be in the right place to do it.

The Suns, forced to re-think their roster and basically their entire identity with the departure of Steve Nash, also have to re-stock in the post after Channing Frye was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. With the roster at 17 now, reports, that means that Zeller’s battling Solomon Jones and Ike Diogu for the one remaining spot. Diogu, a 6-foot-9 veteran of 225 NBA games, can contribute in more conventional ways (rebounding, offense in the lane) and Jones brings a better post game than Zeller, but if the Suns opt for a big who can stretch the floor and move in transition, Zeller may find himself going from an NBA D-League reserve to one in the NBA.