Age Is Just a Number

By: Bobby Karalla...@BobbyKaralla

This weekend in New Orleans, 20 of the league’s best and brightest stars will do battle in the eighth annual D-League All-Star Game. Many of them have already spent time in the NBA, and most will likely get another chance in basketball’s best league.

It’s an exciting moment for all of these players, who will receive a chance to shine in front of the NBA’s top executives and decision-makers. Eighteen of the D-League’s All-Stars are just kids – most haven’t reached their mid-20s. But watch the All-Star game on Saturday night and you’ll spot Melvin Ely running up and down the floor, keeping pace with some the best, youngest, and most athletic athletes in the country.

At 35 years old, Ely is by far the oldest All-Star. The closest player by age is Bakersfield’s Ike Diogu, who’s still just 30 years old – still in an athlete’s prime window. Fellow Legend Devin Ebanks, just 24 years old, will also be joining Ely in New Orleans this weekend. Ely is averaging 16.2 points and 5.3 rebounds in 29.2 minutes per game this season. After dropping nearly 30 pounds this summer, the center has managed not only to keep up with the D-League’s youngsters. He’s standing out among them.

“It’s been a long trip – from last year, getting back in shape from injury again – finally to this year, playing the way I know I can play, and actually getting noticed out of a group of young guys,” Ely said following Wednesday’s last-second loss to the Austin Toros. “When you’re 35, you kind of get passed over by younger guys. And this year, I didn’t. I’m excited to play, excited to show everybody that I can still compete at a high level, and come back and get on a winning streak.”

The extra weight Ely shed has had a visible effect on his game. Against fellow NBA veteran and current Toro Dexter Pittman on Wednesday night, for example, Ely was easily the quicker of the two. The elder statesman of the D-League looked spry when jostling for position, and this season he’s consistently been able to either back down or face-up and get a shot off. Ely is shooting better than 60 percent this season, but he’s knocking down almost 66 percent of his shots from within five feet, which is exactly what you’d expect from an All-Star-caliber center with nearly a decade NBA experience.

The D-League, however, is an entirely different animal. In this league, teams like the Rio Grande Valley Vipers shoot upwards of 40 three-pointers per game, and shifty guards like Pierre Jackson and Manny Harris are routinely putting up 40-point games. The pace is faster, which is perfect for younger, smaller players. Ely isn’t shocked by the huge box score lines his fellow All-Stars, including Ebanks, have put together this season.

“I’m not surprised at all. I’m surprised that those guys are still down here,” he said. “I know when people think of D-League guys, they think of quiet reserves – when you get called up, you do what you do, and you don’t cause any waves. But there are guys out here scorer’s mentalities that almost rival Kobe’s. They go at it. And I take my hat off to them, and they’re gonna prove that when they get called up, we can do more than fill a spot for a day or two, that we can actually go up and contribute.”

It’s the Legends center’s personal improvement that has landed him a spot on the D-League’s brightest stage. Professional basketball is a young man’s game, but Ely has defied the norm and, although his inclusion on the All-Star team might have been unexpected heading into the season, this weekend his hard work this summer and excellent post play this season will be on display for all to see.