She's got next: In the G League, female refs can make a name

MIAMI — The G League season opens Friday night, and there will be someone on the court in places like Grand Rapids or Greensboro or Des Moines whose next job will be in the NBA.

That isn’t limited to players.

Or to men.

Nearly one-third of the referees in the G League this season are women, and some – like dozens of players, coaches, front-office staff and refs – are moving closer to realizing NBA hopes. Every referee hired by the NBA in the last 15 years has some experience in what’s now called the G League, which means it’s a proving ground for both those who are making plays and making calls.

“It was my experience that as my skill set deepened, so did my resolve to work at the highest level,” said Lauren Holtkamp, the NBA’s third full-time female referee and someone who spent six seasons in what was called the NBA Development League before it was rebranded earlier this year. “The training fueled the desire.”

That’s the same sort of sentiment players in the G League have.

Every NBA team opened this season with a G League alum on its roster, some with many of them. The NBA says 38 percent of its players right now have at least some G League experience, and that number has been rising rapidly in recent years. In 2004-05, there were 15 G League graduates starting the season in the NBA; this season, there were 167.

Detroit, Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago and Miami combined to have 48 G League alums on their rosters – more than the entire NBA had a decade ago.

“I absolutely think all are really realizing the high level of talent, the high level of competition that we have in the league,” G League President Malcolm Turner said. “We are a league of opportunity and a league of aspiration. We can be a launch pad to help NBA dreams come true whether you’re a player, coach, referee, on down the line and that’s reflected in the style of play that you see. Our guys get after it, night in and night out.”

The league is now up to a record 26 teams; a 27th is coming next season and Turner hasn’t ruled out the chance that the league’s goal – 30 teams, all single-affiliated with an NBA club – could become reality within a year or two at the most. It’s also the first season with two-way contract opportunities for players, who can spend up to 45 days in the NBA on those more-lucrative deals while continuing to develop in the G League.

The G League will also again be a laboratory of sorts for the NBA. To start this season, the G League is using four-person refereeing crews instead of the customary three, plus will be offering a coach’s challenge and a 2-minute overtime. As has been the case with plenty of other experiments over the years, the NBA will study what happens and see if the results suggest it could help their game.

But when it comes to the female referees, that’s no experiment.

Many worked summer league games this year, and Holtkamp – the only woman working NBA games as an official right now – is looking forward to the day when female refs might no longer be viewed as a novelty.

“I’m invigorated knowing there are talented and determined women in the developmental program who have access to the best training in the world,” Holtkamp said. “I believe in their ability to do this work.”