For preps and college underclassmen, G League apprenticeship a fact of life

Villanova sophomore Donte DiVincenzo says a comfort level with playing in the G League goes into the decision to stay in the draft or not.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

CHICAGO – The Pistons have 12 players under contract for next season and every one of them had a foothold in the rotation at one point last season. So it wouldn’t be the biggest upset ever if they wind up trading the only pick they hold in the June 21 draft, the 42nd overall selection.

But if they exercise it, there’s about a 100 percent chance that player will get familiar with the route from Detroit to Grand Rapids.

As more and more NBA teams launch their own G League affiliates and utilize them to ever greater degrees, college players leaving early to turn professional are becoming fully aware that it’s not always a direct route from one stop to the next.

“Everybody has to be comfortable with that because it’s a different lifestyle,” Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo, a sophomore still weighing his options, said last week at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. “It’s a different grind. We have guys that right now are on two-way contracts in the league and they give us words of advice and say (the G League), it’s not as (luxurious) as the NBA.”

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim reacted angrily when he learned his star incoming recruit, Darius Bazley, decided to bypass college altogether and play next season instead in the G League. That makes him a trailblazer – the first elite high school player to skip college for a domestic league other than the NBA. Ex-Piston Brandon Jennings created a stir when he played professionally in Italy for a season out of high school and Emmanuel Mudiay, after encountering eligibility issues upon his attempt to play for SMU as a freshman, went to China.

Bazley’s route took college coaches aback – and, perhaps, opened the eyes of those who’ll follow him.

“I didn’t even know you could do that,” elite 2020 recruit R.J. Hampton of Texas told USA Today. “I had no idea.” “It could work out for him,” said another, Alabama’s Trendon Watford. “But it’s not going to be a good option for other guys.”

The G League appears a potential landing spot for Saginaw native Brian Bowen, swept up in the FBI investigation of the sordid nexus of sneaker companies, AAU basketball and the college recruiting quagmire. Bowen, who enrolled at Louisville, never received NCAA clearance to play before transferring to South Carolina and deciding to enter the NBA draft. With little to suggest he’s skilled enough or ready to play in the NBA immediately, the G League beckons Bowen.

That wouldn’t necessarily stigmatize him to the degree it would have five or 10 years ago. Malik Newman, a top-10 recruit in 2015, watched how one G League player won a job and made an impact with the defending NBA champions this season.

“You look at the guys that come from the (G League) in the NBA and they’re productive,” he said. “Quinn Cook, for example. You just have time to go down and develop, get your confidence, get to the things you need to succeed on the next level. You just take those things and run with it, but if you look at it as, ‘I’m going to the D League. What are they doing? They trippin’!,’ it’s not going to work out.”

Amid the heart of his answer, Newman got to an important point. With nearly every NBA team now owning or operating its own G League franchise, NBA teams can dictate that a player should be used in ways to maximize his development. That’s a selling point to players perhaps pigeonholed in non-complementary roles for his college team to better serve group needs.

For college seniors, there is no decision to be made. If they’re drafted, they know the G League is a tool teams are increasingly willing and eager to utilize.

“Just another chip on my shoulder,” West Virginia’s Jevon Carter said of what a G League assignment would mean to him. “Give me another reason to work even harder and get to the NBA.”

Newman spent a year at Mississippi State, sat out a year as a transfer and then helped Kansas get to the Final Four last season. He’s all in, having already hired an agent. DiVincenzo came off of Villanova’s bench to score 31 points in the NCAA title game and admits that experience sped up his timetable to get to the NBA. He and other underclassmen who have not hired agents have until May 30 to decide whether to stay in the draft.

And their comfort level with spending time on commercial flights and long bus rides in the G League is a part of the decision-making process.

“If you’re all about ball and you’re all serious about what you’re doing and you have the drive to get up to the big leagues,” he said, “then if you can handle that, so be it.”