by Todd Spehr
Just to clarify something, when a player has recently come from the NBDL, it doesn’t mean he just got done playing pick-up down at the Y and signed his contract on the hood of a car in the parking lot. Believing the term “D-Leaguer” is some sort of basketball code for Guy can’t play is something that will be forgiven, after all, when a call-up is reported, the player is written about as if he were rescued from a deserted island – a refugee, they say. And when that player shows relevance and makes a dent in an NBA game, that D-League tag is usually never far behind, as if it’s his only form of identification, one that usually takes a good performance and gives it the feel of a fluke.
The Golden State Warriors, never prone to the irregular, have tapped in to that reservoir for hoops talent known affectionately as the D-League quite often this season. It’s been a voyage borne from necessity more so than an open display of pity for those desperate folks dying for a chance at the NBA.
The Warriors have used a record five players from the development league this season, and two, Anthony Tolliver and Reggie Williams, a couple of young dudes with two far different routes and a whole lot of game, have taken that chance and become more than temporary band-aids. They’re contributors.
Tolliver came first. When both Anthony Randolph and Andris Biedrins went down with injuries, Tolliver was given The Call by Golden State in mid-January. That day, Don Nelson told Tolliver this would be an experience unlike the others he had had in the NBA; he would play, and play a lot.
Playing was really all Tolliver ever wanted to do. A very solid player at Creighton, the type who even as a senior and even with his spot secure would lead the team in charges taken, Tolliver’s statistical resume was always merely a single-page printout. He went undrafted in the NBA, was selected by someone called the Butte Daredevils of the CBA, yet landed with Iowa of the D-League and then briefly in Germany.
Tolliver’s NBA life had been, and this is used with the heavy coat of sugar, lacking security. Outside a five-month stint in San Antonio early last season, his tenures with teams were measured in days: 29 of them in Cleveland in the fall of 2007, 10 days in New Orleans in 2009, 21 days in Miami last October, and 12 days in Portland around Christmastime. No, Tolliver never purchased property.
His experience in San Antonio may have ended abruptly, and his shot may have abandoned him (a guy who now lives on a healthy diet of pick-n-pops shot a putrid 29 percent from the field as a Spur), but Tolliver was part of a contending team in a place where he could learn and grow. The unspoken motto of the journeyman is to play desperate when trying to get into the league; thing is, they’re even more desperate after they’ve had a taste. Tolliver had his taste. So when a guy like Nelson threw him a lifeline, a green light, and a whole heap of confidence, he took it.
Tolliver never dipped his toes in the pond – he jumped straight in. The Warriors will do that to you. A starter even when his contract had an expiration date of 10 days, Tolliver’s impact was immediate. Of course, it never hurts when you’re tall, have a nice stroke, can play inside and out, and your head coach literally frowns upon nothing. So Tolliver fired away. He has broken his career high in points four times since he became a Warrior, highlighted by a 30-point performance last week against New Orleans. He’s averaging 36 minutes a game in March alone, which is, well, more than what he was averaging before. There will be a contract waiting for him.
Then came Williams. His is a story that is ever so slowly becoming more typical: He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school (mostly DII offers, actually), he landed at a small DI, honed his craft in seclusion, and made a name for himself.
Hailing from that powerhouse Virginia Military, Williams was also undrafted when he came out of college. His time at VMI was unusual: He was a good player his first two seasons, about 17 points per game, but when his team adopted a Westheadian approach – take over 100 shots and play at a crazy tempo – for his junior and senior seasons, he became something much more.
He led the nation in scoring two straight years, albeit in a weak conference, and his numbers dipped dramatically against bigger schools. Yeah, scouts were skeptical; a product of a system with stats of an inflated nature. Or something like that. Dallas managed to find him just nine minutes per game in its summer league squad in 2008, so Williams took his sweet lefty stroke to France.
When he returned this season to Sioux Falls in the D-League, Williams blew up. He led the league in scoring at 26 per, shot 57 percent from the field, and 41 percent on 3s. And yet, 15 guys were called up to the NBA before he got his chance in March. Fifteen guys.
Anyway, the Warriors love him. Williams has terrific range, can post up, and slashes with purpose. Nelson, forever enamored with players of unusual skill or appeal and how he could potentially use them to mess up an otherwise normal game, didn’t see Williams as someone who could just score. Nelson told reporters, “He [Williams] does it all. Those guys are hard to find.”
The results came quick. Williams scored 28 in just his fifth pro game; ripped the Hornets for 18-fourth quarter points (22 total) in a comeback win; and then did the same in the fourth quarter to the Suns just the other night, finishing with 29 in a loss. He’s played 13 games, started one, and had double-figures in 10 of them. D-Leaguers aren’t supposed to do this. A contract, also, should be waiting for him.
There is, however, no illusion. Nothing is guaranteed for these guys. That’s the nature of the business and the League, and in many ways, it’s their nature as well. Playing that way, as if the next game wasn’t a mortal lock, got them here. Tolliver and Williams aren’t out to make “D-Leaguers” a respected part of the vernacular, they just want to play. That’s exactly what they’re doing.