God Gives, But The D-League Saves

by March 10, 2010

by Sandy Dover

Ever since Memphis Grizzlies rookie center Hasheem Thabeet was sent down to the NBA Development League, much of the media has been found criticizing the Grizzlies’ selection of the young Tanzanian with the second overall pick in 2009. The criticism over his selection is warranted, especially considering that their backcourt can still be upgraded, despite improved play from starting point guard Michael Conley, Jr (and former first-round picks Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Williams). After all, OJ Mayo may very well be even better as a full-time point guard, or he would’ve been great while paired with rookie sensations Stephen Curry, Jonny Flynn, Brandon Jennings or Tyreke Evans (although ‘Reke holds the ball a lot aHasheem Thabeetnd needs a lot of reps and touches to be super effective). Obviously, Thabeet going ahead of them is an issue, but getting sent down to the D-League? We all should be applauding! He’s not deteriorating on the bench like his big men brethren of yesteryear!

Fairly recently, Empty The Bench did a story on how famed NBA bust Darko Milicic has basically wasted much of his time in the League with bad play, a bad attitude, and a haughty, pretentious disposition. I do agree, in the sense that Darko did not carry himself well and, thus, has made himself an integral part of his failure to make himself more productive in the League so far, but I also present this scenario–had the D-League and NBA teams had the relationship that they do now, which allows the NBA teams more freedom in sending down its young players, teenage Darko might’ve been more weathered and more apt to work considering that he’d probably be getting more intense minutes and more concise instructions from coaches who actually would have been assigned to teach him (we know Larry Brown is probably the most inefficient educator/developer for newbies). The D-League also lacked the positive reputation in 2003 that it currently has now in 2010. For all we know, Mr. Milicic might have been a much more refined player looking for a top-level NBA contract beyond this year.

In Thabeet’s case, he was beat out by Grizzlies reserve center Hamed Haddadi, who has actually been a top competitor for Iran’s national team, and Thabeet wasn’t getting the game repetitions he’s needed to progress in his development, so is a D-League assignment so bad, really? I don’t think so. After all, getting comfortable with the team’s schemes and NBA-ish players is probably more encouraging for his confidence in the long run. Most times, with the emphasis of teaching players how to play the post in college becoming more of a mirage and less of a reality, if you’re a young center in the NBA, time is not on your side. If you’re like Tim Duncan was coming out of Wake Forest, it’s a non-issue, but most centers and power forwards need some minutes, teaching and encouragement–that’s what the D-League is for. You don’t have to worry about your contract if you’re a first-round pick, because it’s guaranteed; you don’t have to be concerned with how long you’ll be on the bench, because you’ll be playing major minutes, and you’ll be humbled further by the travel accommodations of the lower-tier professional basketball league.

If nothing else, Thabeet’s “demotion” should be encouraged–just think about how many players could have used a D-League send-down in past years: Roy Rogers, the 1996 1st-round pick out of Alabama could have used it. What about Michael Olowokandi? He surely could’ve gained some good knowledge. Reese Gaines, a combo guard out of Louisville in 2003, should’ve probably spent all of his first two years down there. Jeryl Sasser, was equally terrible with little to no reps in actual games. Consider the Chicago Bulls’ bumbling triumvirate of Stacey King, Brad Sellers and Luc Longley from collective drafts of the 80s and 90s…all great candidates for D-League duty, considering how average/sub-par they were (although to Longley’s credit, he was a championship-winning center and the most competent of the bunch playing in the triangle offense in Chicago).

The stigma with the D-League is, because it is technically a minor league, “real” NBA players don’t belong there, and some of that is somewhat fair to say, because after all, if you’re really good, you don’t really need to get play against lesser competition, right? But what if you’re going to be good and lack the experience to make a difference with the big boys, and you just need to play, period? The high schoolers (who David Stern has since prevented from being drafted into the NBA immediately out of high school) are extremely ideal in this setup. Korleone Young needed a D-League. Jonathan Bender, maybe…and two healthy knees. God knows Ndudi Ebi needed some time (and he got a little bit during his brief time in Minnesota). Even Al Jefferson would’ve been great there while he was in Boston in his rookie year. Jordan Farmer played three games in 24 hours, with the Los Angeles D-Fenders and the L.A. Lakers about four years ago.

I’m not saying the D-League will make a star of you, because ultimately, no matter how bad an organization is–by the way, never undervalue the importance of a good organization in talent development–the player has to make the grade and get better, because that’s on him…but, the D-League is showing that increased instruction time, focused attention on plays and team sets, and the grittiness of its player pool of paupers (relative to the NBA’s princes–or king, if you’re LeBron James) help to better shape the tools that young prospects need to form a more NBA-friendly game on the hardwood (see Jackson, Darnell; Brown, Shannon; Johnson, Amir; Watson, C.J.; Hairston, Malik).

Before going all Pee-Wee Herman-spastic on the Grizzlies, Thabeet, Tanzania and Thabeet’s whole family, it’s probably in our best interests to see what he does through the length of his rookie contract and talk then. We can all cross that bridge when he comes to it…if he comes to it.

Sandy Dover is a novelist/writer, artist and fitness enthusiast, as well as an unrepentant Prince fan (for real). You can find Sandy frequently here at SLAMonline, as well as at Facebook, Associated Content and Twitter.