Opportunity Knocks

by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam

Last season, 31 players from the D-League received call-ups to the NBA. The 31 players spanned the spectrum of profiles, from rookies to second-year guys to D-League journeymen to NBA veterans attempting one last go around.

And every year, there are a handful of players coming off strong D-League campaigns who make an impact in the NBA the following season. Some work their way into the rotation, while others are used as fill-ins or even emergency substitutes.

Let’s take a look at 10 players (minimum 20 games played in the D-League last year), who, in varying degrees, have a chance to contribute in the NBA this season.

1. Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City Thunder
SG, 6-5, 180
Age 21
Last season (Tulsa 66ers): 21 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 49% FG, 23.5 PER

Outlook: Lamb spent more time in Oklahoma City (23 games) than he did in Tulsa (21 games) during his rookie season, but the majority of his development occurred in the minor league. This season, with Kevin Martin out of the picture and Russell Westbrook sidelined for at least a month, the former UConn swingman will be relied on to score, and he has an opportunity to solidify himself in the Thunder rotation.

Lamb has special offensive potential—he’s fluid, athletic, can drive and kick, catch and shoot, hit runners and get to the basket. He was Tulsa’s best playmaker last season, posting a 23.5 Player Efficiency Rating (15 is average), which was the 14th best PER in D-League history, to go along with 21/5/3 per game. His 28 percent usage percentage was also highest in the League, evidence of him being the leader of a Tulsa team that advanced to the D-League semifinals.

Lamb has a silky-smooth stroke, but the NBA is a different animal and requires a learning curve (through five pre-season games, he’s 4-23 from deep, which is probably his shooting floor). The open looks won’t come easy now, especially since the Thunder don’t have a superstar penetrator in Westbrook. Even with Kevin Durant commanding double teams, Lamb will be tasked to create shots for himself.

The good news is he should be able to handle it. Lamb is more than just a catch-and-shoot player—His 1.1 points per possession (PPP) in isolation/spot-up situations, and 1.6 PPP scoring off cuts both ranked in the top-five percent of all D-League players.

At 6-5 with a 6-11 wingspan, if he continues to fill out his frame, Lamb has the tools to make an impact this season.

2. Perry Jones, Oklahoma City Thunder
SF/PF, 6-11, 235
Age 22
Last season (Tulsa 66ers): 14.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.7 APG, 16.7 PER

Outlook: Jones is one of the more intriguing young players in the NBA. A 6-11 point forward, his skill set includes traits from four positions. He’s a freak athlete, can set up from anywhere and has excellent passing instincts for his size.

In the small sample of film below, it seems the defense is always aware of where Jones is on the court. In transition he can get ahead of the defense and finish above the rim. In the half court, Jones can take bigger defenders to the perimeter, and back down smaller defenders in the paint.

To establish himself in the Thunder rotation, Jones will need to hone his ball handling and channel his immense talent. He must also become more assertive. Disappearing from games, especially mentally, doesn’t fly on the NBA level. Still, he’s only 22, and if Jones can bring it all together, he has a chance to stick for a long time.

3. Daniel Orton, Philadelphia 76ers
C, 6-10, 255
Age 23
Last season (Tulsa 66ers): 12.5, PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 18.5 PER

Outlook: Orton being cut from the Thunder was not so much an indictment against him as it was a casualty of a crowded frontcourt. Orton was projected to be the fourth center on OKC’s depth chart, behind Kendrick Perkins, Hasheem Thabeet and Steven Adams, so there was simply no room. OKC also saved about $900,000 by releasing Orton before the start of the season.

The semantics aside, Orton still is only 23, still is massive, and should have a chance to showcase his abilities in Philadelphia.

He had strong showings both in the D-League and during Orlando Summer League. A strong and physical big man who can face up and bully his way to the basket, he uses wide shoulders to clear space and can convert through contact in the paint. His back-to-the-basket game is unpolished right now, but Orton has a soft touch and is comfortable knocking down mid-range jumpshots.

All things considered, though, right now Orton’s biggest impact is on defense—he’s not a lock-down defender, but he has the size and defensive instincts to block and alter shots in the paint.

Going forward, Orton needs to become more assertive on offense, improve his hand-eye coordination in the paint, and improve his free throw shooting—Orton led the 66ers with 5.8 free-throw attempts per game, but shot only 67.5 percent.

4. Henry Sims, Cleveland Cavaliers
F/C, 6-10, 245
Age 23
Last season (Erie Bayhawks): 16.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 19.2 PER

Outlook: With Tyler Zeller and Andrew Bynum nursing injuries, the Cavs have a void in their frontcourt. And Sims, who is competing with Kenny Kadji to make the roster, seems to be the frontrunner for at least a partially guaranteed deal.

At 6-10 and 245 pounds (pardon the inaccurate weight listed in the video), Sims’ offensive game is predicated on his soft touch around the basket. He ranked better than 83 percent of all D-League players in post up efficiency last season, per Synergy Sports, and about 70 percent of his shots were in the painted area, where he is most effective, particularly using jump hooks over either shoulder. Sims also has a decent face up game, knocking down jumpshots from the high-post and also in pick-and-pop situations. His strong play last season earned him a spot in the D-League All-Star Game.

With nice size and long arms, Sims positions himself well for offensive rebounds and put-backs, and on defense, he has the footwork and instincts to alter most shots in his vicinity. Sims is yet to prove himself (like everyone else on this list), but he’s been playing well in the pre-season and has earned the right to show his value in the NBA.

5. Marcus Landry, L.A. Lakers
G/F, 6-7, 230
Age 27
Last season (Reno Bighorns): 16.5 PPG, 5 RPG, 3.7 three-pointers per game, 43% three-point percentage

Outlook: A D-League All-Star last season, Landry can flat-out shoot the basketball. His 128 three-pointers were fifth most in D-League history, and if he hadn’t suffered a season-ending MCL injury with eight games remaining, he would’ve been aiming at the all-time record of 152.

Landry shot 43 percent from deep—which was the second-best clip among all players who shot at least 100 threes—and he also posted the sixth-best effective field-goal percentage at 57.5 percent (EFG% proportionally weights the value of two- and three-point field goals).

Other than shooting, though, Landry didn’t have much of an impact. He posted a below-average PER of 14.4, and on film, he seems flat-footed and slow. It was not always easy for Landry to guard his man last season, and his lack of lateral/vertical athleticism could keep him on the Lakers’ bench. The operative word is could, though, because in Mike D’Antoni’s offense (and this Laker team in particular), there’s always a premium on shooting.

6. Hollis Thompson, Philadelphia 76ers
F, 6-8, 205
Age 22
Last season (Tulsa 66ers): 8.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 13.3 PER

Outlook: After going undrafted in 2012, Thompson opted to spend a year in the D-League rather than play overseas. And in year two, he’ll have the opportunity to make Philly’s frontcourt rotation.

Thompson is an effective cutter who can finish in the lane and also knock down open jumpshots. He’s 6-8 with an entirely high-post-oriented game, and has the athletic tools/shooting stroke to compete inside the three-point line. That’s, well, the full scope of his offensive game.

Thompson has also been rebounding at a high rate in the pre-season, which is key; if he can consistently grab boards, the Sixers will have even more reason to give him a shot.

7. Willie Reed, Memphis Grizzlies
C, 6-10, 210
Age 23
Last season (Springfield Armor): 14.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 56% FG, 20.3 PER

Outlook: An undrafted rookie in 2010 out of Saint Louis University, Reed spent ’10-11 with Spanish club Sant Josep before coming to the Springfield Armor last season.

His inaugural D-League campaign was, in one word, impressive. Reed finished fifth in field goals (307), eighth in rebounds (372) and third in blocks (85), all while shooting 56 percent from the floor. He was particularly effective scoring as a pick-and-roll screener, where his 1.4 PPP were in the 95th percentile of all players. Reed can roll in either direction and uses his length and touch to finish at the rim. He was also a solid defender on all three levels (midrange, high post, low post), as he is long enough to hedge on the pick and roll and still recover if the screener “pops” for a jumpshot.

Reed has a chance to make the Grizzlies’ opening night roster, and can provide Memphis with solid interior defense and/or pick-and-roll scoring should Marc Gasol or Kosta Koufos be summoned to the bench.

8 . Rasual Butler, Indiana Pacers
F, 6-7, 215
Age 34
Last season (Tulsa 66ers): 17.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.9 three-pointers, 17.5 PER

Outlook: It’s unclear whether Butler will make Indy’s roster, as he’s only seen 32 pre-season minutes thus far, but if he does stick he could be a solid locker room voice and a reliable jump shooter. With over 10 years of NBA experience and 804 three-pointers under his belt, Butler is a seasoned player who understands the nuances of the NBA game. He still possesses a smooth shooting stroke, relatively quick first step and the ability to score in the open court.

With good size at 6-7, Butler can rise over defenders for a clear look, and can post up smaller defenders for a jumpshot. He’s never posted averages higher than 1.4 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game, but the Pacers probably wouldn’t need him to help in those areas.

9. Damion James, Denver Nuggets
F, 6-7, 225
Age 26
Last season (Bakersfield Jam): 15.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.4 SPG, 15.4 PER

Outlook: James is a tough-minded forward who is explosive in open space. He can attack the paint if given separation, and knows how to leverage his body to finish through contact. He is also a good rebounder.

That said, while James is powerful, he hasn’t showcased any “elite” skills, especially in the half court. He’s neither a polished shooter nor distributor, and is an average defender. The scouting report on James is pretty much the same as when he entered the League four years ago, and without any specialized skill, it will be tough for him to stick.

This harsh reality could manifest itself in the coming days, as James is Denver’s final player strictly on a training camp contract. He has to beat out either Jordan Hamilton or Quincy Miller for a spot, and that’ll be tough—Denver will almost certainly keep Hamilton and his guaranteed contract, and Nuggets brass still believes in Miller’s long-term potential.

10. DJ Kennedy, Dallas Mavericks
G, 6-6, 198
Age 23
Last season (Erie Bayhawks/Rio Grande Valley): 16.2 PPG, 4.8 APG, 7.5 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 16.55 PER

Outlook: Most people remember Kennedy for tearing his ACL against Syracuse in the 2011 Big East Tournament, an injury that ended his college career and wiped him off the basketball map for over two years.

Well, after spending the past two seasons floating around the D-League (with a brief pit-stop in the NBA), Kennedy is currently in Mavericks training camp, hoping to stick around for opening night. Kennedy is a versatile change-of-pace guard who can play in the half court and transition. He will take what the defense surrenders, and usually comes through with a basket or an assist if given some space.

Problem is, there’s not much space on the NBA level, and Kennedy doesn’t seem to possess the requisite speed or separation ability to get his own shot, let alone lead a reserve unit.

If we’re being honest, it’s looking tough right now, with Calderon/Ellis/Harris/Mekel in Dallas’ backcourt. That being said, the Mavs liked Kennedy enough to bring him into camp, which will at least get his feet wet and put him back on the NBA radar. To me, this is a positive step regardless of the immediate outcome.