The D-League started off slowly with eight teams in the fall of 2001. The leagues expansion started in 2005 when NBA commissioner David Stern announced a plan to expand the NBA D-League to fifteen teams and develop it into a true minor league farm system, with each NBA D-League team affiliated with one or more NBA teams. Basically the NBA finally started to learn something from major league baseball.
Today some 118 players have NBA D-League experience and it is becoming more and more common for teams to send young players such as ex-Tar Heel and current Phoenix Suns rookie Kendall Marshall down to develop. Several success stories have come from the NBAs “minor league” system such as Jeremy Lin and Matt Barnes.
Teams are now starting to see the value in a minor league system with 11 NBA franchises owning their own affiliate club in which to develop their players.
The NBA does not allow players to jump from high school to the pro’s anymore requiring at least one year between a players high school graduation and their rookie campaign in the NBA. For most players this means spending at least one year in college which has grown the number of players who are “one and done” tremendously. In years past the LeBron James and Kobe Bryants of the world simply went pro, now the Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parkers grow their game at the college level before going pro. Brandon Jennings chose to buck the status quo when he chose to spend a year in Europe earning himself a paycheck while developing his game. But the rigors of basketball overseas and the vast differences in the styles of play will likely keep this option as a path rarely taken by young prospects.
Which begs the question, will the NBA D-League start to claim top talent right out of high school one day? While we are not close to anything like that today it is something that absolutely could happen. Just look at baseball where top prospects such as Dylan Bundy or Manny Machado (yes I’m an Orioles fan) rarely go to college at all, instead they spend a year or so in the minors before making their debut in the big leagues.
A big factor in suppressing something like this from happening on a wide scale is the lack of coverage a player would get in the NBAs equivalent of the minor leagues versus major college basketball. In baseball players are just as likely to be obscure figures on a college roster as they are in the minor leagues and at least if they go pro they earn a paycheck (albeit a very small one).
Again I want to stress that this isn’t something that I see on the horizon or something that we should even expect to see on a wide scale in the next decade. It also won’t surprise me one bit if in the next few years a top prospect decides to go to the D-League for a year instead of college and once one big time player does it that opens it up for others to start and before you know it, it’s a mainstream choice.
The NBA has invested a lot of money in the DL and they are intent on growing it and it’s continued growth is something that may as well be a foregone conclusion. I hope it stays as an option for young players already in the NBA to grow their game and veteran players to take rehab assignments and not a place that eventually steals talent right out of high school from college basketball.