I made it.
Three simple words that represent a lifetime of work and dedication. In basketball, you can only say you made it if you are offered that contract in the National Basketball Association; the pinnacle of achievement for ball players across the world. A very small percentage make it. There are only about 13 players on the 30 NBA teams for a whopping grand total of 390 players at one time.
Hundreds and thousands of aspiring ballers are waiting in the wings for an injury, a retirement, anything that will give them the chance to say…I made it.
Where are the best of the best of these players honing their skills, staying ready for when the next opportunity arises?
The Developmental League.
This league, which has direct ties to the NBA, is commonly known as the D-League and is a minor-league of sorts to feed the teams with the most elite basketball players in the world.
As a feeder system, the D-League’s job is to collect, develop and send talented players to their NBA affiliate, supplying players who can contribute to the team when the time arises, generally in the case of injury.
Ish Smith, 25, was sent down to the D-League during his rookie year in 2011 by the Houston Rockets to get playing time and improve his skills.
“No disrespect to those down there cause all of them can play,” said Smith, now with the Suns. “It’s just you haven’t gotten the right opportunity or the right situation, but once you get the right opportunity or the right situation you have to blossom.”
“Nothing was wrong or bad (about being sent down to the D-League),” said Smith. “But was I happy about it? No. But I take it as a learning experience.”
It’s not generally a punishment; it’s all about player development. Smith was sent down for only a few games and was even told he wouldn’t be gone long.
But what’s it like?
In cities like Bakersfield, Calf, where the Suns D-League affiliate is located, there isn’t much sports-wise except maybe a college team.
“It’s a little more like a college feel,” Smith said. “The intensity is pretty high.”
The venues are significantly smaller. Instead of around 15,000 die-hard fans, there are only several hundred passionate season ticket-holders in a cozier arena. The atmosphere, is however, still conducive to a great entertainment product on the court.
What are these players sacrificing for a chance at the big-time?
The salaries are low even compared to the contracts of the rookies who are drafted at the end of the NBA draft. Instead of chartered private flights, the D-Leaguers fly commercial or are bussed into the game and to practice. All their needs are met by the team, but there isn’t enough money in the D-League for the luxuries the NBA players enjoy.
These players do the same things NBA players do on their off-days: hangout, rest and eat right. But one difference is generally players in the D-League don’t have families like a lot of the stars in the NBA.
These D-League teams have a unique dilemma. There is a fine line between winning and player development.
“That’s the bittersweet thing about the D-League,” said Bakersfield Jam assistant coach George Galanopoulos. “You want players to succeed, but if they do they have a better chance of getting called up, and if they get called up, you don’t have them on your team anymore.”
When players leave unexpectedly, it messes up the chemistry and cohesion the team had been working on through the season.
“You just hope to bring in a core of returning players that understand the culture and what it takes to win, said Bakersfield associate head coach John Bryant. “If you can maintain that, you will usually continue to be successful if you build around your core.
“At any level, NBA or D-League, wins equal success,” said Bryant. “But we do value the development of our players and want to see them receive a call up.”
The team may have success if they win games, but the only real success for the players is if they get that NBA contract and can say…I made it.
So what does it take to make it in the NBA?
“They come in everyday and do the things that help them get better,” said Bryant. “From their diet to their skill development, they understand that’s what it will take to get better and make it.”
Sometimes, players have an innate characteristic such as height that sets them apart.
“On court, the differences are slim between the athletes,” Bryant said. “What you may find is that the players in the NBA are usually taller at every position.”
“I think there are more legitimate seven-footers in the NBA,” said Galanopoulos. “A legitimate seven-footer is hard to come by. There are still good-sized players in the NBA (and in the D-League). Our (Bakersfield’s) starting center is 6-11 and we have another player who is 6-9. But in the D-League you do see a common trend.”
In the D-League you can get away with being undersized, but everyone is a bit taller at each position in the NBA. Some examples Galanopoulos gave were LeBron James (6-8), Carmelo Anthony (6-9) and Paul George (6-9). All three of them are technically small forwards in the NBA. However, they are the size of power forwards and centers in the D-League.
“That’s why I think a lot of players struggle,” Galanopoulos said.
It’s difficult for D-League players to transition to the NBA where they have to guard these bigger and more experienced players.
However, there are some intangibles that affect whether players can make it in the league.
“There are some more talented players in the D-League as opposed to some players that are in the NBA,” said Galanopoulos. “But that guy in the NBA may be a great teammate. He may be great at encouraging his teammates. He might be a better practice player. He might play better defense. He might give more effort.”
“The main difference between that is the thirteenth, fourteenth guy on an NBA bench and the guy who’s stuck around in the D-League is work ethic, character and attitude,” said Galanopoulos.
The easy part at this level is skill level. Galanopoulos said the scouts know if a guy can play. The NBA teams are calling about a player and asking, “What’s his character like? Does he get work in outside of practice? Does he come in early? Is he a good guy? Is he a good teammate? Those are the things they want to know.”
“Some of these guys realize the opportunity of what they have at hand to make a dream a reality, said Galanopoulos. “They are right there. The D-League is one step away. There are so many guys in the D-League that much farther away, because they still haven’t figured out how to go about their business as a professional every single day.”
No matter how close you are to the NBA, the D-League is still a grind. It takes a lot out of you physically and mentally while not paying a lot, but it’s all for a chance at the big-time.
How do players stay motivated for weeks, months or even years of toiling in the D-League, trying to make a team?
A few Bakersfield Jam players weighed in on what keeps them going.
“God first, then my family, then me being thankful to be in this position I’m in and making the best of it,” said Markeith Cummings, a draft pick for Bakersfield.
“I’m motivated because I know I belong and want to reach my goal of having a career in the NBA,” said James Nunnally, a “veteran” coming into his second year, who played well, getting his name out there during summer league play.
“(My motivation) is to say “I did it”. This has been my hardest goal thus far and it’s my ultimate goal and I would love to show my family, friends and neighborhood that we can conquer whatever our heart desires, said Akeem Scott, a player who tried out for the team and made it through training camp onto the roster.
“My family being able to live great,” said Aaron Johnson, another pick by Bakersfield from the D-League draft.
There’s a whole world “down” there, but not all that different from the one we know and love.
“There’s not a huge difference.” said Smith. “Guys still play hard. Guys are still working. Whether in the NBA, you’re working to keep your job or to solidify who you are any night that you’re one of the best. It’s the same way down in the D-League. It’s just that you’re working for something specific, trying to get to the NBA.”
There aren’t many differences between the NBA and the D-League, but one difference is pretty important.
D-League players solely want to be able to say “I made it” while the NBA players already have.
It’s a grind “down” there, but the hard work usually pays off eventually.