116. 45. 280. Those three numbers are not the code to a bank vault. They are the total number of players participating in the three NBA summer leagues without a guaranteed contract. That’s right: 441 out of the 544 players participating in the Orlando, Utah and Las Vegas Summer League were looking for the opportunity to land short-term security.
Landing a guaranteed contract for a fringe player is like winning the golden ticket from Willy Wonka. Going into the 2015-16 season, there are already roughly 400 guaranteed contracts out of a possible 450 roster spots. This means that 441 players this past summer were vying for 50 rosters spots. That doesn’t include the 52 players that have partial or non-guaranteed contracts for the upcoming season. Two out of those 52 are Jordan Clarkson and Hassan Whiteside, who most certainly will remain with the Lakers and Heat, respectively, this year.
The process of landing a training camp invite starts with summer league.
Teams are made up of picks from the last draft and rookie roster players from the previous season. The remaining 90 percent of players is a mixed bag of guys from the D-League, undrafted college players and players who competed overseas.
The only compensation that occurs is a per diem (“food money”) of roughly $127 per day, hotel room and travel expenses. What you earn goes towards eating during the day. Players must also sign a waiver to participate, allowing the team not to be liable in case of injury.
So let’s recap: $127 per day, hotel expenses plus signing an injury waiver vs. trying to make a NBA team.
Is it worth it? You bet it is.
For former McDonald’s All-American Cliff Alexander, summer league would prove to be a make-or-break three weeks. Highly touted as a first-round lock, Alexander struggled his freshman year both on and off the court. After being ruled ineligible for possible NCAA rules violation, he decided to skip his sophomore season to enter the draft. A potential lottery pick a year ago turned into an undrafted 19-year-old looking at a path of uncertainty.
Finding the right team to showcase his skills would be the challenge. A solid three weeks of playing for Brooklyn’s team in Orlando and Las Vegas landed Alexander with the Trail Blazers. Although not fully guaranteed, Alexander will make at least $100,000 for the 2015-16 season and his contract includes two more years of non-guaranteed money. It is not always about who you play for, but which eyes you open with your strong play. In this case, playing for the Nets benefited the Trail Blazers.
For every Maurice Ndour and Seth Curry, there is an Alan Williams. Ndour and Curry turned two solid weeks in Las Vegas into guaranteed contracts with Dallas and Sacramento. Ironically, neither Ndour nor Curry played for the team that eventually signed them. Ndour played with the Knicks and Seth Curry with the Pelicans.
For Alan Williams, the 6-foot-8 power forward out of UC-Santa Barbara, summer league showed that the three weeks in July were all about opportunity. The road for Williams did not get off to a good start as he only played in three games and averaged less than eight minutes per game for the Charlotte Hornets team in Orlando. Williams turned a negative into a positive in Las Vegas, where he finished fifth in scoring at 20.5 ppg for the Houston Rockets. As of today, 14 players earned training camp invites, but Alan Williams remains a free agent.
Teams are allowed to carry a maximum of 20 players on their roster from July till October 26. That is the date for regular season rosters to be submitted. For many teams, it will mean open competition for roster spots and for others it will be to load up on their D-League squad.
The D-League training camp will allow players who do not make the NBA in October to have a safety net. Teams with “one-to-one” affiliates can assign up to four players that were waived in training camp to their own D-League club.
The common misconception is that players who sign non-guaranteed contracts to participate in training camp will receive a salary. They don’t. Like summer league, players will receive roughly $127 in per diem, hotel and all travel expenses to take part. The one added bonus is that players are eligible to receive $2,000 in camp compensation per week for roughly four weeks. However, if you make the team, then your training camp compensation gets deducted from your first check on November 15.
Another added wrinkle for training camp invites is that teams have the right to insert an exhibit into the player’s contract protecting the team if a player is injured. A team must have at least 14 players under contract to be able to do this. If the exhibit is added, teams will only be liable up to $6,000 if a player is injured. Before 2011, teams were fully liable for the player’s salary until he recovered from his injury.
We have one example in current Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham. While playing for the Nets during the 2006 preseason, Ham got injured. Although he was eventually waived on October 30, the Nets were still liable to a tune of $288,425 until he fully recovered from his injury.
Veterans with four or more years of service are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to preparing for training camp. The current rules state that only rookies and minimum players with three years or less in the league can be reimbursed for travel, meals and lodging for the four weeks leading up to camp.
If you are Reggie Williams of the San Antonio Spurs and have six years of service in the NBA, then you are on your own dime getting prepared for training camp. Williams has a non-guaranteed contract and does not receive any type of compensation until the regular season begins.
Borderline NBA players are not the only ones who have gone the non-guaranteed route to get back to the NBA. In October 2006, former No. 1 pick Jay Williams was attempting a comeback with the New Jersey Nets. Williams had been out of basketball since the 2002-03 season. In June 2003, Williams was injured when his motorcycle crashed into a streetlight on Chicago’s North Side. After three years of long and intensive rehabilitation, the Nets signed the New Jersey native to a non-guaranteed contract.
Ask any front office executive what is the worst part of their job and the majority will tell you it’s cutting a player during training camp. There is nothing worse than releasing a player from a job they love. In my 20 years with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, I was the unfortunate participant in many of those roster cuts. Releasing Williams in 2006 is the one that still haunts me to this day. Williams had worked vigorously to get back on the basketball court, but his injuries wouldn’t allow him to get back to a high level. After Williams was released, I knew that his professional basketball career was over.
For every player trying to get his foot in the door, there are the feel-good stories like those of Knicks players Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas. Both guys parlayed 10-day and rest of the season contracts in 2014-15 to sign a guaranteed deal for the 2015-16 season. Since coming into the league in 2006-07, Amundson has signed 19 different contracts and has been waived five times in the last three years alone.
Thomas entered the league in 2010-11 as an undrafted college player out of Duke. Thomas’ uphill battle to make the NBA included the rare distinction of being cut from the New Jersey Nets Summer League team in July 2010. The fact that Thomas didn’t even make it out of mini-camp and now has a guaranteed contract is an amazing accomplishment. Besides being released from summer league, Thomas has also been waived four different times and has signed 13 different contracts since 2011-12. Both Amundson and Thomas are examples on players never giving up on their dream no matter how many chips are stacked against them.
For the players that have endured two practices a day in summer league, traveling commercial to either Orlando, Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, living in a hotel for a month getting ready for training camp and surviving over 20 practices and seven pre-season games, the journey doesn’t end there.
Ask many players what are the three dates circled on their calendar and they will tell you: October 24, October 26 and January 8. If a player isn’t waived by October 24 at 5 pm then he is guaranteed at least one day’s pay. October 26 signals the day when each team has to set its regular season roster. January 8 at 5 pm is the biggest day in the career of a non-guaranteed player. Once you make it past 5:01 pm, your salary becomes guaranteed for the remainder of the season.
So for the 200 training camp invites this October: Which lucky few will earn those 14th and 15th roster spots on each of the 30 NBA teams? Who catches the ultimate break and who will head back to Europe or the D-League?
Bobby Marks was the Nets’ assistant general manager from 2010 to 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @bobbymarks42.