Life in the G League: Where everyone is fighting for an NBA gig

Life in the G League: Where everyone is fighting for an NBA gig

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Life in the G League: Where everyone is fighting for an NBA gig

The National Basketball Development League (NBDL) launched in 2001 with eight franchises that were all located in five southeastern states – Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. In 2005, former NBA Commissioner David Stern decided to rename this the NBA Development League (or the NBA D-League, for short) and expand it into a legitimate minor league for the NBA. Stern wanted each NBA organization to have its own farm system to develop talent, similar to Major League Baseball.

Nearly two decades since its inception, the league has come a long way. These days, it’s called the NBA G League (because of a partnership with Gatorade) and 26 NBA teams have their own G League club that’s either owned or single-affiliated. The way the G League is perceived has changed as well. Players used to dread assignments and view it as a punishment for poor play. Now, spending some time in the G League is completely normal.

When the 2017-18 season ended earlier this month, there were 265 players with G League experience on NBA rosters (which is an all-time high). That’s 53 percent of the league! Every NBA team had at least six G League veterans on its end-of-season roster, and seven franchises had 10 or more former G Leaguers. In each of the past seven seasons, over 30 players have been called up to the NBA from the G League. Also, 101 NBA players were sent to the G League on assignment this year (another record) – including 17 first-round picks from the 2017 NBA draft.

The NBA is working hard to build up the G League and turn Stern’s farm-system dream into reality. But what is it like to play and coach in the G League, where everyone is fighting for an NBA opportunity? HoopsHype went behind-the-scenes to find out.

SALARIES ARE RISING (BUT ARE STILL TOO LOW)

The G League recently announced that they will increase player salaries for the 2018-19 season. Previously, players earned between $19,000 and $28,000 for the five-month campaign. Starting next year, all players will earn a base salary of $35,000. This is relatively nothing compared to a rookie minimum NBA deal ($815,615) or the seven-figure offers some players receive from teams in Asia and Europe.

There’s no question that G League players will continue to be significantly underpaid even after these raises take effect. Still, they fare slightly better than you might think thanks in large part to the bonuses they receive. Individuals can earn affiliate-player bonuses by going to training camp with an NBA team on a partially guaranteed contract of up to $50,000. Roughly one-quarter of the G League’s players received an affiliate-player bonus this season and the average amount earned was $44,000. Players also get bonuses from the league for making the playoffs or winning an individual award. This year, the G League says it paid out $225,000 in these end-of-season bonuses.

Then, of course, there’s the possibility that a player gets called up by an NBA team and earns drastically more money. There were 50 players who earned an NBA call-up this season (another record), which generated “earnings of approximately $225,000 per player,” according to the G League. This year, the NBA also implemented two-way contracts, which paid players between $77,250 and $385,000 depending on how their respective teams decided to use them throughout the year.

Several G League players who spoke to HoopsHype pointed out that because their season is only five months long, they can make some extra money on the side by playing somewhere else during the other seven months of the year. Some guys play a brief stint overseas, some have suited up in the Big 3, and some have won prize money by competing in The Basketball Tournament.

However, there are perks that come with being in the G League. Many fans don’t realize that G League teams cover the housing costs for each of their players. Living arrangements vary from team to team, but players are put in a nice house or apartment. Younger players are often placed together as roommates, whereas players with a wife and/or children get their own place (which is also covered by the team). One player who’s been in the G League for several years pointed out that when you consider the free housing and bonuses, the G League gig isn’t as bad as it initially seems because the player pockets most of the money in their paychecks and keeps their NBA dream alive. Every player obviously gets top-notch health insurance as well.

“The way that the league has progressed since I played in it during the 2005-06 season is incredible,” Northern Arizona Suns head coach Cody Toppert said. “Back then, there were A contracts, B contracts and C contracts. I was on a C contract, so I made $12,000 for the whole season. That was definitely an adventure. My friends at Cornell would joke with me all the time because when you’re at an Ivy League school, people make a big deal about your starting salary. My friends would say, ‘You must have the worst starting salary of any Ivy League graduate ever! Jeez, you’d make more working at McDonald’s!’ They eventually got rid of the C-level contracts because that was cruel and unusual punishment to some degree (laughs). Also, back then, you didn’t get paid if you were an inactive player. That was really tough because you would be giving everything you had to the team and then not get paid just because you were inactive. They fixed that, which is great.

“Now, things are so much better. This past season, players were either on an A contract that paid $28,000 or a B contract that paid $26,000. Next year, everyone will be at $35,000. Some people still stop at that number, but guys are making $7,000 per month and their housing is paid for so you can sort of factor that in too. They’re saving, say, $1,000 per month on housing. And on the road, they get a per diem of $50 each day for meals. This upcoming season, I think we’ll see the best talent pool the G League has ever had due to the salary increase. I think we’ll see some guys turn down fairly lucrative 10-month deals overseas and instead sign a five-month G League deal, which is a bit more attractive now, to chase their NBA dream. It’s a very exciting time to be a part of the league!”

As HoopsHype recently reported, eSports competitors in the new NBA 2K League signed essentially the exact same deal that G League players will ink next season (a $35,000 base salary with housing and health insurance). When some G League players first learned of this, they were upset. Texas Legends forward Jameel Warney, who also played three games for the Dallas Mavericks this season and made the All-NBA G League First Team, sarcastically responded to the salary news by tweeting: “Obviously I should have played more NBA 2K than go to a Texas Legends’ practice. My priorities aren’t in order.”

The general consensus among G League players – past and present – is that the 2018-19 salary increase is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before the issue is resolved. Until then, the G League will continue to lose out on some very talented players who choose to play overseas since the payday is better.

DON’T SLEEP ON THE TALENT POOL

Despite these salaries, the G League manages to land some very impressive players – young and old.

“I definitely think the G League talent pool is underrated; there are first-round picks, even lottery picks, mixed in with assignment guys and former pros who have already had a long career in the NBA but now they’re trying to make a comeback through the G League,” Golden State Warriors point guard Quinn Cook said. “In my years in the G League, I got to play against everyone from Baron Davis to Nate Robinson to Brandon Jennings to Jeremy Pargo to Jordan Crawford. The talent level is definitely high. And down here, everybody is hungry. Everybody is trying to get out of the G League, so the competition is intense for those NBA spots. There are zero nights off when you’re in the G League.”

Some players who have competed in both the NBA and the G League insist that there isn’t a drastic difference between the two leagues when it comes to level of competition.

“In terms of the talent, if you take away the top [stars] in the NBA, you really can’t tell the difference between the two leagues,” New Orleans Pelicans guard and former G Leaguer Jordan Crawford said. “If you remove the top players from the NBA, you can’t tell me there’s a big difference between the two leagues. Go watch the G League games every day and you’ll see that five or six players are dropping 20-plus points, every team will be hitting a lot of threes, the players are driving really hard to the basket, the game is fast – it’s up and down – and everybody is a threat to score. It’s fun, just like the NBA. It was so much fun to go down there and just hoop. If you go play in a G League game right now, you’ll play against someone who can hit eight or nine three-pointers in a game, the style of play will be just like the NBA and it’s going to be an exciting game. There’s so much talent in the G League.”

Crawford turned to the G League last season after he didn’t get signed by an NBA team. As Cook mentioned, it’s become relatively common to see notable veterans suit up in the G League in order to make an NBA comeback. They get the chance to show they can still perform at high level, display their conditioning and prove to NBA teams that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to return to the league. Shaun Livingston, Gerald Green, Mike James, Jamaal Tinsley, James Johnson and (most recently) Brandon Jennings are just a few examples of players who utilized the G League to resume their NBA career after injuries or struggles. At the end of the day, these veterans just make the league’s talent pool even more intriguing and bring added attention to G League games.

“I don’t think the G League talent level gets the amount of respect that it deserves,” five-year G League veteran Xavier Silas said. “People automatically say that the ACB in Spain in the second-best league in the world, but I don’t know… There’s so much talent in the G League that it’s hard to say that. I saw a recent article ranking the different leagues and they had the NBA at No. 1, the ACB at No. 2 and Euroleague at No. 3 or something like that. The G League wasn’t even in the top 10. That doesn’t make sense. It’s no coincidence that G League guys keep shining when they get an opportunity! Look at Quinn Cook. If Steph Curry never gets hurt, Quinn doesn’t get this playing time and people would still think, ‘Oh, he’s just a G League guy.’ Look at Shaquille Harrison, who I played with the last two seasons. He was viewed as ‘a G League guy,’ but then Isaiah Canaan gets hurt, and Shaq plays so well in the NBA that he signs a multi-year deal with the Suns. Now, if we took a player from Spain and put him in Quinn’s spot, filling in for Steph Curry, would he be better? Would he even be as productive as Quinn? That’s my argument. G League guys keep showing what they can do when given a chance. Of the big four pro sports, the NBA has the least amount of roster spots and that leads to great players in the G League. Our league has way more talent than people give it credit for and it’s a way more competitive league than people acknowledge.”

“The funny thing was that when it was called the D-League, I felt like a lot of people didn’t understand that the ‘D’ stood for development,” Coach Toppert said. “They’d think of a D-grade in school, so it sort of did the talent level a disservice. In reality, the talent is incredible in this league. I think I’ve now coached six McDonald’s All-Americans at this level. There are a lot of fans who wonder what happened to their favorite college stars. Well, many of them are here in the G League! I don’t think there’s any question that the G League is the second-most athletic league in the world behind only the NBA, and the quality of basketball is rising rapidly too.”

“There are so many success stories now – the guys like Jeremy Lin, Hassan Whiteside, Jonathon Simmons – and it’s become more and more normal for NBA players to have G League experience,” said three-year NBA veteran and former G Leaguer Willie Reed. “It’s becoming clear that talent can translate from the G League to the NBA pretty easily, especially now that you’re playing in the same system with the G League affiliate as you are with the NBA team so you’re comfortable when you make the transition. The style of play in each league is so similar too. People don’t realize that it’s a true minor league that does a great job of developing its players. It’s just as much a minor league as AAA is for Major League Baseball, as far as being able to work on your game. The coaches are amazing and they’re always there to help you. They’ll help you go as far as you want to go in terms of your development. They’re going to push you and help you as you chase your dream.”

IT’S WHERE COACHES DEVELOP TOO

Since the G League’s inception in the 2001-02 season, 78 coaches from the developmental league have been hired by NBA teams. Five G League coaches have made the ultimate leap to become NBA head coaches: Sam Vincent (Charlotte Hornets), Earl Watson (Phoenix Suns), Dave Joerger (Sacramento Kings), Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz) and Luke Walton (Los Angeles Lakers).

In recent years, more and more G League coaches are being hired by NBA teams (including 34 in the last four seasons alone). And many of the hottest up-and-coming candidates who are currently interviewing for the various NBA head coaching vacancies were previously G League head coaches such as Jerry Stackhouse (Raptors 905), Nate Tibbetts (Tulsa 66ers), Nick Nurse (Rio Grande Valley Vipers), Darvin Ham (New Mexico Thunderbirds) and Jay Larranaga (Erie BayHawks) among others.

“This season, my team had five call-ups and played 32 different starting line-ups in 50 games,” Coach Toppert said. “And now, Team USA can rob you of your best players too! I’m out here trying to win games, but Team USA took Xavier Silas from us. There are a number of ways you can lose your players; it’s not just call-ups. It’s incredibly hard to maintain any kind of continuity and chemistry under those circumstances. All you can do is create an environment where the teaching supersedes everything, build really strong habits as a team and make sure everyone has a next-man-up mentality. In the G League, it’s not an exaggeration to say that a player may go from inactive and unhappy with their minutes one day to starting and playing a huge role the very next day. My job is to make sure those guys are ready for their moment when it comes. It’s a challenge, but it’s also really rewarding and I’m learning so much.”

“It takes a special kind of person to coach a G League team,” Silas said. “You aren’t comfortable at all, like some coaches are in college or the pros. It’s just so different than other gigs. You can lose your best players at any time and you have to be ready for that. It’s tough. On game-day, you may find out that you won’t have your best guys. Or, on game-day, they could suddenly give you a new player or two that have to utilize. You have to be able to adapt. It takes a special coach to do that. If you can coach in the G League, you can coach anywhere. If you can succeed with all those unknowns, you’ll do fine elsewhere.”

Nancy Lieberman, who became the first woman to serve as head coach of a professional men’s basketball team when she took over the NBA G League’s Texas Legends in 2009, has also coached in the NBA (as an assistant for the Sacramento Kings) and WNBA (as head coach of the Detroit Shock). She raved about her experience in the G League.

“It’s a phenomenal place of opportunity if you’re willing to pay the price and work hard,” Coach Lieberman said. “So many of the coaches, executives and officials from when I was there, 2009 to 2011, are in the NBA now or have been in the NBA. There’s nothing as pure as the G League. It’s absolutely phenomenal to be around, from the preparation for games to how intensely they work with the players they’re developing. And now that just about every team has their own G League affiliate, it’s amazing to see the synergy that each NBA team has with their G League team. They help each other so much, with the two-way-contract players and the call-ups. The Andre Ingram story was so great and I love that Magic Johnson let him play for the Lakers down the stretch. I got choked up watching him go out there and succeed on that level because he represents what the G League is all about: the dream, the grind and the patience you need as you wait for your opportunity.”

THE NBA EXPERIMENTS IN THE G LEAGUE 

For years, the NBA has used the G League to test new things and collect data. If the league office wants to make a major change in the NBA, they’ll almost always try it out during G League games first.

For example, when the league office wanted to crack down on flopping several years ago, they started issuing in-game technical fouls to floppers during G League games. Eventually, it was decided that punishing players after games (with the benefit of instant replay) would be better, leading to the NBA’s current system in which calls are reviewed after games and punishable through a series of fines and then a suspension if the player racks up five or more infractions.

The G League was also involved in the NBA’s testing surrounding away-from-the-play fouls (also known as the Hack-a-Shaq strategy that can drag a game out and turn it into a free-throw shooting contest among centers). For some time in the G League, any away-from-the-play foul resulted in personal and teams fouls being assessed as well as one free throw and possession of the ball. This is how the NBA has handled away-from-the-play fouls in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtimes. Eventually, it was decided that the NBA should just extend that punishment to the final two minutes of all four quarters in order “to curb the increase in such fouls without eliminating the strategy entirely,” as NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe later described. The G League’s findings helped the league come to this conclusion.

Other recent G League experiments include larger referee crews (they tried having as many as five refs for a bit), shorter overtime periods (two minutes), giving coaches one “challenge” that can be used to contest certain calls and resetting the 24-second shot clock to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound. The NBA also used the G League to try out new broadcast possibilities, announcing a partnership with Twitch to stream several G League games each week and have some popular Twitch personalities provide commentary for the games.

When the NBA infamously introduced their new basketball made out of microfiber material in June of 2006, the league office announced that they had tested the ball in the D-League throughout the 2004-05 season. By January of 2007, the NBA was using the old basketball again and the world moved on.

Another way NBA teams are increasingly using the G League as a testing ground is when a player is returning from injury. For years, MLB teams have used their minor-league squads to help their players ease back from an injury and now the NBA is following suit. Rehab stints in the G League have become much more common in recent years. Sometimes, an injured player will simply practice and train with the G League squad. Other times, they player will actually suit up and play in a game with the affiliate club before getting back onto the court with the NBA team.

In the last four years alone, players such as Blake Griffin, CJ McCollum, Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Thomas, Jabari Parker, Tony Parker, Marcus Smart, D’Angelo Russell, Danilo Gallinari, Zach LaVine, Milos Teodosic, Marcus Morris, Nerlens Noel, Brandon Jennings and Joakim Noah have rehabbed from injuries by practicing or playing with their team’s G League affiliate. This is something that we’ll see happen more frequently, especially as more big-name players see the benefits and normalize it.

GETTING A CALL-UP IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT

“What do the G League and prison have in common?” Coach Toppert asks me with a smile. “Everybody wants out! That’s the running joke around here.”

Several former G League players said it’s frustrating when you’re producing at a high level, but no call-up comes. It’s not like there’s a certain statistical average that gets you a fast-pass to the NBA and that was hard on players, who weren’t sure what more they needed to do to impress executives.

Russ Smith was baffled when he broke the G League’s single-game scoring record with 65 points back in 2016 yet he still didn’t get called up.

“It’s definitely tough because, statistically, I feel like I should’ve been called up at least 10 times,” Smith said. “I was surprised I didn’t get called up. I had a 33-point, 20-assist game. I had a 45-point triple-double game. I still hold the record down there with the 65-point game. So I’ve done stuff down there that was crazy, but I’ve never gotten a call-up. I don’t know what you need to do to get called up. I don’t think there’s any guaranteed way to get a call-up because I’ve tried! I’ve done every angle. That’s why I’d have a really hard time going back to the G League again because there’s no guarantee and that makes it really difficult. I think the best approach is just go there, have fun, try to win games and enjoy the experience. That’s really big for me right now – the experience – because if you aren’t enjoying what you do, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

At the end of the day, it really just comes down to whether a general manager likes your game and believes you can somehow improve their team. Silas, who signed a 10-day contract with the Boston Celtics last month, believes that most players approach the call-up the wrong way and that’s why they never get one.

“You have to play the right way and know what they want from you in the NBA,” Silas said. “I was averaging nearly 20 points, but Boston obviously doesn’t want me to come in and try to score 20 points. They called me up because I’m someone they trusted to go in, make the right plays and do whatever I can to help the team win. You have to understand that and have that be your approach. Nobody in the G League is a Top 30 NBA player. If an NBA team is looking in the G League to call someone up, they aren’t looking at you to replace a Top 30 player by yourself. They’re looking at you to replace one of their role players. That’s just the truth.”

Coach Toppert agrees with his star shooting guard. He tries to get all of his players to take on a role-player mindset so they have a chance of getting called up (and sticking if that call eventually comes).

“If we assume that most of the guys we send to the NBA from the G League will be role players, it’s easier to prepare those players for that opportunity and make sure they understand what they’ll need to do to stick in the NBA. We can discuss exactly what they need to do to be great in that role and impress the coaches and stick in the NBA. Once a player knows exactly what they’ll be expected to do at the NBA level, I ask, ‘Okay, then what should you be focused on improving while you’re down here in the G League?’ Focus on those things! Not being a high-volume scorer!

“I’m not trying to make these guys a top scorer or a star, I’m trying to help them become the best role player that they can be so that they can make it in the NBA and transform their reality. I want to help them change their life and be able to provide for their kids and buy that house for Mom. I often tell guys, ‘Don’t get a 10-day, get a 10-year! Don’t just have a cup of coffee in the NBA, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner!’ Preparing guys for that NBA opportunity and then seeing them stick is my favorite part of this job. When you’re helping guys get called up, you’re basically helping them go from the outhouse to the penthouse.”

IT’S A WORK IN PROGRESS

As of next season, 28 of the NBA’s 30 teams will have their own singly-affiliated G League team. The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are the lone hold-outs, but they’re reportedly exploring expansion opportunities and all 30 teams are expected to comply at some point in the near future. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has made it clear that this is a priority and it’s in teams’ best interest to have their own affiliate nearby as well, especially with the introduction of two-way contracts this past season.

Each NBA team is allowed to sign two players who are on two-way-contracts. They can spend 45 days of service with the NBA team, but then they must spend the remainder of the season with the organization’s G League affiliate. This allows NBA teams to carry 17 players on their roster as opposed to the previous maximum of 15, and it gives some of the G League’s top players a chance to earn six-figure salaries and gain NBA experience. There are still some logistical things that need to be worked out this summer (for example, travel days currently count toward a player’s 45 days of service, which creates some huge inconveniences for the team and player since they have to work around that). Still, overall, everyone involved seems to agree that the two-way deals were a success in their first year of existence. (For more details on exactly how two-way contracts work, read this.)

Two-way signees like Quinn Cook, CJ Williams, Tyrone Wallace, Kobi Simmons, Antonio Blakeney, Jamel Artis, Danuel House, JaKarr Sampson, Derrick Jones Jr. and Jabari Bird were able to crack their respective NBA teams’ rotation and showcase their skills.

Expect there to be more competition for two-way deals next season now that players have witnessed it’s a realistic way to earn playing time on an NBA team and get back in the league on a regular contract.

“I think it’s great and, to be honest, I’m looking into getting on a two-way contract myself next season,” former NBA player and G Leaguer Adonis Thomas said. “It gives so many guys an opportunity that they may not have had. Throughout the regular season, we saw a lot of the two-way guys play significant minutes and now we’re even seeing a guy like Quinn Cook, who’s a good friend of mine, get key minutes in the playoffs. That’s big, if you ask me. I agree that there are some things that they need to fix when it comes to the two-way deals, but it’s a great option for players.”

“I love it,” former NBA player and G Leaguer Josh Selby said. “Man, they should give me a two-way deal. I need to get one of those.”

“I think two-way contracts are great and certainly a step in the right direction,” Coach Toppert said. “And to be honest with you, I think there were some NBA teams that didn’t quite understand how to use the two-way deals the right way. That’s part of the process, though. Some teams went through a bunch of two-way guys and liked evaluating different players. Others stuck with the same guys. Teams had to choose how to use those days of service too. We had a kid on the Suns, Mike James, who spent the first 45 days up in the NBA and then we knew we’d make a decision on his future with the team [after those 45 days]. Other guys were with the NBA team for the last 45 days. Some teams bounced guys around back and forth as needed. It’s up to each team how they want to use their two-way guys, but I do believe two-way contracts are a good addition to the league.”

All signs point to the G League continuing to thrive, especially since the NBA will continue to put a ton of money and resources into expanding it.

“As the salaries increase and if the one-and-done rule goes away, the G League will just keep adding talent,” Coach Toppert points out. “It’ll be a lot of fun to see the G League continue to grow and evolve.”

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