Mad Ants

Tonight, the Santa Cruz Warriors are looking to close out the Oklahoma City Blue. In their first matchup, the speedy Elliot Williams executed an excellent backdoor cut which resulted in this uncontested two-handed dunk. Oh, he also lit up the Blue for 27 points on 10-16 shooting, showing a squad of fourth-stringers how a former NBA player gets shit done.

I’m not here to recap the latest games like last time. Instead, I’d like to present ideas (ramblings?) for making the NBDL a bit flashier and sustainable, and not Jackie Moon-style. Last month I fell head over heels for Arn Tellem’s post on Grantland that proposes a comprehensive plan to fix the NBA’s minor league system. It’s a MUST READ. In it he outlines revolutionary approaches to financial compensation and league eligibility, all-the-while empowering prospective players through signing options, including these two salient points:

No prospect would be required to declare, making everyone eligible, much like baseball’s amateur draft. Prospective picks would be asked to sign a “memorandum of understanding” as a condition for consideration, whereby they would agree to forgo college if drafted. If they declined to sign, they would effectively be choosing college over pro ball and couldn’t be drafted for two more years. If they declare but never get drafted, they should be allowed to retain their eligibility and attend school. Currently, they aren’t. The crucial point here: Players shouldn’t be penalized for an ill-informed decision. Draftees should be given the option of signing in the NBA, going to the minors, or playing overseas.

All early-entry players would be given the same declaration date. Right now, foreign prospects get almost two months more than their American counterparts to decide whether to remain in that year’s draft.2 By locking everyone into the same date, the NBA would rectify one of the great competitive inequities of pro hoops.

A Living Wage for Some, Miniature American Flags for Others?

I love Tellem’s approach. The only issue I have with these points is their inherent democracy. Sure, it would be great for every prospect to have three options, but if we’re trying to make the NBDL the “R&D lab for players too green for showtime” it was supposed to be, why should draftees play overseas? If we want to make the development of homegrown players the primary concern ( as opposed to giving washed-up players a second, third, fourth, or ∞ chances), then the NBA needs to sweeten the pot a bit.

Most draftees want the professional payday and the prestige of playing for world class organizations that can push them to realize their full potential. Yes, paying them more than the NBDL’s tiered flat salary model ($25,500, $19,000, $13,000) certainly helps. But it must go hand-in-hand with the not-ready players contributing to their organization in tandem with owners making the spectacle of a minor league game FUN for multiple demographics. If you’re gonna pay players more money, the stadiums they play at must accommodate more people and hire better entertainment. I’m not saying we need gimmicks like watching Hasheem Thabeet wrestle a grizzly bear…

However, fans need to start thinking of NBDL players as the future faces of their franchises, which is impossible when the Fort Wayne Mad Ants are affiliated with (count ’em) 13 lucky teams. Doesn’t each of these teams deserve their own affiliate by default? Think of a league where the best prospects in the world try out for 12 roster spots on D-League teams — they’ll get paid a decent wage and American (and international) fans will get to see them grow within their parent organization. This adds an element that the NBA sometimes lacks with all the free agent shuffling and trade demands…PRIDE.

NBA writers always praise players who stick with the same franchise throughout their career and are shaken to their core when one changes uniforms. What if players who don’t go to college (what’s the point!?) instead went right into the D-League, got paid (you’re move, NCAA), and felt that they owed their success to the parent organization? What if the D-League hired former NBA players to mentor the youngsters?

Recruiting players from all over the world to play in the D-League allows foreign prospects to avoid being big fish in small ponds. Instead, they’d be playing against the best at their skill level. Period. Player rivalries could start from the very beginning of their careers. Also, if a prospect forgoes college ball for playing in the minors, they’d have more experience with the 24 second shot clock and playbooks similar to the NBA.

No person has all the answers when it comes to the NBA Development League, but there has to be a paradigm shift for casual fans to care. Side note: courtside tickets for the Austin Spurs playoff games can cost over $100 per. That is straight-up ludicrous speed.