D-League needs to be used better for the players’ sake

Myck Kabongo, we hardly knew you.

If you missed the former Texas Longhorns star’s tour with the Texas Legends, few could blame you. It lasted all of five days and two games averaging six points before he was waived by the Legends. (By contrast, William Buford, who was taken in the same player pool, remains in Frisco, averaging 7.5 points per game.)

Kabongo’s fall from grace could be used as yet another example of athletes, particularly within basketball, who sadly fall victim to their own hype and see a promising career derailed because of it. At one time thought to be a first-round pick, he declared for the draft in 2013 following a sophomore season in Austin that saw him suspended for the first 23 games of that season for his contact with agent Rich Paul. A 14.6 scoring average in 11 games that year for the Longhorns was not enough to get him drafted, and he currently remains in limbo with no NBA experience (he was with the Miami Heat’s Summer League team and then signed with San Antonio before being cut in 2013) and stops in three D-League teams.

Chris Douglas-Roberts is another example who’s tumultuous path included a stop in Frisco. He was a second-round pick of the New Jersey Nets in 2008 after playing just one year at the University of Memphis. But Roberts is another currently unemployed player after he was traded from the Clippers to Boston and waived by the Celtics three days later. (Given how much the Celtics are desperately stocking up on young talent, that says something.)

Currently, Roberts’ six-year pro career has his best NBA season at just 9.8 points in 67 games with the 2009-10 Nets. He averaged 18.7 points for the Legends in 2013 before Charlotte signed him, praised by head coach Steve Clifford for his “toughness and experience,” but averaging 6.9 points for the Bobcats didn’t lead to much else, as he wasn’t re-signed and only averaged 1.6 points for the Clippers this season.

Kabongo and Douglas-Roberts thus join numerous projected NBA prospects that bring about one question: Would things have been different in a system where you know you start for a development team before moving to the big league instead of going there being an immediate sign that you can’t cut it in the NBA?

Basketball prep stars have made it clear that they really don’t want to play in college, having been convinced they’re being cheated by only getting a free ride to an education in exchange for the NCAA and school’s chance at making millions of dollars off their games. So they play one year expecting to declare for the draft after that. And that’s their right and choice. It’s pretty much still their best choice now so long as the NBA has its age rule of needing to be one year removed from high school – which I have advocated against for years.

The problem remains that, even with the D-League in existence, the NBA continues to force the NCAA to be its real de facto development league while continuing the culture that most prospects should enter the draft expecting to play in the big league immediately.

So with more people turning pro while still very green, the chance of a player turning out like Greg Oden or Kabongo is still more likely that turning out like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. And even if the player eventually does become an All-Star caliber player, chances are it’s going to be longer into his career than it used to be.

Consider: From 1979 to 1999, 14 number one draft picks averaged at least 18 points per game in their rookie seasons, including nine that averaged at least 20. Three others – James Worthy, Brad Daugherty and Chris Webber – went on to appear in at least five All-Star Games; Worthy was the only one of those to average less than 15 in his first season. Six of those 17 players are already in the Hall of Fame, with at least Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Webber and Allen Iverson likely to join them. Of those 17, only Magic Johnson, Iverson and Elton Brand entered the draft before their junior years in college. (Joe Smith turned pro after his sophomore year; he averaged 15.3 points his rookie year and never made an All-Star Game)

But since 2001, the year Kwame Brown became the first high schooler to be taken first, no number one pick has been taken with more than two years college experience; Blake Griffin is the only player to be taken first with more than one. Nine of those 14 top picks averaged less than 15 points in their rookie seasons, including four that failed to average double figures, bottoming out last year when Anthony Bennett’s 4.2 was the lowest rookie scoring average for a number one pick since 1948.

Simply put, the majority of players simply are not ready, they do not have the seasoning, the maturity or the realization of just how tougher the game is at that level just one year or less removed from high school.

How much more different could it be if draft picks weren’t expected to go straight to the NBA, at least if they were only a year or two removed from high school? If a player, instead of playing one year of college ball and then getting his fat thrown into the fire, instead could turn pro right out of high school but instead started by playing two to three years with a professional development team, coached by a staff that understood part of its job was to prepare players for the NBA as opposed to NBA coaches who need to worry about immediate success and nothing else, it’s not unreasonable to think the turnaround of top picks having immediate returns could return to what it once was.

Developing players in the minors works in baseball. It works in hockey. There’s no reason it can’t work in basketball.

There are, fortunately, those who want it to change. Donnie Nelson, owner of the Legends in addition to being the Mavericks, says the D-League is gradually working toward eventually having one separate affiliate for every NBA team. Currently, the D-League needs 12 more teams to make that dream a reality.

But more will need to change. Teams and owners have to rein themselves in and understand they can’t expect draft picks that turn pro so early to be NBA ready immediately.

It can start as soon as now with one general manager having the courage to say his first-round pick will play for his team’s D-League affiliate first, even if that player was taken number one. The league should seriously consider removing it’s current age restriction rule and replacing it with a (temporary) rule saying players can turn pro out of high school but must play at least two years for a D-League team first.

The NBA can’t expect college teams to fully develop players for them anymore; they need to start doing it themselves. And then maybe we’ll start seeing more Duncans and Shaqs than Kabongos and Douglas-Roberts’.

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