How the D-League Became the Best Minor League in Sports
By Matt Foley
Hours before dominating another minor league game, this time somewhere in steel country, Yogi Ferrell got the call: His NBA chance had arrived. Four days later, Ferrell became the third undrafted rookie in NBA history to record a 30-point game. A two-year contract with the Dallas Mavericks came next. In one whirlwind week, the undersize, forgotten Hoosier star had locked up one of the world’s most selective jobs.
Until recently, Ferrell’s road to success was rarely traveled by NBA hopefuls. Minor to major league glory is common in baseball, hockey and European football, where minor leagues flourish. But the NBA’s Development League has long been viewed as a collection of professional misfits with little chance of making it in the senior circuit. All that changed late in the 2000s, when the fledgling eight-team league began a run of consistent growth. Now at 22 teams, the D-League will add three more franchises next season and looks to top out at 30 teams. And come the 2017-18 season, a partnership with Gatorade will rebrand the circuit as the NBA Gatorade League, and inject the capital juice necessary to fuel expansion. Formerly a laughingstock, the D-League is now on the verge of becoming the second-best basketball league in the world and the most efficient minor league system in sports.
For years basketball has been criticized for its lack of a development system. In 2001, four years before the NBA banned high school players from entering the draft, it launched the D-League. Coaches with NBA experience or aspirations were recruited to teach the game from a professional perspective. Scott Morrison, head coach of the Maine Red Claws, the Boston Celtics’ affiliate, tells OZY that the D-League is “like graduate school for pro basketball players. They’re learning to become professionals without the coddling nature of a college atmosphere.”
In the D-League’s inaugural season, eight players were promoted to NBA rosters. In 2015-16, 47 players were called up. According to the NBA, at least 30 players have graduated to the big league in each of the past five years. Perhaps most impressive, 135 current NBA players — about 30 percent of the league — have spent time in the D-League. Compared to baseball, where roughly one in 33 minor leaguers ever makes it to Major League Baseball, those numbers are astounding. “There’s more money coming in now, which means more talent and exposure for us,” says Ken McDonald, head coach of the Austin Spurs, the D-League affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs. “If we can afford the best players who are going overseas, this thing is going to explode.”
To McDonald’s point, most college stars who go undrafted typically choose to play overseas, where well-funded organizations like the Chinese Basketball Association dish out six to seven figures. The D-League certainly offers players exposure and a manageable commute should a promotion arise, but the compensation is awful. This season, teams have a salary cap of just $209,000 to divide among a 10-man active roster. A-level players make $26,000 for a 50-game, six-month schedule, while B-level players are paid $19,500. A decision to sign with the D-League is based strictly on opportunity cost. As was the case with Ferrell, a D-Leaguer can play in Erie, Pennsylvania, one night and in Dallas the next. Logistically, that’s very difficult for top international talent.
Some experts believe that salaries could triple in the next few years when the league grows to a full 30 teams. Of course, compensation isn’t the sole focus of league improvement. For years, league resources and accommodations were grossly inferior to those of other leagues around the world. It’s tough to expect a 7-foot center to run the floor after spending 10 hours stuffed in an Astro van like a ninth-grade mathlete. “We’ve upgraded to nice buses,” says McDonald. “Every year, we get better coaches, better players, better facilities. The NBA is truly understanding how valuable developing this young talent can be for the league.”
Perhaps the most telling illustration of the NBA’s investment is the apparent creation of a coaching incubator. This season, four NBA head coaches — Earl Watson (Phoenix), Dave Joerger (Sacramento), Luke Walton (Los Angeles) and Quin Snyder (Utah) — have D-League pedigrees. The hot coaching prospects of the future are developing this season, too. Before leading the Greensboro Swarm expansion franchise, Noel Gillespie spent 13 years as an NBA assistant and scout. Gillespie tells OZY that while he surprised some folks by leaving an NBA job he loved, he came to Greensboro to develop alongside future NBA stars. “Now I have the opportunity to draw plays, run the huddles, organize a team,” says Gillespie. “This is invaluable experience.”
One of Gillespie’s players, Archie Goodwin, was a first-round pick in 2013 and spent three seasons with Phoenix. Now he’s fighting for a second chance in the NBA. Goodwin believes that unadulterated hoop dreams have the D-League on the rise. “In the D-League, everybody wants to make it so bad,” he tells OZY. “When everybody’s hungry there’s no days off.”
If proximity seduces, then the D-League is a temptress. Goodwin knows what younger players are only finding out. No matter how comfortable the accommodations or how sweet those first professional paychecks may seem, the D-League can only ever be second best. “Once you get a taste of the NBA,” Goodwin says, “you don’t ever want to come back.”