By: Mark Porcaro / @MarkPorcaro
Editor’s Note: This is Mark’s debut piece on ELA. While this article is more D-League and NBA focused, it provides a good perspective on players choosing between trying the D-League route or going over to Europe. Hopefully we will have other pieces from Mark throughout the season
Each year, when the NBA Draft ends, the journey into professional basketball begins. The majority of college players will not be drafted and most look to the summer league as the first step to keep their NBA dream alive. Just minutes after the draft ends Twitter is already flooded with information about players signing summer contracts with NBA teams. Some players are lucky enough to secure training camp deals while others find homes in overseas leagues. Most of the rookies that sign training camp deals receive little to no guaranteed money (although that’s changing, we’ll explore later) and are likely to be cut prior to the beginning of the season. The dilemma becomes what to do next. Overseas leagues have already begun and the best jobs are already taken. With options now at a minimum, many players choose the D-League route to keep their NBA dream alive.
The D-League brings many advantages such as NBA exposure, the possibility of being called-up at any point of the season and the ability to play professionally within the United States. The list of disadvantages includes incredibly low salaries, potential missed opportunities overseas and attempting to defy very long odds of actually receiving a call-up. Most of us know all of this but what are the facts surrounding being an undrafted rookie the D-League? What are the different routes getting into the D-League route? Which of the success rates of each of those routes? And what changes need to be made to truly make the D-League a successful and viable option for rookies? In an attempt to answer these questions I have researched all undrafted Division I college rookies entering the D-League over the last five seasons (2010/11-2014/15). So let’s dive and see what the numbers show.
For starters, there have only been 21 players that have gone undrafted in the last 5 years that have begun the season with an NBA team. Over that same time period, there have been 304 undrafted D1 rookies in the D-League. There are 4 ways to get into the D-League; being allocated by an NBA team as a training camp cut, being drafted, being selected from the available player pool and making the team as a tryout player. Here’s a look at the year to year breakdown for each category.
And now, here’s a look at how many of these players actually received call-ups during the season.
Those are some staggering numbers! Only 9.5% of players actually made the NBA during their rookie campaigns. The highest success rate belongs to allocated players where 25.3% were able to make the jump. The numbers for tryout players and player pool selections are expectedly low but I couldn’t believe only 4.65% of rookies selected in the D-League draft received call-ups. Altogether non-allocated rookies have been called up just 4% of the time. That’s an awfully low number for a league that is supposed to be developmental. Granted we are only talking about a small cross-section of the entire league but undrafted rookies should exactly the types of players the D-League should covet. I know you can’t force teams to call-up players but there are too many rules in place that negatively affect the league’s image that need to change for there to be any chance of a true minor league system. I know it’s been beat to death but let’s look at that really quick before we jump into allocated players.
I’ve always found the D-League Draft to be completely ridiculous. Rosters are limited to 12 players with only 10 allowed to be active during a game yet the draft is 8 rounds long. You still have to consider the amount of roster spots being taken up by returning players as well as allocated players and it is impossible to see how there’s any way 8 drafted players have any chance of making a team’s roster. Look at it this way, in the NBA the draft has only 2 rounds and there are 15 available roster spots. If you’re going to do a draft at all it should be 3 rounds max. Under the current rules a draft is needed but in the future it will likely be removed if we can get a 1 to 1 affiliation for each NBA team.
The player pool is basically the players who weren’t drafted, were cut during D-League training camp or started the season overseas and joined the league during the season. The D-League uses a waiver system when new players enter the pool during the year. As with many rules in the D-League, even that system is somewhat convoluted. The Tryout players are local guys attempting to make the team out of training camp.
So, on to allocated players. In 2010, the NBA came up with this rule where every team has the right to allocate 3 of their training camp cuts to their D-League affiliate provided those players agree to that arrangement. There were only 4 teams that had direct affiliations in 2010 and so this hasn’t made much impact until last year. In 2014, the NBA raised the amount of allocated players to 4 while also having 17 teams with direct affiliations. The concept certainly makes more sense if you have your own staff in place to work with these players but the major problem is that the NBA teams has no rights to that player meaning he can be called up by any of the other 29 NBA teams during the season. Only 13 of those 20 allocated player call-ups were actually called up by the team that allocated them. That needs to be addressed moving forward.
We saw the number allocated players double from 2013 to 2014 as well as the amount of players that received call-ups. The big changes? Well, the number of direct D-League affiliations jumped from 14 to 17 but that doesn’t account for the huge change in ideology. The real reason we are seeing a huge rise in allocated players is simple, guaranteed money. From 2010-2013 only 16 allocated players received guaranteed money on their NBA training camp contracts. Last year alone there were 15 players getting some sort of guarantee before accepting their deal in the D-League. That takes some of the bite off the $25,500 max salary the league offers. This season there are already 26 undrafted rookies on non-fully guaranteed training camp deals. I’ve confirmed that 15 of those players have received partial guarantees of $25-100,000 while another 7 or 8 are reported to include some guaranteed money but have not been reported yet. So, in order to keep more of the top undrafted college talent in the D-League, NBA teams are actually having to use their own cap space. That’s a pretty crazy way to do business but that’s where we are now.
Pretty much everyone agrees that we need every NBA team to have a direct affiliate before the D-League can truly be a minor league system. Once that is in place we can discuss NBA teams signing free agents to their D-League team while maintaining their rights, draft-and-stash players playing in the league, hell, maybe even trades that will include D-League players. All of these things would grab the attention of casual fans and help grow the league into what it was designed to be in the first place. But why not make simple changes to incentivize playing at home? Many people point to the 2017 CBA negotiations as a potential time when many of the D-League problems can be addressed. The money issue needs to be fixed first and foremost. Buyouts cost players 2-3 times their entire year’s salary and the salary cap is just $173,000 per team? That’s ridiculous! Money talks and people have families to support so figuring that part out is paramount to the league’s future success. The focus should be retaining high end young talent that can eventually impact the NBA in some way. Yet every offseason players are leaving the D-League in droves for more money, better competition and a chance to have a successful professional career.
The D-League has a long way to go to be recognized globally as a place to begin one’s career but it’s trending upwards. Let’s hope in continues in that direction because the success of the league depends on it.