Before it was known as the G League—the result of a partnership with Gatorade established in 2017—the NBA’s official minor league was called the D-League. Things were different back then. Very different. In the eyes of many, the “D” in D-League, which stood for “Development,” might as well have stood for “Demotion.” To the less informed (mainly fans), the “D” made the League seem incredibly distant from the NBA—if it was truly just one step away, why wasn’t it referred to as the B League?
“If you hear ‘D,’ for those of us in America, well, where’s the B League? Where’s the C League? You think about the grading scale,” says play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Danna, who has been calling Santa Cruz Warriors games since 2012.
Back when Danna started working in Santa Cruz, the D-League wasn’t regarded as a natural part of the NBA development process. Not yet. Guys who were sent down to the minors often felt extremely discouraged by the news. “When most people talked about the D-League at the time when I came into being a professional, it was more so looked down upon,” says College Park Skyhawks guard Langston Galloway, whose first stint in the D-League came in 2014-15 with the Westchester Knicks.
Concerning assignment players, Galloway adds: “If you got sent down to the D-League [in 2014-15], it was like, either you weren’t retaining the information fast enough or you weren’t being successful when you got your opportunity. So… We need you to pick it up. We need you to be better.”
In other words, the D-League could feel like a punishment. A demotion, rather than an opportunity. Three steps back (B, C, D) instead of just one.
That has changed dramatically as the league has grown, however. Now the G League is considered an important part of the journey for a majority of young players. “It’s a lot more normalized than it was,” explains Danna. “It’s an expected part of the process.” One that is viewed with far more acceptance than it used to be.
“There’s a definite process in place for most—if not all—teams that includes the G League,” adds Billy Campbell, general manager of the Birmingham Squadron.
So how did we get here? How did that evolution occur?
The most notable development has been the steady increase in the number of teams. Campbell worked as a basketball operations coordinator for the D-League from 2012-16, and when he first started, there were only 16 teams. Some, like the Bakersfield Jam and Fort Wayne Mad Ants, were shared among four different NBA parent clubs. The lack of one-to-one affiliations with the NBA created a sense of disconnect that clouded perceptions of the league. When a player was assigned from the Toronto Raptors to the Jam, for example, he suddenly found himself thousands of miles away, representing a completely new and unfamiliar organization. How could he not feel separate, ostracized, relegated?
“You had those teams that seemed like they were so far away from their affiliates, you didn’t feel like you were a part of the NBA,” says journeyman guard Scotty Hopson, whose first taste of the D-League came in 2014 with the Canton Charge.
Without a true minor league system in place, there was far less movement back and forth from the NBA. Assignments were less frequent, as were call-ups. Rookies—or struggling older players—didn’t necessarily anticipate spending time in the D-League, so when they were sent down, it was a significant blow.
But the addition of more teams began to transform how the D-League was utilized, and therefore how it was looked upon. The total rose to 18 by 2014-15, then 22 by 2016-17, then 27 by 2018-19. Today, there are 30 teams, 28 of which are single affiliates of NBA franchises.
“It was a really great thing when it was the D-League and it was its own sort of niche league, where we all understood that we had to band together to keep the league afloat,” says Campbell. “The executives and coaches and everybody understood that. There was great basketball being played and there were great players, but now it’s become really the minor league for the NBA in a way that it couldn’t have been until they expanded to have this many teams.”
Player development plans have become more thorough. G League staffs have expanded to help carry out those plans. Communication from the top has increased, making G Leaguers still feel a part of the NBA ecosystem, not banished to some far-off and detached organization.
“Now [when] you’re sent down, it’s like, We know you don’t get time to play on the main team right now, but we need you to just go out there, get these minutes and play in meaningful minutes at that, too,” Galloway tells SLAM. “I think that’s where it’s kind of changed—where the perception has continued to get better for not just the young guys, but as talent continues to come through this league.”
In 2012-13, there were 186 total assignments (58 players) from the NBA to the D-League. As of this writing, there have been 540 assignments (92 players) to the G League this season. For most emerging talents, especially those with limited or no college experience, the G League is now perceived as an inevitable—and valuable—destination. A place to keep maturing and progressing.
An opportunity, rather than a demotion.
Perception has also improved as former assignment players have found tremendous success in the NBA. Khris Middleton (Fort Wayne Mad Ants, 2012-13), Rudy Gobert (Bakersfield Jam, 2013-14) and Pascal Siakam (Raptors 905, 2016-17) all made appearances in the D-League before becoming NBA All-Stars, as did CJ McCollum, Clint Capela and Terry Rozier.
Of the 92 players assigned to the G League this year, 21 are former top 20 draft picks, including James Wiseman, Jonathan Isaac, Moses Moody, Johnny Davis, Kira Lewis Jr, Mark Williams, Ousmane Dieng and James Bouknight.
“Now that the G League has been in place for 20-something years, as opposed to 10 years when I got into the league, there’s an understanding that most first round picks are going to play at least a few games in the G League,” Danna says.
And it’s easy to see why.
“I’m a big believer that you get better at basketball by playing basketball,” Campbell says. “Guys who aren’t playing in NBA games aren’t really working on their craft during the season as much as they’d like to, and this gives them that opportunity to play with some freedom and sort of discover that joy, that passion, that swag, that confidence in their own abilities and their games to sort of get back to the guys that they were.”
The talent level has always been high in the G League (yes, even when it was the D-League), and the intense competition brings the best out of players. Just ask Hopson:
“It’s a dog eat dog league down there, man. It’s cutthroat, it’s real, it’s raw. But there’s beauty in that journey—in that struggle—to get to what you [want to] achieve. There’s a lot of growth that takes place. There are a lot of learning opportunities. And there’s an opportunity as well just to grow yourself as a professional. If guys come down here and take advantage of that, it’ll do wonders for their careers, even if they take it outside of the G League. The G League is a really great place to be, especially right now. It’s the best it’s ever been, and it’s going to continue to grow.”
Photos via Getty Images.
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