12/02/2010 11:03 AM ET
Johnson sees value in NBA's D-League
More teams turning to lower level for highly touted players
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Terrence Williams, a 2009 first-round pick, is now playing for the Springfield Armor in Massachusetts. (AP)

Avery Johnson never played in the NBA Development League, but he sure likes its potential.

Johnson, the Nets head coach, recently helped demote Terrence Williams, a 2009 first-round pick, to the Springfield (Mass.) Armor of the D-League. Johnson said he thinks it's a good place for young players to evolve.

"If a guy is going to play six or eight minutes a game, why not?" Johnson said Tuesday before the Knicks beat the Nets, 111-100, at Madison Square Garden. "I think it's a great tool, sometimes even if it's just for a week."

Other NBA franchises agree.

So far this season 14 NBA players have been sent on assignment to the D-League, including three 2010 lottery picks in Cole Aldrich (the No. 11 pick), Ed Davis (No. 13) and Patrick Patterson (No. 14). Davis has since been recalled by the Toronto Raptors.

A year ago at this time, only seven players had been assigned.

Three other 2010 first-round picks have also been sent down -- Craig Brackins (No. 21), Dominique Jones (No. 25) and Daniel Orton (No. 29), Patterson's former Kentucky teammate.

Williams was the No. 11 pick out of Louisville in the 2009 draft, and he has since been joined in the D-League by fellow 2009 first-rounders Jonny Flynn and Rodrigue Beaubois. Flynn's assignment comes after hip surgery in July. The point guard is expected to rejoin the Timberwolves next week.

None of these players envisioned playing in the D-League when NBA commissioner David Stern first called his name at the draft.

"Extremely tough when you first hear about it," Patterson told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "You dream of playing in the NBA. That's where you want to stay at."

Still, players like Shannon Brown of the Lakers, Aaron Brooks of the Rockets and J.J. Barea of the Mavericks have moved from the D-League to enjoy productive NBA careers.

"I think it's the continuing evolution of how NBA teams view the NBA Development League," D-League president Dan Reed said in a phone interview.

"Given our success of producing NBA players, developing NBA players and all the callups from the past year, there's a new kind of confidence that teams and players hold in utilizing the D-League to help develop first-round draft picks and really a highly regarded talent like Patrick Patterson, like Ed Davis, like Cole Aldrich, and that's a really positive thing for the league."

There were 63 players with D-League experience on NBA rosters at the start of the season. At the end of last season, 85 former NBA D-League players were on NBA rosters.

Before this recent explosion of assignments, two developments may have served as watershed moments for the D-League.

One came in November 2009 when Latavious Williams, a 6-8 forward out of Memphis, opted to play in the D-League, where the average salary is about $25,500 plus housing and health insurance, instead of in China, where he could have earned much more.

"He had a contract on the table that could've paid him $100,000 or better in China but he had to weigh the pros and cons," said Carlos Wilson, Williams' coach at Humble (Texas) Christian Life Center. "It came down to taking the money and getting some financial stability for now, but still you're a long way from the NBA when you're in China. Or taking the least amount of money and being a step closer instead of four steps closer."

Williams played for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Orlando summer league but didn't receive a contract offer or an invite to the Thunder training camp. He is back with the Tulsa 66ers but hasn't played this season because of an injury.

Last February, the Memphis Grizzlies sent former UConn star Hasheem Thabeet to the Dakota Wizards. The 7-foot-3 Thabeet became the highest-drafted player ever sent to the D-League. At the time, it was considered a huge setback for Thabeet part. Yet he was recalled a couple of weeks later. He is currently averaging 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds in 14 minutes a game with Memphis.

"I think that certainly helps, that a team had the confidence to send a No. 2 overall draft pick to the NBA D-League and I think it helped that when he came back he played so much better as well," Reed said.

Three NBA teams own their own D-League affiliates -- the Spurs, Thunder and Lakers. Three other teams have single-affiliate partnerships, the Nets, Rockets and the Mavericks. (The Knicks are also affiliated with Springfield Armor, but the franchise has never sent a player to the D-League.)

Johnson, the Nets coach, would like to see the D-League develop into a full-fledged minor league system like baseball, where teams can send players down to rehab from injuries or work on their games.

"I think it needs to be a total minor-league system," Johnson said. "I wish it could to a point where it's not just the guys early in their careers, where if we need a guy that needs to go down there on a rehab assignment, like baseball. I hope they negotiate that in the next CBA."

Reed said he couldn't comment on collective bargaining agreement negotiations, but that he supported Johnson's vision.

He said: "Our goal is to build the perfect minor-league system for the NBA and the game of basketball."

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AdamZagoria.
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