By John Alfes
CHARLOTTE, N.C.– Beneath the surface of the NBA is an emerging pipeline, a new route for the game’s next wave of star players.
The G League is no longer a mystery, nor is it the cellar for basketball in America.
“It’s not deemed as a punishment,” said Darvin Ham, who spent over five years in the developmental league as a player and coach. “You’re actually going down there to play. It puts players in a different light.”
It has been a landmark year for the G League — and the 2019 NBA All-Star weekend in Charlotte has amplified that notion even further.
Former G League alums Rodions Kurucs and Cedi Osman jumpstarted the festivities by representing Team World in the Rising Stars game. Ham, now an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks, coached the U.S. Team to its first victory since 2016.
Seth Curry, Danny Green, Joe Harris and Khris Middleton — a quartet of G League products who once played in front of hundreds of fans rather than thousands — will form nearly half of the three-point contest field.
Hamidou Diallo will participate in the dunk contest after tallying 21 points for the Oklahoma City Blue just a week ago.
Most notably, Middleton will become the first G League player to ever step onto the All-Star Game hardwood.
“It means everything,” Middleton said. “To be the first D-League player, it’s great. Hopefully I start trending more guys that get the call-ups, get the contracts and then get the All-Star Game admission.”
Since 2001, the G League has served as the official minor league basketball organization of the NBA. Formerly known as the D-League, it has grown from eight affiliate teams in 2001 to 15 teams in 2005 to 27 teams in 2018.
“I think it’s just like Triple-A, Double-A and Single-A in baseball,” Ham said. “When I was coaching down there, it was just starting to catch traction where you saw more one-to-one affiliates for NBA teams happen as the years went by. And now, I think we’re almost at 30 for 30. It’s proven it’s worth.”
At the inception of the 2018-19 season, there were 198 G League alums on NBA rosters — 40 percent of the league — topping the previous records set in 2017-18 (194), 2016-17 (135) and 2015-16 (132). With its presence now being felt on the All-Star platform, the pipeline between the two is now an even more attractive pursuit for players with such aspirations.
“It for sure helped me a lot because I needed some playing time to get confidence, to try new things at practice,” said Kurucs, who logged four appearances with the Long Island Nets before making a sizeable NBA impact and joining Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson’s starting five. “When you go to the G League, you can do things you want to practice and you play a lot of minutes, especially the two-way players.”
The two-way contract began in the summer of 2017, expanding NBA rosters from 15 to 17. Those two extra spots are for G League players who can also play no more than 45 games at the NBA level.
The G League recently announced its select contract initiative for the 2019-20 campaign, which will allow 18-year-old (or older) prospects to earn $125,000 over a five-month season ahead of the NBA Draft. It is the first viable alternative provided by the NBA to the “one-and-done” practice of talented high school graduates spending a year playing in college before becoming eligible for the draft.
As the opportunities have risen, so has the level of talent.
“Last year helped me a lot,” said Osman, who has turned a bench-warming role into a weekend under the national spotlight. “I went once to the G League and after that I played only one NBA game and then I was out of the rotation. But when I was not playing, I was just working hard, working on my game and this year I think it paid off.”
For Middleton, Kurucs and Osman, there was nothing else that could replicate an opportunity to play substantial minutes in the G League. When NBA affiliates took note of their performances, they seized the chance to bring their dreams to fruition.
“My first year in Detroit, I wasn’t playing as much, so they put me down there for a couple games, just to get some minutes, get a rhythm,” Middleton said of his Fort Wayne Mad Ants experience in 2012. “They just wanted to see what I can do. I just wanted to play as hard as I could and take advantage of the opportunity that I got to play.”
Opportunities are few and far between in the NBA, the major sport with the fewest rounds in its draft and the fewest athletes on its playing field. The G League, though, has dug out a new path to the NBA and its All-Star weekend — when basketball is at the epicenter of the sports world.
“If you’re able to get that time on the floor of actually going through a game regiment, it’s invaluable,” Ham said. “You have [an NBA] circumstance where someone goes down, you know you can plug that guy in and he’s been playing real game minutes.”