Pick an NBA player at random, and at this point in the league’s history there is about a 33% chance that he spent part of his career in the NBA D-League.
For some, the minor league was just a pit stop — a way to get run for a few games when the parent club’s bench became too crowded. For others, it was an essential stepping stone in growing into an NBA player.
As the 2015-16 NBA season opens with a larger D-League imprint than ever, here are the 10 most intriguing alumni storylines to follow over the months ahead. They’re broken into three buckets, representing just a small sample of the many shapes a player’s career can take in today’s game.
1. Hassan Whiteside
Whiteside gets a category to himself simply because his path is unmatched in D-League history (and perhaps even NBA history). No player who’s ever entered the league as a prospect — a free agent minor-leaguer available for any of the 30 NBA teams to call up — has transformed the way Whiteside did in Miami.
At this time last year, he was preparing for life with the Iowa Energy — his fourth D-League team in five years. He was four months removed from a stint in Jiangsu Tongxi on the eastern coast of China. Now, the 7-foot behemoth has a chance to be an Eastern Conference All-Star.
Whiteside would be the first NBADL alum ever to do that. By season’s end, he could solidify his place as the best player ever to come through the minor league — a title currently shared between Eric Bledsoe, Rudy Gobert, Danny Green and Reggie Jackson.
Also in this category: No one
FINDING THEIR NICHE
2. Seth Curry
Two years and nine teams later, the younger Curry brother is an NBA player. Seth will be suiting up for the Kings less than 100 miles from Steph, but he knows better than anyone that it’s time to find his own path.
Curry joins Sacramento as a shooting specialist — he led the D-League in both three-pointers made (3.6 per game) and three-point percentage (46.7%) last season — who proved during a sensational Summer League that he can also ‘D’ up, attack off the dribble and facilitate.
McAdoo won two rings in less than two months last spring, but he was more of a Santa Cruz Warrior than a Golden State Warrior as a rookie. His goal in 2015-16 will be to reverse that role and crack the big-league rotation.
The early returns have been positive, with preseason head coach Luke Walton praising McAdoo as another potential athletic, versatile cog on a roster loaded with them. The former blue-chip UNC recruit averaged 19.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals in 33 games with Santa Cruz last season.
4. Tim Frazier
The 2015 NBA D-League Rookie of the Year and MVP vaulted himself onto the NBA radar with a spectacular rookie season. With the Maine Red Claws, Frazier was a Vine-light — and a triple-double — waiting to happen.
With the Blazers, he’s looking to earn the backup point guard job behind friend-at-first-sight Damian Lillard. The Penn State product has flashed a dynamic play-making ability at every step along the way, setting himself up for a potential long-term career after going undrafted.
CALL-UP KEEPERS, YEAR 2
(NBA D-League 101: All players on D-League rosters whose rights are not owned by NBA teams are technically free agents eligible to be called up by any of the 30 NBA teams. In 2014-15, a record 47 prospects earned GATORADE Call-Ups.)
On October 27, 2014, Covington was waived by the Rockets as one of their final roster cuts. On November 1, he was selected by the Grand Rapids Drive with the first pick in the 2014 NBA D-League Draft. On November 15, he was called up to the Sixers, and come February he was at All-Star Weekend in New York City playing in the Rising Stars Challenge.
The Sixers snatching Covington, who earned the 2013-14 NBADL Rookie of the Year Award following a near-season-long assignment to the RGV Vipers, proved to be one of the best under-the-radar moves of the year. Now the rangy, sweet-shooting wing is a member of Philly’s core and can look to expand his game after breaking out in his first full season.
It didn’t take the Knicks long to identify the poster child for their brand-new D-League affiliate last season. Galloway played for the Knicks during Summer League, signed before training camp and the preseason, and spent the first six weeks of his rookie season in Westchester.
What followed was a storybook run during an otherwise dismal season in New York, as Galloway earned a Call-Up in January and eventually emerged as the team’s go-to scorer (11.8 PPG). Reaching the NBA is the easy part, however. Staying there is the hard part, and the tweener guard will have to keep contributing even after he lands on opponents’ scouting reports.
ASSIGNEES, YEAR 2
(NBA D-League 101: An assignee is a player sent to an NBA D-League affiliate from its NBA parent club. The assigned player remains under NBA contract and can be recalled only by the NBA team that assigned him.)
7. Clint Capela
NBA rims and the unfortunate players standing underneath them are not excited for the Swiss dunk machine’s arrival at the next level; otherwise, there is plenty of reason for excitement surrounding Capela.
He dominated minor-league competition as a rookie, shot-blocking and pick-and-rolling his way into the Rockets’ plans far sooner than anyone expected. Supposedly raw at just 20 years old, he posted per-36-minute averages of 23.5 points, 14.2 rebounds and 4.3 blocks with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers while working his way back from an offseason groin injury. By the time he joined Houston for its playoff run, he was the team’s secret weapon off the bench.
Capela is poised to start the Rockets’ season opener with Dwight Howard suspended and could be ready for a role backing up the star center.
Little was expected from the 46th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Then he filled it up with the Los Angeles D-Fenders, cracked the Lakers’ rotation and emerged as Kobe’s rising backcourt mate.
9. James Young
Drafted at just 18, the Kentucky standout was not yet ready for prime time as a rookie. Instead, Boston fans found optimism in the periodic reports coming down from Maine: “James Young scored 20 points again last night. … James Young dropped nine threes in a game.”
A year older and reportedly 15-20 pounds stronger, Young should start resembling the prized prospect who teamed up with Julius Randle and the Harrison twins in Lexington. The Celtics know he can score — he averaged 21.5 points and 4.0 threes in 17 games with the Red Claws — but will monitor his progress on the defensive end closely.
10. P.J. Hairston
In 2014, Hairston made history as the first first-round NBA Draft pick the NBA D-League has ever produced. The ex-Tar Heel will always be linked to the league and the alternative route to the Draft that he took. While his rookie season had more downs than ups, he has the three-point range and athletic frame to develop into a long-term player. The Hornets desperately need that development to start this season after losing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to injury.
Also in this category: Thanasis Antetokounmpo (Knicks)