Many of the NBA G League’s up-and-coming prospects were excited for scouts to see them up close and personal (perhaps for the first time as professionals) at the Winter Showcase. With NBA teams able to offer 10-day contracts beginning January 5 and Two-Way Contracts becoming guaranteed for the remainder of the season on January 20, there was plenty at stake and much for such youngsters to prove. But as many minor-league alumni can attest, one look can be all someone needs to get noticed. As long as they perform well, the possibilities are endless.
In addition to fresh faces, there were more than a few returning players hitting the hardwood in Las Vegas. They hoped to remind those same scouts what they could offer, having graced the NBA stage before. With big league experience on one’s pedigree, there are many opportunities for such athletes to play professionally. But a number of veterans believe in the NBA G League’s culture and development process, and understand that it truly can provide a fast track back to the next level.
As a two-time NBA G League Defensive Player of the Year, DeAndre Liggins has been the beneficiary of multiple 10-day contracts before and spent much of the past two seasons thereafter in the NBA. “I want to stay close to the NBA. I’m not ready to go overseas. I feel like an NBA player. Scouts look at the NBA G League,” he said in Las Vegas. “If you play well, you’ll get attention wherever you go. But look at the Winter Showcase. Everyone is here watching up close, so it’s good for me to be here.”
The 30-year-old is once again playing with the Skyforce, hoping that a more consistent shot (he’s averaging 11 points on 41% from deep — up from a career average of 38%) will prove to NBA teams that he can serve as more of a 3-and-D guy and be valuable on offense, too.
A veteran of three NBA seasons, Salt Lake City Stars center Willie Reed agrees with Liggins about the platform their current stomping grounds provides.
“I know that the G League is the fastest way to the NBA. I believe it’ll be the fastest way back for me this time. I’m working under an NBA system with the Jazz being here. I’m learning and am around NBA players when they bring their guys down,” he pointed out. “I practice against them, so it’s the best thing for me. Tony Bradley has been out here with us. It gives me an NBA center to go up against. We help each other get better. We have other assignees and Utah’s Two-Way guys out here and they’ve got a great young core. It’s been special for me to grow with them.”
As Reed alluded to, the competition is high and part of the reason for that is the number of NBA assignment players hitting the floor on a nightly basis. Such players arrive in town hungry, not necessarily for the same scouting eyes, but for the opportunity to play key minutes and receive valuable game experience. NBA teams make the opportunity part of their culture and advocate for the positive things young guns can take from it.
“This is just part of the process. I was drafted this year. I’m trying to learn and this is the best thing for me,” said Elie Okobo, drafted 31st in this past summer’s NBA Draft. “I’m able to become more consistent on defense and work on my play-making, and then bring it back to Phoenix.” He’s appeared in seven games with Northern Arizona, averaging 18.6 points and 7.9 assists.
Much more than a simple waiting room, those who benefit most from the NBA G League are players who understand the chance they are given to perfect their craft and find their niche, so that NBA teams can identify the right fits for their squads and bring them up to that next level. Anthony Bennett is ahead of the game, honing in to that concept early.
“The Agua Caliente coaching staff told me they’ll help me get to where I need to be,” the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft said. “They’re helping me feel confident that I can make those long-range shots over the course of a game. Playing for the Clippers has prepared me for that.” He’s shooting 48% from deep, good for fifth best among league leaders.
Much like his fellow veterans, Bennett too appreciates what the league has to offer when considering his other options. “I feel like I have the opportunity here to play and it’s close to home. Can’t go wrong with that. I feel like it’s working out for the best. I’m able to go out there, play care-free, without any weight on my shoulders. It’s a good feeling.”