For this year’s 182 early NBA draft entrants, a record number that includes four Arizona Wildcats, the fallback option of playing in the D-League still doesn’t have great optics.
Standard salaries are either $19,500 or $26,000. Games are held in arenas generally seating four figures, and often broadcast only online. Players are required to fly commercial, forcing big men to cram into little planes en route to the league’s smaller cities.
“There’s a big difference between flying charter with Arizona and being on a United Express regional jet from Chicago to Greensboro in the D-League,” says Jeff Feld, a former UA staffer who is now manager of basketball operations for the D-League’s Windy City Bulls. “In the D-League you might play before 1,000 or 3,000 people. There’s no secret what the (college) blue bloods can offer compared to that.”
High-major schools such as Arizona also offer free education that now includes virtually every expense the second a player leaves home: The UA estimates its full scholarship and cost-of-attendance package next year at $53,590 for an out-of-state student living on campus.
But the D-League has an increasing attractiveness, too, especially with the introduction of two-way contracts beginning next season.
Those deals, essentially for up to two alternate spots on each NBA roster, can earn players with up to three years of experience low six-figure incomes next season. That’s potentially a more compelling option for developing players who want to leave school but aren’t quite ready to make an NBA roster full time, and a reason early draft entries are rising.
“We don’t know how the landscape is going to look for them, but there are going to be a lot of players who test the waters sooner than in the past, knowing every team has two (NBA two-way) spots to fill,” says Dan Holzman, a Sabino High School graduate who is general manager of Toronto’s D-League team. “Although you’ll spend the early part of your career in the D-League, you’re still under the watch of an NBA club which has taken an interest in your development.”
All D-League teams are now single affiliates of NBA teams, such as Windy City’s connection with Chicago and the Northern Arizona Suns’ with Phoenix, so its players have a chance to be seen by and work with representatives of an NBA team every day.
Plus, for those who don’t want to attend school or deal with its time demands, there’s the appeal of having basketball as a full-time job.
“I don’t think it’s even close when you talk about your options of guys who want to leave early compared with six or seven years ago, maybe even five years ago, as far as the exposure and the legitimacy that the D-League has gotten,” Feld said. “It’s just grown exponentially. The NBA teams are really valuing it and hiring coaches they really trust. It’s night and day compared to where it was.”
That may be reassuring for UA’s Rawle Alkins and Chance Comanche, should they opt to stay permanently in the draft but not make NBA teams in the fall, and maybe even more so for freshman Kobi Simmons.
While Alkins and Comanche are testing the draft and have the option to return to school until May 24 if they want to, Simmons has signed with an agent and thus has left Arizona for good.
None of those three UA players are projected first-round or high second-round picks, suggesting their chances of making an NBA roster next season are slim, but they might all be candidates for two-way contracts.
The two-way deals guarantee players $50,000. They can make a total of between $76,000 and $275,000 depending on how many days they spend with their NBA team. That is, they’ll be paid a prorated amount of $26,000 for every day in the D-League and a prorated amount of the NBA rookie minimum of $815,165 for every day they spend with the big club.
Two-way players can stay with their NBA team for up to 45 days — thus the $279,000 cap — after which they must be offered standard NBA contracts.
That’s in contrast to the usual D-League model, where a player signs a $19,500 or $26,000 contract and hopes for a prorated 10-day contract from an NBA team that can instantly double or triple his annual income.
“The two-way contract is appealing from a financial standpoint,” says Matt Brase, a former UA player and assistant coach who is now head coach of the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. “It’s an incentive to players because if a team going to give them a two-way, they know they’ll get some money as opposed to getting $20,000 and maybe never getting a call-up.
“If they want to get in it, it’s a great option because you’re in the system. There’s more investment because they’re trying to get you on their roster eventually.”
Brase’s Vipers were one of the first D-League teams to have a direct NBA affiliate, using coaches and schemes that closely mimic what its parent Houston Rockets do.
That model is everywhere now. The Suns bought their D-League affiliate in Bakersfield, California, and moved it to Prescott last fall. This season’s D-League champions, Raptors 905, has an especially tight relationship with its parent club.
Tolzman, for example, works in Toronto as the Raptors’ director of player personnel and commutes to suburban Mississauga where his D-League affiliate plays its games. The team’s name, 905, is the Mississauga’s area code.
Several of the Raptors players bounce back and forth with Tolzman, as a similar scenario plays out elsewhere around the league. In Chicago, Feld says, some guys will literally practice with the Bulls in the morning and shuttle to the suburbs to play for Windy City that night.
Also making the Bulls’ transition seamless: Windy City coach Nate Loenser was a staffer under Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State.
“He knows the system almost better than Fred does, so we ran everything to a tee as far as playbook and principle,” Feld said. “What that allowed was that when we had players (shuttling down from Chicago) on assignment, you could pretty much just plug in and play them. It was a huge advantage for us.”
Jonathan Givony, president of Draft Express, says those kinds of ties with NBA teams have made the D-League more attractive to prospects.
“Absolutely,” Givony said. “NBA teams are so much more involved now on a day-to-day basis. It’s their front office, their system, their doctors. It’s everything.”
The D-League also features what Adam Johnson, editor of D-League Digest, calls a level of play that’s “far above college basketball at this point.” While D-League crowds can be a third or less than the 14,000 or so Arizona regularly attracts, the D-League features players of all experience levels and many former college standouts.
Already, Arizona has had a number of players travel through the D-League in recent years, including second-round draft picks Nick Johnson and Grant Jerrett, plus the undrafted Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York.
“The stigma of being a D-League player is really going away now to where it’s almost part of the nature of being a young player coming into the NBA,” Tolzman says. “It’s a matter of time before every young player spends some time with a D-League team before coming to the main team. Players are becoming more accepting of that.”
But life in the D-League, even as a two-way player, comes with risks. Players are only guaranteed the $50,000 they receive in training camp and if they are cut in camp or during the season, they may have fewer options to sign an overseas contract.
The upside is a potential six-figure income and the chance to play under close supervision by the parent NBA club, and in a familiar culture.
“What we’re noticing in the D-League is that a lot of guys are turning down money overseas for the convenience of playing in the U.S., and in a system that’s as close to the NBA as you can get,” Feld said. “Obviously, the money isn’t the same, but the opportunity to play with a (direct) affiliate and be in that farm system is extremely valuable right now.
While it remains to be seen how NBA teams exactly use their two-way options, Johnson says they have the potential to benefit both parties: Players get to work in an NBA environment and learn NBA skills, while NBA clubs have only a five-figure financial risk.
“The NBA can take players with high upside, and (two-way contracts) are a low risk, high reward situation for these fringe players who might not get drafted,” Johnson said. “Teams can get a close look at them and decide if they want to keep investing in them.”
Simmons could be an attractive two-way prospect if he accepts such a deal. He was a five-star talent out of high school but fell out of the UA’s rotation during the course of his freshman year.
However, a player in Simmons’ category might shy away from a two-way deal because it would bound him to one particular club. All other D-League players, except those assigned to a D-League team while earning a standard NBA salary, are free agents who can be called up by any NBA team.
For that reason, Givony says only late second-round picks and undrafted free agents are likely to accept the two-way contracts. Players taken in the upper portions of the second round are often offered six-figure guarantees, as Houston did with UA’s Nick Johnson in 2014.
“Most are not going to go for it, because there’s not a big difference between (the standard contract of) $25,000 and (a two-way deal for) $75,000 – and if you are on a two-way contract, you’ve given up a lot of flexibility,” he said.
Still, for a younger player who is open to development, the relative certainty of being invested in and developed by one NBA team might hold some appeal.
There is a chance to grow, and be paid. At least a little more than before.
“Eventually, a D-League roster is going to be a second roster of potential players for that team, a young squad of players they’ll continue to develop,” Tolzman said. “That’s appealing for a lot of guys. If college isn’t the right situation for them, this gives them a chance to do it another way.”