The D-League is a kind of in-house project. More NBA owners are intrigued by it, and someday every NBA franchise may have a partnership with its minor-league team.
You alluded to the ultimate step, Bryan: If the D-League is to become intriguing to fans, it must serve as a training ground for future NBA stars who have graduated from high school but not yet entered the NBA draft. “When you go to a Triple-A baseball game,” an NBA executive said by way of comparison, “you know you’re seeing the stars of tomorrow.”
That won’t happen within the D-League’s current construction. Apart from the occasional rehab assignment, you won’t find a phenom of LeBron James’ status ever playing in the D-League as a rookie because he’ll be too talented and valuable to leave the NBA roster. The only way you’ll see someone like him in the D-League is if he opts to go there instead of college the year before he’s drafted into the NBA.
For the D-League to realize that potential, however, a couple of changes must be made. In the next collective bargaining agreement, the salaries for the top D-League talents must be raised from the current ceiling of $25,000. If the D-League were willing to pay a high school star, say, $100,000 in his final season leading up to the draft, he might be enticed to skip college to receive a better NBA education from professional coaches who have no limit on the amount of hours they can spend with players.
But here’s the problem: If every D-League team is affiliated with an NBA parent, which team will get to spend that year with the next LeBron before he is drafted? If he were to spend that pre-draft season with the Spurs’ D-League affiliate in Austin, Texas, rivals would complain that San Antonio received an unfair benefit.
The NBA should find a way to deal with those issues. The D-League will grow only if the NBA stops deferring to the colleges and starts competing with them.
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