The D-League is generally an afterthought for most NBA fans, but with an increasing number of NBA teams sending valued prospects to their affiliates this season, the league undoubtedly has its share of talent. While the D-League certainly does not provide the same competition or fanfare of its parent league, it's an excellent setting for young players to develop skills and gain valuable professional experience. Former-first round picks John Jenkins, Kendall Marshall, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lamb have already seen significant D-League minutes, as their NBA affiliate's rotations have been tough to crack. With the first month of the season complete, a number of NBA-caliber players have made their mark on the league.
No player has made more of a splash thus far than former Memphis great Chris Douglas-Roberts. CDR is making his first appearance in the D-League after three semi-productive seasons with the Nets and Bucks, during which he started a total of 53 games and averaged nearly eight points per game. Through seven games with the Texas Legends, he appears determined to make it back to the big show as soon as possible. Douglas-Roberts leads the D-League in scoring (min. three games played) at 24 ppg, to go along with four assists per game and just over five rebounds per game. In his preseason debut, the 6-7 guard tallied 49 points (16-30 FG, 15-17 FT), eight assists and seven rebounds in a loss to Santa Cruz. He has been shooting well from the field (49 percent) and behind the arc (44 percent), and can expect a call from an NBA team in the near future.
Micah Downs has showed off his all-around game so far in seven games for Maine. The former Gonzaga star is averaging 20 ppg, seven rpg and 3 apg for the 6-2 Red Claws. A once highly-touted high school recruit, Downs has bounced around considerably throughout his career, playing in Europe for three seasons and participating in several NBA training camps. His last NBA action came with Maine's NBA affiliate, the Boston Celtics, during the 2012 pre-season. If Downs can continue to show teams he can play efficiently, he may earn a call-up.
Two more free agents and former college stars, Sioux Falls'Jarvis Varnado and Rio Grande Valley's JeffAdrien, have also shown flashes of NBA potential. Undrafted out of UConn in 2009, Adrien has bounced around Europe and NBA training camps for much of his young career. He appeared in eight games for the Houston Rockets last season, and was recently called up by the Charlotte Bobcats on Dec. 9th. In five games with Rio Grande Valley prior to the call-up, Adrien averaged 18 ppg, 11 rpg while shooting 56 percent from the field. Despite the Bobcats' downright atrocious frontcourt (looking at you, DeSagana Diop), he is not likely to see many minutes and could end up back in Rio Grande Valley before long
A 2010 second-round selection of the Heat, Varnado played the last two seasons overseas. In seven games for the Skyforce this season, the three-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year has been remarkably efficient on both ends of the court. He's shooting 61 percent from the floor and grabbing eight rebounds per game, to go along with a D-League-leading 4 blocks per game. While at 6-9 he's a bit undersized, Varnado is certainly on the radar for NBA teams in need of an athletic, shot-blocking presence off the bench.
A number of recently-drafted players who are still under contract with an NBA team have enjoyed successful stints in the D-League this season, including Houston's Terrence Jones and Oklahoma City's Jeremy Lamb. The 18th and 12th overall picks in the 2012 draft, respectively, were both selected by Houston before Lamb was sent to the Thunder in the James Harden deal. Jones has played just two games for Houston's affiliate, Rio Grande Valley, but was nothing short of dominant in both. All the 6-9 forward out of Kentucky did was put up 23 ppg on 45 percent shooting and grab 18 rpg, earning a recall from Houston. Since then, however, he's seen very limited minutes and was sent back to Rio Grande Valley Friday (expected to play Saturday).
Lamb has played six games for Oklahoma City's affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers, and exhibited the scoring ability that was so often on display at UConn (23 ppg). He is not likely to crack the streaking Thunder's rotation any time soon and could spend significant time in the D-League this year. If he continues to improve his confidence and efficiency (42 percent FG), as well as add weight to his 6-5, 180-pound frame, Lamb has future NBA starter written all over him.
Both Canton's Jon Leuer and Maine's Shelvin Mack have NBA experience, but find themselves assigned to the D-League to refine their games. Mack appeared in 64 games for the Wizards last season but struggled to find his niche within the team. After John Wall's injury this summer, Washington signed Shaun Livingston to assist with point guard duties and sent Mack to the D-League. He has performed well through six games, averaging 19 ppg and 7 apg, and has shown off his ability to get to the foul line (27-27 FT his last three games). Given Washington's struggles this season, it's somewhat surprising they have not given the former Butler star a chance in the backcourt yet.
In four games for the Canton Charge, the Cavs' Jon Leuer has been even more impressive than Mack, putting up 21 ppg and 11 rpg in 34 minutes per game. He leads the D-League in efficiency amongst players who have played more than two games. The former Wisconsin star started 12 games for the Bucks last season, but needs to add weight and improve his interior defense before he'll have a major influence in the NBA.
Turning now to some prospects who have not lived up to their team's expectations, we first take a look at former North Carolina star Kendall Marshall. Sure, no one expected Marshall to step in and be the next Steve Nash for Phoenix, but his unimpressive start must have Suns fans concerned. We knew he was the best facilitator in college basketball last year, but it was how his limited offensive game would translate to the NBA that was the biggest question. In six D-League games so far, Marshall has done little to silence the doubters. In 33 mpg, he's shooting a brutal 32 percent from the field and 19 percent from outside. Though he is dishing out seven apg, he's also turning the ball over at a fairly high rate (3.5 per game). It's waaay too early in his young career to question whether he's a bust, but Marshall will have to use his time with the Bakersfield Jam to show the Suns he can be more of an offensive threat if he's going to crack their guard-heavy rotation.
Tony Wroten, the Grizzlies' 2012 first round selection, has also been a bit of a disappointment. Wroten is an extremely raw guard prospect in terms of his offensive game, but has the size (6-6, 210) to be a matchup nightmare in the future. Through five games with Reno, Wroten is shooting 32 percent from the field (including 7-31 over his last three games) and just 52 percent from the free throw line. He is very much a project player at this point for the 14-6 Grizzlies, but with his size, he could develop into a valuable piece for the franchise down the road.
Jamario Moon burst onto the NBA scene in 2007, coming out of seemingly nowhere to start 75 games for the Raptors. Since then, he's spent time with the Heat, Cavaliers, Clippers and Bobcats, before landing with the Los Angeles D-Fenders at the end of last season. So far this year, Moon has not played like himself and, at age 32, may be nearing the end of his NBA career. Through seven games for the D-Fenders, his averages in almost every category are way down. Most notably, his field goal percentage has plummeted to an ugly 38 percent and his scoring is down nearly ten points per game. Moon has always been more of a defense/energy guy, but he's going to have to show teams he has more left in the tank if he hopes to earn a call-up.
Damion James, the Hawks' first round pick in 2010, has done little to warrant his draft position since being assigned to the Bakersfield Jam. In his rookie season, James started nine games for a bad Nets team and was largely unimpressive. After appearing in just seven games last season, James has resurfaced with the Jam, but is shooting a lowly 39 percent from the field (27 percent from deep). His all-around talent and prototypical size have always intrigued teams, but James has never quite lived up to his potential. However, in nine games, James leads the team in scoring (14 ppg) and is second in rebounding (7 rpg). If he can improve his efficiency, a call-up is certainly not out of the question.
Contact Nick Whalen via email (email@example.com), or follow him on Twitter (@RealNickWhalen).