Grantland really likes NBA basketball. We like it so much that bingeing on LeBron James off-the-wall dunks and Marcin Gortat “Dream Shake” Vines sometimes doesn’t cut it. We need more. That brings us to D-League Week, an examination of the innovators, also-rans, has-beens, and oddities of the NBA’s minor league. Hope you enjoy.
Stanton, Delaware, feels a long way from the NBA. It feels especially so on a snowed-in January day when the temperature is in single digits, more winter weather is expected, the streets haven’t been plowed yet, and the governor has declared a state of emergency. When I pull up to the Delaware Technical Community College campus, where the NBA D-League’s Delaware 87ers train, no one from the team is there, even though practice was scheduled to start half an hour ago.
I approach the security desk and explain that I’m looking for the Sevens. “They’re practicing today?” asks one of the guards, his Green Bay Packers Starter jacket cinched up to his neck after a round of shoveling the parking lot. “If enough of ’em show up, we’ll let them practice.” Another campus security employee asks, “Are you on the team?” I tell him I’m not. “Are you trying out?”
Moments later, team publicist Nicole Pender rolls up. “No one’s here?” she asks, whipping out her Samsung. “Nobody told me.” Pender, who is like the D-League answer to Olivia Pope, runs the Sevens’ social media accounts, writes the press releases, records the team’s game stats, handles media requests, and arranges game-time entertainment. She also helps the players get what they need, which this week includes assisting with center Kyrylo Fesenko’s search for a chef (at Fesenko’s expense). Pender had been a receptionist for the Sevens’ NBA affiliate, the Philadelphia 76ers, and she moved down I-95 for the D-League job. As for Delaware, she says it’s a little different from Philly: “I’m still adjusting.”
Practice is sorted out — the Sevens will convene later in the afternoon at one of the auxiliary gyms in the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center, where the D-League team plays its home games. In the meantime, I head back to the Sevens’ office in Wilmington. It’s a hip, exposed-brick space, formerly a meatpacking plant and still boasting much of that business’s industrial hardware. A framed action shot of Allen Iverson hangs in the conference room, which used to be the freezer. I take a seat and listen to the sales staff make a few nonaggressive customer calls. They’re not hawking tickets so much as gathering feedback from fans who’ve previously attended Sevens games. The big challenge from this side of the business is making the communities in sleepy Newark (pronounced new-ARK) and neighboring Stanton aware of the local professional basketball team.
Nicole polls the staff on where we should go to lunch; she has rarely had the time to eat outside the office before this. She asks around, looking for a good place close to the arena. We go to TGI Friday’s.
The 2013-14 season is the 87ers’ first in the D-League; previously, the Sevens had been the Utah Jazz–affiliated Utah Flash1 before the Sixers acquired the franchise and moved it to the East Coast. Gone are the black and red of the Flash in favor of clean red, white, and blue Sevens uniforms, mirroring the Sixers in look and name. (Delaware, the “First State,” ratified the Constitution in 1787.) After the franchise relocated, the Sevens conducted an expansion draft, selecting 16 players out of a designated player pool — each D-League team was allowed to protect 12. However, out of those initial 16 players, none ended up on the training camp roster. In the D-League, this kind of roster fluctuation is part of the business.
While many D-League rosters contain plenty of names familiar to those who follow college basketball, the Sevens’ lineup this season has been particularly striking because the list of players who’ve suited up for Delaware reads as if it were assembled by some crackpot aficionado of basketball novelty. It included, among others: the 5-foot-6 Baltimore street legend Aquille “the Crime Stopper” Carr, so named because the streets would clear whenever he played at the city’s Patterson High; UCLA castoff big man Reeves Nelson, whose career at Pauley Pavilion was so troubled that a Sports Illustrated story about his dorm-room pissing escapades led Nelson to sue for defamation (the case was dismissed); D-I-ineligible journeyman phenom Norvel Pelle; and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the athletic but fantastically raw older brother of the Milwaukee Bucks’ “Greek Freak” Giannis (Sevens broadcasters also call Thanasis the Greek Freak). Before the season started, the Sevens seemed to play up the somewhat sideshow nature2 of their training camp roster with press photographs of the diminutive Carr standing beside the team’s big men. But given the scant attendance at most D-League games in markets bigger than Newark, you couldn’t fault them for getting a little Bill Veeck. The Sevens might not be any good in their first year as a franchise, but their initial group promised to be entertaining.
That initial group didn’t last long. The Crime Stopper, whose imperfect attendance at team activities submerged a promising start to the season, was waived in January. Nelson, who played three games for the Sevens, was waived so the Sevens could acquire Fesenko, a burly former backup center for the Utah Jazz. Though only five members of the Sevens’ initial roster remain, they’ve added other intriguing pieces, including former Oklahoma forward Keith “Tiny” Gallon — a once blobby but agile power forward who has shed 30 pounds after a year away from the game — and bushy-haired ex-Gonzaga guard Matt Bouldin. After the Wizards cut Kendall Marshall, Marshall joined the Sevens for a scorching seven-game spree in December, one that earned him a quick call-up to the Lakers.
No player signs with a D-League franchise for the money — the salaries range from $13,000 to $25,500 — but the league has grown in profile and level of play over the past couple years. Increased involvement from the NBA has helped the D-League grow into a bona fide minor league. Sevens general manager Brandon Williams, who worked in the NBA league office before joining Sam Hinkie with the 76ers, prefers to think of the organization as a single body with two “environments” in Philadelphia and Delaware. This season, all but three D-League teams have either a direct affiliation with an NBA team or a hybrid one.
The D-League began with eight teams in 2001, and for years it was viewed as a joke compared to the parent league. Not long ago, a D-League assignment was seen as a drastic demotion — when Golden State lottery pick Patrick O’Bryant was allocated to the Bakersfield Jam in 2005, it solidified his reputation in the media as an epic draft bust. But play has improved as NBA franchises have assumed more direct roles in running D-League teams, and in recent years the portion of NBA athletes who have spent time in the D-League has risen to roughly 25 percent.
Williams sees Delaware as a lab where the Sevens can develop players who might someday “move the needle” on the Sixers. An active NBA roster player — in the Sevens’ case, former NC State swingman Lorenzo Brown — can remain on the Sixers’ active roster while getting minutes with the D-League affiliate.
“I think a great deal of what goes on at this level is to be able to answer questions,” says Sevens coach Rod Baker. “To be able to figure out whether a guy is good enough.” Before coming to Delaware, Baker coached Bakersfield for a season, after spending decades in the college and minor league ranks. “Some guys are being projected to a position that they didn’t necessarily play leading up to today,” he says. “You have to get those guys comfortable with the skills that are important for them to be successful at whatever that other position is. So you’re trying to give them something and also find out, can they do it? Is it possible, or are they just what they are?”
During the D-League draft, the Sevens made clear their intentions to work with raw talent, using their two first-round picks on Pelle and Antetokounmpo — prospects for whom the D-League would be the most organized level of hoops they’ve played. “Nothing against veteran players,” GM Williams says, “but the large majority of players should be here with some vision forward of what their career could be.”
It’s not hard to imagine the 7-foot-1 Fesenko making his way back to the NBA, but in the meantime, the Sevens are trying to refine his post moves and defense to make him a more effective backup big at the next level. For Antetokounmpo, who hasn’t played as much high-level basketball as his teammates, a lot of the work has to do with repetition. Baker and his staff are showing him the right way to shoot coming off of a pin-down screen, and then they’re making him do it again and again. “Whatever I tell him to do,” Baker said on a recent Sevens broadcast, “he does.”
With the Sevens’ emphasis on working with inexperienced, high-upside players, it’s no surprise the team has been pretty bad. Adjusted for pace, the Sevens have the D-League’s worst offense (98.9 points per 100 possessions) and the fifth-worst defense (106.3 points per 100 possessions), good for a record of 11-26. Since the arrival of Gallon and Fesenko, however, the team is looking better. The space-eating frontcourt has opened up perimeter spacing for the Sevens’ guards. The team’s first 20 games were mostly blowout losses, but since then the Sevens have been keeping games closer and winning more often. “The last month,” Baker says, “we’ve been OK.”
After lunch with Pender, I go to see the Sevens practice at the Carpenter Center. They meet in one of the facility’s side gyms, and if the players have access to University of Delaware’s locker room, they aren’t using it. Everyone dresses in the gym with the exception of Antetokounmpo, who locks himself in a closet and blasts T-Pain on his phone while getting ready for practice. Once he emerges, he calls out to assistant Tim Fanning: “You got film for me?” Fanning races over with an iPad and Antetokounmpo hunches over the tablet.
The first 45 minutes are devoted to individual skill development. On one end of the court, Kyrylo Fesenko works on finishing post moves through the simulated fouls of an assistant coach, who is whacking him with pads; on the other end, Antetokounmpo and a few other wings practice attacking in transition.
“[Antetokounmpo] is an athlete that dunks the ball, runs the court, and gets spoon-fed a couple of opportunities here or there to make an exciting play,” says Williams. “He’s being asked now to transform his game into sort of a perimeter game, to be an effective guard. So he’s being asked to pick-and-roll, he’s being asked to drive and dish, he’s being asked to be a cold ball handler when we’re pressured.”
“One quick move, none of that other shit,” assistant coach John Beckett barks at Antetokounmpo, who is whirling around in the lane, not necessarily moving toward the bucket. Despite all the activity on the court — Fesenko’s work on the block, Bouldin taking catch-and-shoot jumpers on a side hoop, Tiny Gallon catching passes on the block and finishing against a defender — my attention keeps drifting back to Antetokounmpo. He plays with a restless energy, trying to dunk whenever he gets within three steps of the basket, and his length and athleticism would make more sense in the Looney Tunes universe than the gravity-bound world in which we live. As he speeds to the goal, you know the only thing on his mind is slamming it.
After an hour, an exhausted Antetokounmpo is splayed out on the far sideline. He tells the coaches he forgot to eat before practice and he’s feeling sick. Sevens trainer Christina Kennedy offers him a Gatorade energy bar, which he appraises with skepticism before whipping it to the midcourt trainers table.
Since Carr’s departure, Antetokounmpo has become the Sevens’ biggest draw,3 thanks to his brother’s surging popularity with the Bucks, along with Thanasis’s own prodigious dunking chops. His game, for better or worse, is pure chaos. Basketball operations assistant Alex Varlan, whom Sixers GM Sam Hinkie assigned to Delaware, tells me Antetokounmpo will often be in the right spot on defense, only to race across the court to chase the ball. He’s doing a ton of stuff wrong, but when he does something right, it feels transcendent.
While Giannis has won over NBA fans with his happy-go-lucky personality, Thanasis exhibits an “older brother” vibe and a serious approach to his opportunity in Delaware. “I feel like it was the perfect decision for me to come here, to try to learn this basketball and play with other teammates,” he tells me. “Everyone is helping me learn. It’s been so difficult. I played overseas for like, five years … I have some habits.” (He could be referring to a needless goaltending violation he committed in a recent game.)
After wearing himself out and rejecting the Gatorade snacks, Antetokounmpo sits out the rest of Wednesday’s practice. When Steve Weingarten, a player who won his roster spot from an open tryout, wins the final transition drill of the session with a long 3-pointer, the Sevens huddle up and break practice. “And T,” Baker says, “remember to eat something tomorrow.” Antetokounmpo grins sheepishly.
Team employees Tyler Laurie and Varlan round up the players and they all pile into two white commuter vans. They drive back to the Valley Stream apartment complex in Newark, lodging the Sevens provide for the players. Baker lives there, too.
Two hours before that Friday night game against the Canton Charge, I sit on the sidelines with Pelle, a 6-foot-10 prospect Delaware selected with its first pick in the D-League draft. He’d been having a hard time earning extended minutes in Baker’s rotation. Before we sit down, I overhear a scorekeeper ask Baker if Norvel had played in the last game. “DNP,” Baker barks back. “Coach’s decision.”
Some hip-hop comes over the arena sound system, and Pelle starts explaining his views on hip-hop rather than his basketball career. “I like Drake, he gets to your soft side,” Pelle says. “He’s more of a soft rapper. I still respect him. Drake is Kevin Durant and Kendrick is LeBron James.” Thanks to life in sleepy Newark, it’s something he’s had ample downtime to consider.
“Fuck that!” Beckett, the assistant coach, screams from the court. “You got work to do!” He’s sweating more than all the players, and apparently he believes Pelle could be doing more with his warm-up time. Pelle gives Beckett a long look and keeps talking.
Fans of minor league baseball will probably recognize the atmosphere at Sevens home games. A number of distractions are going on besides the game, which comes packaged with two on-court emcees (one looks like the rapper Danny Brown if he grew his hair to shoulder length and straightened it). A pair of bouncy castles sit along the baseline. Next to them, a more generalized activity area houses Pop-A-Shot machines, and, since it’s Superhero Night, superhero-themed face painting. As the players warm up, they wear T-shirts featuring Captain America, Batman, and Fesenko’s favorite, Wolverine. “I wouldn’t say I have a man crush [on Hugh Jackman],” the Ukrainian big man explains, “but I enjoy his work.”
The rest of the presentation feels “minor league,” but it’s charming and well put together. A local middle school, here on a group outing, sits in a color-coded block high in the bleachers. When the team doesn’t book a special guest to sing the national anthem, the PA announcer belts it out before returning to the scorer’s table. Before the game, a mumbling Pelle grabs the microphone and thanks everyone for coming out.
When the game begins, the Sevens’ interior duo of Gallon and Fesenko creates ample space for the wings to score against Canton. Shooting guard Rodney Williams and small forward Damian Saunders consistently get to the rim and finish. Saunders, who has a smooth stroke from outside, blows by his defenders when they play him tight on the perimeter, and he finishes a few drives with thunderous, uncontested dunks. He also connects from deep three times to finish with 18 points.
While it ends up being far from Antetokounmpo’s best game as a Seven, he bounds up and down the floor, making things happen. After he commits a bad off-the-ball foul on the wing, he sends a look of contrition Baker’s way, like a high school basketball player making eye contact with his father in the stands. Later, Antetokounmpo drives to the hoop and gets fouled, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to dunk while play is dead. It almost earns him a clothesline, but you can tell he didn’t mean to show up the Charge. He just wanted to slam it.
Bouldin, who’s playing in Delaware to prove to scouts he can compete in the NBA after four surgeries on his left foot in recent years, shows why it’s been tough for Baker to take him off the floor. He dishes out nine assists while quietly pouring in 18 points and committing only two turnovers. At Gonzaga, Bouldin served as the Bulldogs’ primary scorer, but on the Sevens, he’s trying to reinvent himself as a point guard. He plays with poise and knows how to change speeds. If his shooting touch doesn’t desert him, it’s hard to imagine Bouldin not getting a look somewhere.
The Sevens breeze to a 10-point win over the Charge, and afterward, the Delaware players hang around the Carpenter Center to soak it up. On less festive nights, they’ll join the mad dash to the Chipotle on Newark’s Main Street, which closes at 10. “I’ll do better tomorrow,” Gallon tells me outside the locker room, acting playfully ashamed that he didn’t score at least 30 like he did in his two previous games. Antetokounmpo emerges from the locker room to rush into the stands and hoist a friend’s baby daughter, speaking in rapid-fire Greek and laughing. It’s the Sevens’ fifth win of the season.
Coach Baker will take the win, but then again, he says he’s never been dismayed by his team’s poor record. “You acknowledge the things that went wrong,” he says, “but if you show improvement from day to day, you can’t be mad about that. With us, there’s always been effort. I’ve never walked into the locker room or after the game and bitched and moaned about the fact that we didn’t play hard. That’s never been an issue. The first thing that’s gonna go when guys get discouraged is their effort. That doesn’t happen.”
Before the following night’s game — a rematch with Canton — I chat with GM Brandon Williams in the media lounge. He’s describing one of the Sevens’ projects, Rodney Williams, a wing who played power forward in college. “For the long term, Rodney playing 50 games as a 2-guard could be awesome when we get to the summer,” Williams says.
But on the court a half hour later, it’s clear that Rodney Williams the potential NBA shooting guard — especially with regard to his ballhandling and perimeter decision-making — remains a work in progress. Gallon seems serious about making good on his promise from the previous game, and he scores 10 of the Sevens’ first 12 points. But the Sevens’ fast start gets stalled by the Charge. Gallon and Fesenko are neutralized inside, and the outside shots from Bouldin, Williams, and Saunders don’t fall like they did on Friday.
The Charge grind out a win with a stifling second-half defense, and the Sevens sidle off the court slowly after the loss. They aren’t allowed much time to process the defeat, however, since they’re due back on the court in moments to sign autographs, which happens after every Saturday home game.
Tables are lined up on the far side of the court, and the hockey-hoodied youth of Delaware blanket the sideline. The Sevens seem to be taking the loss hard, but they make the transition to friendliness out of habit, signing programs, T-shirts caught during the game, and other Sevens curios fans have brought with them. No player leaves his seat until the line is depleted, and it appears that Antetokounmpo, who carries the strongest scent of an NBA future, attracts the most attention. It’s probably not the autograph session that many of these players once dreamed about, but they’re all good sports after a painful loss and they send the fans home happy.
I meet Matt Bouldin in the bleachers behind the basket to talk about his D-League experience. Before we start talking, two kids waddle up to him, signed memorabilia in hand, and ask him, “Where’s the Crime Stopper?” A few players, still in uniform, linger on the court.
“I’d say three or four or five years ago, I wouldn’t think the D-League got any respect,” Bouldin says. “Nobody in Europe cared about it, the majority of the NBA teams didn’t care about it. It was one of those leagues where you were like, why would anybody play here? The respect it’s getting now … I know a bunch of European teams watch almost every game. They’re interested in a lot of players here. It’s just a different world in [today’s] D-League. But there’s a lot of upside to it.”
The last time I heard from Bouldin, he was on a bus to Indiana after being traded to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants for a second-round pick in this year’s D-League draft. “Fort Wayne had wanted me since Reno,” Bouldin texted, referring to the annual D-League Showcase, held in Nevada. “It is what it is.”
For Antetokounmpo and perhaps a few other members of the Sevens, the D-League may be a stepping-stone to a stable NBA career. For most of their other teammates, it’s a chance to gain exposure in front of international scouts and perhaps play well enough to earn a better contract offer from a club in Spain, Australia, or the Philippines. For now, it’s Superhero Night, autograph Saturdays, a lot of losses, and an NBA dream that never quite gets extinguished.