During the transition from drills to scrimmage, Ron Houston, a 6’3” guard out of Cal State Monterey who went undrafted in 2009 , wearing a number 6 on his borrowed Santa Cruz Warriors jersey, jogged over to the media chairs for a water bottle that he had stuffed in his street shoe for safe keeping.
A journalist offers an apology and does that awkward side scoot to allow better access and Houston just smiles and says “nah, it’s all good,” as he reaches under that chair to retrieve his water. As he stands back up and begins to unscrew the cap, a loud whistle blows from the other side of the gym; And Houston, without any hesitation at all, promptly reverses direction and twists the cap back on. No time for even taking a sip of his water, he hustles across the gym to join the huddle for the start of the day’s main scrimmage.
When I think of the NBA D-League, I generally think of players like James MacAdoo or Ian Clark, primarily NBA players who bounce back and forth between the NBA equivalent of the majors and minors so that they can get that oft-praised “court time.” It’s a chance to play five-on-five basketball against the best talent available outside the NBA. Today’s gym session wasn’t about those players, but instead about the opposite end of the D-League spectrum: players working to crack the barrier and get into the D-League (and hopefully—eventually—the NBA).
Make no mistake, these players are all incredibly skilled. Any one of them would be unstoppable on 99 percent of the courts in the world, but here, in the margins, they are focused on development. Improving themselves and showing that they belong among the very elite basketball talents of the world, and the D-League is the next hopeful step in that journey.
Houston may be jogging back to the court before he can take a sip of water today, but last year he was playing professionally in Germany. He’s one of 18 young men invited by the Santa Cruz Warriors to participate in what they are calling an open tryout.
Compared to last year, with close to 90 invitees, this year’s effort is much more focused, designed to give the Santa Cruz Warriors a personal look at a manageable number of prospects. Still though, in typical D-League style, nothing will come easy for these players as they fight their way towards their goals. Assuming one is selected as a result of today (a decision which will be announced on Wednesday), their name is just entered as being eligible for the D-League draft on October 30th. There’s no guarantee that succeeding here today will get them unto a team, much less the team in Santa Cruz.
For the uninitiated, the draft and roster-making process in the D-League can be a bit difficult to follow. Rather than cover all the minutiae here, I’d refer you to the excellent DLeagueDigest. For now, just realize that from here until the end of October, D-League teams are working to finalize their rosters. Some of the players in the here will be returning incumbent players while others will be players that have gone back and forth between the NBA (players like our very own Cameron Jones, for example).
One of the more intriguing prospects here today is Robert Swift, a 7-foot former 1st round draft pick with all sorts of interesting ties to the Warriors family and an even more interesting back story. Now 30 years old, he is on the cusp of making it back to the NBA and like every player out there today, seemed very comfortable living in the moment. After the game, when asked about his play, Swift couldn’t stop talking about setting screens and rebounding.
One of his teammates who benefited from those screens was another player that caught plenty of attention with his play today. Jay-R Stowbridge, listed at just under six feet tall, made his case for consideration by playing fast and under control, forcing a couple of key turnovers and converting a number of baskets from all over the court while running the offense as only a “true” point guard can. After the game, he thanked the big man by telling Swift, “I’ve never been so open.” Seeing them out there, it was easy to imagine them both eventually fitting in not just in Santa Cruz, but perhaps in the NBA.
Forget the logistics for a moment, today was about the chance to make it. For guys chasing their dream of playing professional basketball, it’s just another opportunity to open a door. They don’t necessarily focus on when or how their next contract is coming. Swift said “[it’s] amazing to be out there ... to be given the chance to come out, and play with people of this caliber” without a trace of entitlement.
This is a guy who spent years in the NBA yet goes out of his way to heap praise on the other players out there competing for the same limited number of roster spots. He doesn’t care about background stories, these players are all just young men chasing the same dream, and there’s a certain brotherhood in doing so.
And that may be what’s so endearing about covering the D-League. There’s a purity of heart for these players, and it spills into the coaches and organization. Perched right on the edge of achieving their long-held dreams, there’s not a trace of hubris or arrogance here. For players on the marginal edge of the NBA talent pool, they seem to really treasure this experience, more so than they appear to be concerned about getting a contract.
When I asked him to talk about how playing at his size is both an advantage and a disadvantage, Stowbridge deferred to something internal, “It’s just inches, small inches. What are the inches, what are the differences? For example, Kenneth Faried, he’s not the most skilled, but he makes it up with effort.”
I think Stowbridge made a point that encompasses what the D-League is for and what makes it the source of many of the most riveting storylines. Some of these players are going to end up in the NBA, but that’s almost secondary to the broader challenge these players have faced on their path to achieve their dreams.
On this rainy Sunday, some of them took a step closer to that reality, but all of them were happy just to be walking the path. As we watch players like Phil Pressey and wonder if they will make this year’s Golden State Warriors team, maybe we should also spare a thought or two for the Ron Houstons and Robert Swifts of the D-League as well. Perhaps we will be seeing them in a Golden State Warriors uniform sometime in the near future.