The NBA G League has steadily grown throughout the years and is primed to reach unprecedented levels in 2020-21.
The league now boasts 28 team-affiliated franchises and a new elite talent squad featuring premiere young players who decide to bypass the NCAA’s rapidly outdated—and some might say, indentured servitude model—to receive better training and actual compensation.
Having a growing track record of getting athletes to the NBA and improving their game, the G League continues carving out a bigger influence in the professional basketball market.
Development Leagues’ Histories
The Continental Basketball Association and its various iterations preceded the G League.
The CBA began in 1946 as the Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League (EPBL) and was renamed the Eastern Professional Basketball League two years later. It started with five Pennsylvanian cities and Bighamton, New York (they quickly moved to Pottsville, Pennsylvania), and soon expanded to other cities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Massachusetts.
Although a fun league, the EPBL stood on the losing end of a one-sided rivalry with the NBA. They played exhibition games against each other in the 1950s and 1960s when the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks would blow out teams. The Syracuse Nationals’ 1956 defeat to the Wilkes-Barre Barons marked the EPBL’s biggest triumph.
The American Basketball Association’s formation in the late 1960s siphoned talent away from the EPBL, which rebranded itself as the Eastern Basketball Association in 1970-71.
This transformed the EBA into a regional professional league and a feeder league to the NBA and ABA.
The ABA’s financial collapse and eventual ABA-NBA merger allowed the newly formed Continental Basketball Association to sign free agents from defunct ABA teams to strengthen their league. Increasing the CBA’s talent enabled them to sign a lucrative contract with Black Entertainment Television in 1984.
The NBA made the CBA its official developmental league in 1980 through which they could sign players to 10-day contracts while compensating teams for the player’s absence. Coaches and NBA referees also could gain valuable experience from the CBA.
Some notables included Tim Legler, Mario Elie, John Starks, Manute Bol, Phil Jackson, Bill and Eric Musselman, Flip Saunders and George Karl.
The CBA collapsed after NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas and his investment group mismanaged the league into bankruptcy from 1999 to 2001. The NBA decided to start the National Basketball Developmental League in 2001 and ended its relationship with the CBA, which limped on in a reduced existence for another eight years.
G League Picks Up the Torch
The newly formed NBDL (which changed its name to the NBADL in 2005 and the G League in 2017) began with eight teams. Late NBA Commissioner David Stern knew this feeder league had great potential to increase skill and talent levels, so he executed a plan to expand it to 15 teams with each squad affiliated to at least one NBA franchise.
Now almost every NBA team has a direct affiliate outside the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers, and there have been 627 call-ups from 2001-19.
The G League has enjoyed a resounding success in which it has developed young men into solid role players and even stars throughout the years. Players a year or two away can work on their games, especially when their “home” teams are contenders. They could also sign two-way contracts to access more developmental opportunities.
For example, center Hassan Whiteside struggled to get a foothold in the NBA. He left Marshall after one year and was a second-round draft pick by the Sacramento Kings in 2010, spending most of his time with the Reno Bighorns.
After being released from the Kings, he bounced around the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Iowa Energy and two foreign leagues.
The Miami Heat gave him a chance in 2014 and he returned for a couple of months to the Skyforce.
All that hard work paid off when Whiteside stuffed the stat sheet with 23 points, 16 rebounds, two steals and two blocks during a Jan. 11, 2015, win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Whiteside has evolved into an energetic double-double machine ever since.
Eric Musselman coached Whiteside with the Bighorns from 2010-11 and said the 7’0″, 265-pound center could turn it on, especially with his shot-blocking and sharing the floor with then G-Leaguers Jeremy Lin and Danny Green. Musselman told Sam Amick of USA Today that the former first-round draft talent needed to fine-tune his focus and playing team basketball.
“(Hassan) was so young, his whole mindset was, ‘Why am I here? Why do I have to be (here)?,” Musselman told Amick.
“I don’t like it here, and I don’t want to be here.’ And so that’s why it probably took him longer for this to happen. To his credit, he did stick with it. He did go play in some obscure places around the world. … I think all these experiences have molded him, and you’re seeing a guy who’s now starting to reach his potential.”
Jeremy Lin graduated from Harvard in 2010 but went undrafted. He signed with the Golden State Warriors but spent most of his time with the Reno Bighorns. There he showed flashes with his aggressiveness and up-tempo style that was later showcased during his Linsanity days with the New York Knicks.
Lin eventually made the D-League Showcase after averaging 17.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists in eight games after the Warriors sent him back down. Musselman told SB Nation’s Wendell Maxey that Lin’s development can be attributed to Aubrey McCreary, Phil Handy and Clay Mose working on his skills development and watching film to know how to best utilize Lin’s abilities.
“In the D-League and as a staff, you owe it to the players to improve their games and make them grow as players. With Jeremy, the D-League helped his confidence explode,” Musselman said. “He had a great attitude and played so well last year at the D-League Showcase. I was surprised he ever got waived.”
Perhaps the biggest star to graduate from the G-League is Pascal Siakam.
‘Spicy P’ joined the Toronto Raptors as the 27th pick of the 2016 Draft. Despite playing two years with New Mexico State, the Cameroonian wing needed more seasoning and spent 12 games with the Raptors 905.
Siakam showed out during the playoffs where he collected 23 points and nine rebounds to help Raptors 905 beat the Rio Grande Valley Vipers 2 games to 1, winning the championship and earning Finals MVP.
Siakam has since won the NBA’s Most Improved Player and is a 2020 All-Star.
Other key players who have recently graduated from the G League include Gerald Green, Fred VanVleet, Spencer Dinwiddie, Shaun Livingston (post-injury), Alfonzo McKinnie, Seth Curry, Quinn Cook, Kendrick Nunn, Shelvin Mack, C.J. Watson, and many more.
G League Elite Team Will Draw Eyes To Product
The G League wants to poach top talent from the NCAA, and they’ve already done a good job of that this year.
G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim announced a new elite team for top incoming prospects like guard Jalen Green, forward Isaiah Todd, guard Daishen Nix and center Kai Sotto that will be mixed with G League veterans. Former NBA head and assistant coach Brian Shaw has been tabbed to be its head coach.
“The NBA is the best development system in the world, and those players shouldn’t have to go somewhere else to develop for a year. They should be in our development system,” G League president Shareef Adbur-Rahim told ESPN in April.
Abdur-Rahim said that players will get $125,000, the world’s best training, plus scholarship money to Arizona State University to be used within five years following basketball retirement.
ESPN ranks the 6’5” Green as the top 2020 college prospect with a 97 rating. The 6’10” Todd and 6’4” Nix nabbed 94 ratings, while the 7’2” Sotto is a nimble-footed leviathan gunning to become the first Filipino to make the NBA.
Green turned down offers from Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky and Villanova, while Todd and Nix de-committed from Michigan and UCLA, respectively.
Turning Point for G League
Losing players of Green, Todd and Nix’s caliber hurts the NCAA, which missed out on five-star recruit Darius Bazley two years ago to a $1 million internship with New Balance.
The NCAA has reached crisis mode due to a confluence of reduced quality of play, the coronavirus pandemic canceling conference and NCAA tournaments, and losing support from fans and government legislatures on its exploitive and archaic amateur system.
These four first-round draft prospects will receive compensation, better training and control of their social media marketing. Plus, they will be able to sign with agents.
The foursome will, in turn, draw more eyes to the G League with ESPN bound to showcase these skillful prospects.
If their 2020-21 season is successful in these endeavors, expect more top recruits to ditch the NCAA to the more equitable G League.
Bob Bajek is an award-winning investigative journalist and TBW staff writer who has extensive experience in news and sportswriting for various outlets including Bleacher Report, The Chicago Tribune and Pro Football Weekly. He firmly believes Drake spread the Gospel of Steph before his official coming… and fans need to forgive the Warriors after providing free tacos for four NBA Finals.