Twenty-two of the NBA’s 30 teams have D-League affiliates this season, and that number appears set to increase to 25 for the 2017/18 season. As a result, NBA clubs are assigning players to D-League affiliates and recalling them from those assignments at a greater rate than ever.
Since most NBA teams own and operate their own D-League affiliate, those NBADL clubs are being used more and more for developmental purposes. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that so many of 2016’s draft picks have been sent on D-League assignments this season. Still, the number of first-rounders who have seen D-League action is a little higher than anticipated.
Three of 2016’s first-round picks remained overseas, and one – Ben Simmons – has been injured all season. Of the other 26 first-rounders, 16 have been assigned to the D-League at least once, and many of those players have spent extended time with NBADL squads.
Here’s the full list of 2016 first-rounders who have been on D-League assignments this season:
- Toronto Raptors: Jakob Poeltl
- Atlanta Hawks: Taurean Prince
- Sacramento Kings: Georgios Papagiannis
- Chicago Bulls: Denzel Valentine
- Denver Nuggets: Juan Hernangomez
- Memphis Grizzlies: Wade Baldwin
- Detroit Pistons: Henry Ellenson
- Denver Nuggets: Malik Beasley
- Atlanta Hawks: DeAndre’ Bembry
- Sacramento Kings: Malachi Richardson
- Philadelphia 76ers: Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
- Los Angeles Clippers: Brice Johnson
- Toronto Raptors: Pascal Siakam
- Sacramento Kings: Skal Labissiere
- San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray
- Golden State Warriors: Damian Jones
Some of these players have held rotation roles for a good chunk of the season with their respective NBA clubs, and have only appeared sparingly in the D-League. Poeltl, Hernangomez, and Siakam are among the players whose NBADL stints have been extremely brief.
However, many 2016 first-rounders have spent much of the season improving aspects of their game in the D-League. Papagiannis, Baldwin, Ellenson, Labissiere, Murray, and Jones have all appeared in at least 15 NBADL games, and some of those players have made a real impact for affiliates.
Murray, for instance, has filled up the score sheet for the Austin Spurs, averaging 17.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 6.2 APG, and 2.0 SPG in 15 games for San Antonio’s D-League affiliate. Ellenson has recorded 17.3 PPG and 9.1 RPG for the Grand Rapids Drive, and they’ve played better when he’s in the lineup — the Drive are below .500 for the season, but 11-5 with Ellenson active.
It’s also worth noting that those teams playing their first-rounders most often in the D-League are all clubs with their own affiliates. The Kings, Pistons, Spurs, and Warriors are geographically adjacent to their NBADL teams, while the Grizzlies have a relationship with the Iowa Energy.
The NBA will never be a league like Major League Baseball, where even the highest draft picks generally spend a few years in the minor leagues before making any impact at the highest level of the sport. But NBA teams are increasingly using their D-League affiliates like minor league squads, sending their top picks to the NBADL to learn their systems and to play major minutes before throwing them into the fire in the NBA. It will be interesting to see how D-League expansion and the league’s new two-way contracts continue to shape that trend going forward.