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January 17, 2009
Scouting the D-League
The Top Talents in the Minors

by Kevin Pelton

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For the past week and a half, NBA teams have been able to sign players to 10-day contracts. While most of these injury replacements and fill-ins come and go, every once in a while teams will find a long-term contributor, like Houston's Chuck Hayes, in this fashion. That makes it worth casting a look toward the D-League, the dominant source of NBA callups, to take a look at the top performers by the numbers.

Point Guards

Player     Tm   Win%   WARP   Pass    TS%    Usg   Reb%

Russell   FWM   .645    3.2  11.35   .527   .202    6.8
Conroy    ALB   .597    2.9   2.53   .543   .246    6.1
Ahearn    DAK   .612    2.6   2.08   .663   .241    3.8
Baker     DAK   .550    2.0   1.64   .511   .222   10.6
Gill      COL   .596    1.9   8.24   .581   .177    7.1

Walker Russell, Fort Wayne - Russell has easily been the league's best passer this season, averaging an eye-popping 11.1 assists per game. He's also a ballhawk defensively. Working against Russell is the combination of his size (6'0") and his poor shooting. He's been in an NBA training camp (last fall with the Knicks, for whom his namesake father, an NBA veteran, is a scout) yet doesn't seem to be high on the league's radar.

Will Conroy, Albuquerque - Twice during the 2006-07 season, Conroy was called up by NBA teams (first Memphis, then the L.A. Clippers). Aside from experience, Conroy is an ideal 10-day point guard. He's a defender who can capably run an offense. Conroy has taken on a different role this year on an Albuquerque team starved for scoring, averaging a team-best 25.0 ppg.

Blake Ahearn, Dakota - A member of the Heat at the end of last season and the Spurs early this year, Ahearn is the guy to call if teams are looking for a shooter. He's making 51.8 percent of his threes so far and is serviceable at the point. Ahearn's weakness is defense, where he's limited by his size and footspeed. Despite struggling at the NBA level so far, Ahearn is bound to get another chance.

Maurice Baker, Dakota - Ahearn and Baker share ballhandling duties for the Wizards with very different styles. Baker is more of a slasher whose impressive rebounding belies his 6'1" height. His last call-up came during the 2004-05 season, though Baker might have gotten a chance last year had he not decided to play overseas.

Eddie Gill, Colorado - With Randy Livingston retired and on the sidelines with the Idaho Stampede, Gill has probably taken over as the unofficial NBA call-up leader. He's played with five NBA teams over parts of six seasons, briefly finding a home in Indiana. Gill is good enough to produce in that role, because he's an excellent passer, though not quite good enough to stick in the league.

Also: Smush Parker's attitude makes him a perpetual NBA question mark, but there's no doubt he's got pro talent and he's just two years removed from starting for a playoff team.... Mateen Cleaves is, like Gill and Conroy, a solid floor leader teams can count on coming in and accepting his role.... DeMarcus Nelson started on opening night before quickly falling out of favor in Golden State. He's played well during his brief D-League stint after being released by the Warriors and is a better long-term option than anyone else available.

Wings

Player     Tm   Win%   WARP    TS%    Usg   Reb%   Pass

Major     DAK   .647    3.4   .611   .182    8.5   0.87
White     ANA   .635    3.4   .677   .240    6.8   0.08
Karl      IDA   .634    3.2   .650   .206    6.3   1.85
Daniels   ERI   .602    3.0   .525   .275   14.4   0.31
Coleman   COL   .668    2.8   .570   .174   11.8   2.01
Jeffers   IOW   .709    2.7   .638   .215   14.1   0.17
Mitchell  LAD   .572    2.3   .545   .199   10.6   0.84
Jones     SFS   .581    2.3   .583   .212   14.1   0.13

Renaldo Major, Dakota - When Major gets called up--and it should be a matter, of when, not if--his story will be a terrific one. Having played briefly for Golden State in 2006-07, Major was headed to camp with Denver in the fall of 2007 when doctors discovered a loose valve that needed to be repaired with open-heart surgery. Having sat out the entire 2007-08 season to recover, Major hasn't missed a beat this season. At the NBA level, Major's defense will be his calling card, and he excels at taking care of the basketball given everything he does for the Wizards.

James White, Anaheim - White is famous for his dunking and his athleticism, but he wasn't enough of a basketball player to stick long with the Spurs as a second-round pick in 2006. Now there are encouraging signs that White has broadened his game, most notably his 38.2 percent (26-of-68) shooting from downtown. One question mark: How does a 6'7" forward who can jump out of the gym rebound so poorly?

Coby Karl, Idaho - A late cut by the Lakers after spending last season watching and learning in L.A., Karl has put up excellent production for the Stampede. Karl plays like a coach's son, with enough court vision to play the point in the pinch, and is an excellent shooter. The key is whether his athleticism will allow him to compete defensively and take advantage of his gifts at the other end.

Erik Daniels, Erie - Daniels is the odd man out on this list as a tweener forward. He's got the game of a post player in the body of a big small forward. That's why Daniels didn't stick despite spending a season in Sacramento after going undrafted. He has rebounded very well this season and is second in the D-League in usage. However, I don't see that he's changed his game.

Dominique Coleman, Colorado - Another tweener, Coleman has shared ballhandling duties with Gill for the 14ers. At a listed 6'3", he might have to play the point at the NBA level. Statistically, Coleman is a major defensive contributor, rebounding like a small forward and posting the league's second-best steal rate.

Othyus Jeffers, Iowa - Unless you're a big Illinois-Chicago fan, you might not know Jeffers, who played at the school for two years before being shot in the leg trying to defend his sister in a domestic dispute with her boyfriend and ending up playing NAIA ball. Improbably, he has been as productive as any D-Leaguer on a per-minute basis. Draft Express came away fairly impressed during the D-League Showcase, believing Jeffers needs to polish his perimeter game but could make it at the next level at some point.

Bobby Jones, Sioux Falls - Jones set an NBA record in 2007-08 by playing for five different teams in a single season (Denver, Houston, Memphis, Miami and San Antonio). Cut by Sacramento in training camp, Jones' D-League performance has offered no reason why he would be unable to help an NBA team with his defense and active play.

Also: UMass alum Gary Forbes is third on Draft Express' list of callup candidates. His statistics are solid, though not as impressive as the top wings by the numbers.... The small forward Marcus Williams, seen last year with both the Spurs and Clippers, has put up good defensive numbers while scoring inefficiently.... Former lottery pick Luke Jackson is hitting 40.4 percent of his threes, but his two-point percentage (43.2 percent) has been a problem.... Derrick Byars rivals Ahearn as the best shooter in the D-League, yet his game is incomplete.

Posts

Player     Tm   Win%   WARP    TS%    Usg   Reb%   Blk%

Sims      IOW   .715    3.4   .644   .220   17.4    4.6
Hendrix   DAK   .662    2.6   .584   .196   21.3    3.5
Hunter    FWM   .593    2.0   .577   .235   21.9    3.2
Lewis     BAK   .566    1.9   .609   .204   15.7    1.0
Allred    IDA   .582    1.7   .509   .233   17.3    1.6

Courtney Sims, Iowa - My vote for the D-League's midseason MVP would go to Sims, the Michigan product who had a cup of coffee with the Indiana Pacers last season. Sims has anchored the paint for the Energy this season, putting up strong numbers in every important category. Given the paucity of big men in the D-League, it's somewhat surprising Sims hasn't yet been signed. Art Garcia of NBA.com suggested at the Showcase that a call-up is right around the corner.

Richard Hendrix, Dakota - The Basketball Prospectus favorite has predictably produced at the D-League level, rebounding better than any other regular in the league, scoring efficiently in the paint and blocking shots. Remember when I mentioned the other day that Utah should be on the lookout for a backup to Paul Millsap next season? Hendrix would be a great guy to call.

Chris Hunter, Fort Wayne - Would you believe that two of the three best big men in the D-League this season played together in college? I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing for Michigan basketball. Anyways, Hunter has legit NBA size and has been highly productive this season.

Nick Lewis, Bakersfield - I'm sure I watched Lewis at San Diego, but I have no recollection of his game. The numbers make it clear that he's a solid big man who can finish in the paint. While that's useful in the D-League, it does not translate to the NBA real well.

Lance Allred, Idaho - When I looked at D-League numbers about this time last year, Allred got my MVP vote. A couple of months later, Allred was called up by the Cavaliers and got more media attention than your average 13th man because he is legally deaf and he spent his early childhood living on a polygamist compound. Allred's autobiography is due out later this year. As for the basketball, Allred has yet to regain the touch in the paint he showed last year, which is why his numbers are down.

Also: Allred's teammate Jason Ellis, a hometown favorite who played at Boise State, has developed this season into a useful rebounder and shot-blocker.... Clemson product James Mays was a guy I liked in the draft before he went undrafted, and he would make the list if not for the fact that he's played but 11 games....and that's about it as far as useful big guys in the D-League.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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