Opportunity Knocks In D-League

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Opportunity Knocks In D-League
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Writer's Note: Gabe Pruitt was traded to the Utah Flash on January 19.

There was Kevin Pittsnogle draining another three, Gabe Pruitt directing traffic on offense and Diamon Simpson wreaking havoc all over the court with his seemingly endless amount of energy.

Whether it was a memorable NCAA Tournament performance for West Virginia that was later commemorated with a Sports Illustrated article in the case of Pittsnogle or being named first team All-Conference for Pruitt at USC and Simpson at St. Mary’s, each of them left an indelible mark playing basketball at their respective university.

All three were in the starting line-up at the STAPLES Center on December 29th for a professional basketball game. Legendary Lakers PA announcer Lawrence Tanter was at courtside to share his transcendent voice to the crowd after every one of their baskets and Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak was on hand to keep track of their progress.    

However, instead of playing at STAPLES with teammates named Kobe and Pau, a lively sold-out crowd and a fan in the front row with sunglasses called Jack, they were running around with just 100 people in attendance trying to prove to Kupchak and other scouts that their skills and intangibles are strong enough to warrant a spot on an NBA roster.

Pittsnogle of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds and Pruitt and Simpson of the Los Angeles D-Fenders, who are owned by the Lakers, are members of the NBA Development League (D-League), which is the official minor league basketball organization of the NBA.  While baseball has had a minor league system connected with its major league teams for decades, the D-League is the first minor basketball league to be a feeder system for NBA teams, as the 17 teams are affiliated with different franchises.

The D-League is trying to create more awareness for its brand, as it recently signed a television deal with VERSUS. Created in 2001, the league boasts that 20 percent of the players on 2009-2010 NBA opening-day rosters spent some portion of their career in the D-League. Alumni include veterans such as Matt Barnes, Rafer Alston and Ramon Sessions.

While some American ballplayers still head off to Europe if they cannot latch onto an NBA squad, the D-League’s direct connection with the NBA provides an enticing reason for them not to take their talent to the other side of the Atlantic. Should a roster spot open up for an NBA franchise mid-season they can obtain a player from their D-League affiliate without the hassling of a buyout like they would have to do with a player signed for a European club.

Competing in the D-League makes it easy for scouts and GM’s of all teams to keep an eye on each player’s development. Pruitt, who was a reserve point guard for the Boston Celtics from 2007 until the summer of 2009, is using his time with the D-Fenders to display that he has improved upon the holes in his game.

“This league has given me a chance to play a lot of minutes.  I was a little more passive back then (in the NBA), now I have a better understanding of what I need to do,” Pruitt said. “My role here is to lead the team, be aggressive and vocal and make sure guys are in the right spots at right times. Once I do get up (to the NBA) I want to be there for 12, 13 years like Garnett and be an All-Star and make an impact in the NBA.”

On the other hand, Simpson is trying to crack an NBA roster for the first time. A 6’7 forward, Simpson was a defensive force in the post at St. Mary’s and captured back-to-back WCC Defensive Player of the Year awards. He departed St. Mary’s as the school’s all-time leader in rebounds, blocked shots, steals, free throws made and free throws attempted.  Although he had an offer to play in Europe, Simpson opted to play for the D-Fenders in order to stay relatively near his family from the Bay Area.

“I bring a lot of energy, a lot of craziness to the game. “[Scouts] compare me to Chuck Hayes of the Rockets, an undersized forward that gets rebounds and runs,” Simpson said. “I feel that I’m a player you don’t have to make a play for because I can make it myself, so I feel I can contribute in many ways, especially on the defensive end.”

Simpson, who is averaging 16.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game through January 12th , says it is his dream to play in the NBA and he is going full-throttle to make that dream a reality. Simpson awoke at 6am over the summer to work with his high school coach to run and work on his shooting, which was followed by weight lifting. Simpson’s work ethic has garnered the respect of the D-Fenders first year Head Coach Chucky Brown, who saw action in 694 NBA games for 12 different teams (tied for the NBA record).

“It is easy to work with someone like Diamond because he knows his weakness- the midrange jumper,” Brown said. “He comes in and works hard every day to get his technique and mechanics right.”

The D-Fenders who were 7-8 through January 12th , play their home games at STAPLES Center as well as the Toyota Sports Center in Culver City. Brown understands that not every player he is in charge of will ever grace an NBA roster, but relishes the opportunity to play a significant role in aiding a young player’s career.

“Before coaching I talked to young players who wanted to know what it takes (to make it) and it made me want to work with guys who want to get to the next level and get better,” Brown said. “I also played in the minors (CBA) and learned that once you figure out why you are there, you become better. You can’t just think about getting out and going to the NBA.”

A problem that can pop up not just in the D-League but on AAU teams are players trying to perform tasks on the court they are not capable of in order to impress either college coaches or front office members in the stands. One way Brown attempts to eliminate that hindrance is by pointing out it is not in an individual’s best interest to do so if they truly want to reach the next level.

“What I tell the guys is have scouts wondering what you can’t do, which is why I tell them to do what you do best,” Brown said. “If you are not a good outside shooter, don’t do it. They won’t know you can’t. It makes you a smarter player.”

Brown hypothesizes that the window for a young minor league player to make it into the NBA is only about two to three years.

“The window closes after awhile. Once you’re above 25, it is tougher because younger guys are coming in to compete,” Brown said.

Simpson is prepared to challenge Coach Brown’s assertion should he not achieve his goal of reaching the NBA within the next few years.   

“I didn’t feel like it (career) was over after college,” Simpson said. “I felt like I had a good opportunity and decided to chase my dream. I will pursue this dream for as long as it takes. I’m not going to set a date, just as long as it takes.”

Lawrence Tanter is not someone Simpson or Pruitt are obligated to impress to reach the NBA. However, hearing him announce their entries into the game over the sound system in front of Jack and a bevy of other Hollywood celebrities at courtside every year as members of the Lakers or a visiting team would signify both have achieved their goal of becoming NBA veterans.

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