The NBA finally took player development into its own hands after decades of negligence. As a result, the G League is in full bloom.
Both the players and owners saw the potential in a revamped developmental system and fully committed to the process with the latest collective bargaining agreement, which paved the way for bigger G League salary budgets and expanded rosters to include two slots for two-way contracts. More money means more talent and the investment is already paying dividends.
Six franchises were added last summer, and another is scheduled to open in Washington D.C. That will leave the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, and New Orleans Pelicans as the only teams without an affiliate by the 2018-19 season. There’s even widespread speculation Mexico City will receive a team.
The blueprint for a successful G League franchise was created by teams such as the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Toronto Raptors. Those four teams have collectively graduated more than a dozen rotation players from the G League level in recent seasons, which has prompted the rest of the NBA to follow their model.
And that model allows teams to improve their squads - with players who may have been previously unavailable - to an extent that hadn't been seen until now.
Put yourself in the shoes of an undrafted senior or a former first-round pick who flamed out in their initial go-round.
These players likely hope to stay stateside and work on their game to eventually cut it at the NBA level, but their options were previously limited. The base G League salary ranges from $20,000 to $26,000, which is basically equivalent to a minimum wage job. Even with all the perks of per diems and shoe endorsements, that’s a hard lifestyle, especially when you're constantly on the road. And for many, earning upwards of seven digits in Europe or China while being the proverbial bigger fish in a smaller pond made a lot more sense.
The two-way contract was designed to bridge the gap. Those signed will receive $76,000 as a base salary and could earn up to $245,000 if they spend their allotted cap of 45 days after being called up to the NBA. Teams can also convert their contract into a year-long deal at the league minimum if they want to extend their trial.
This allows NBA teams to retain more of the local talent instead of losing them to other leagues overseas. Players no longer assume all the risk of chasing their dreams.
“When you look around the league, a lot of the two-way contracts, it’s a lot of guys who wouldn’t be here otherwise. I think it’s a way for the NBA to keep talent here, develop talent, and get these guys contracts that would keep them,” Lakeland Magic general manager Anthony Parker told theScore at the 2018 G League showcase.
The Magic have used their two-way contracts on prospects who need just one or two more skills to make the league, such as Adreian Payne and Jamel Artis, who have both been called up for some action in the NBA this season. Payne is a former first-round pick with the size and tools to be effective but has lacked consistency, while Artis is a well-rounded senior out of Pittsburgh who can become a 3-and-D piece if he sharpens his 3-point shot.
Parker understands the value of development better than most. After a slow start to his NBA career, Parker spent most of his prime playing overseas for Maccabi Tel Aviv. His success in the Israeli Super League ultimately paved the way for his return to the NBA as a key starter in two Raptors playoff runs while in his early 30s. Had the two-way contract been around when he was playing, Parker may have never left.
“From the players’ perspective, it’s more palatable if … it doesn’t come down to $20,000 or what you get overseas. For players, especially younger players that are a year or two out of college, that are giving the dream a shot, it keeps you around and then you can make a decision after that," Parker said.
Teams are also using two-way contracts to bolster their depth, adding older players who are already performing near NBA level instead of grooming prospects who are still years away. With 45 days to work with, the two-way contract has essentially become an alternative to the 10-day deal, but with more familiarity and continuity.
The Los Angeles Clippers have found the most success with this strategy. While it was more a product of circumstance, as they were beset by injuries for the umpteenth time, the trio of Jamil Wilson, C.J. Williams, and Tyrone Wallace have all made steady contributions to keep the team around .500 with various starters missing time.
Williams, a 27-year-old swingman, has already made 13 starts and hit a game-winning three, while the 23-year-old Wallace is off to a blistering start that includes a 22-point game against the Warriors and a game-clinching steal against the Kings.
"We got different strategies. We’re not geniuses, we lucked out in a way where we had guys who were prepared to play with all the injuries we had with the big club. If we had developmental players who weren’t ready to play, it wouldn’t be a success story with our two-way guys, but we identified two guys who were older rookies," Agua Caliente Clippers general manager Dee Brown told theScore.
A longstanding shortcoming of the Clippers was that they failed to unearth productive players to fill their rotation on a budget. They cycled through an exhaustive list of over-the-hill vets, desperately splashed picks on gambles such as Jeff Green, and assumed bad contracts, like that of Lance Stephenson, in hopes of adding depth. But in just one year of the two-way system, the Clippers have already found more success.
"It’s good that Doc Rivers trusts us. They trust our guys in the G League, our coaching staff, the decisions we make on how we acquire players, and how we get them that he’ll put them in the game. People understand that the G League is a development league, but the last part of development is playing," Brown said.
The Warriors and Raptors have also used two-way contracts to bolster depth in times of injury. Quinn Cook gave the Warriors some steady backup point guard minutes when Stephen Curry missed time with an ankle injury, and Lorenzo Brown did the same with the Raptors when Delon Wright and Kyle Lowry missed time.
When asked how the two-way deal has impacted the talent level in the G League, Raptors 905 coach Jerry Stackhouse told theScore: "It made it that more talented, with a couple more NBA talent guys that people identified, or are right there, on the cusp of being NBA players. I think Lorenzo Brown is an NBA player."