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Suns' Rookies Highlight D-League Opener

While most basketball fans were probably busy enjoying a quality slate of NBA games or the opening night of college basketball yesterday, Friday also marked the beginning of the 2014-15 D-League season. Rookie first round picks T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis took the floor for the Bakersfield Jam and made a nice impression on opening night. While Bakersfield lost to the Texas Legends 127-125, it certainly wasn’t because of the play from the rookies.

On Bakersfield’s first field goal of the game, Ennis blew by a defender and found a cutting Warren for a bucket – a play Phoenix eventually hopes to see at the NBA level. The duo started 7-of-7 from the field and provided plenty of excitement in the opener.

Although Warren had seen just one minute in the NBA, he proved why he was worth the lottery selection. The 6-foot-8 small forward scored 40 points while shooting 16-of-27 from the field, 3-of-7 from three-point range, and a perfect 5-of-5 from the free throw line. He added another six rebounds, three assists, three steals, and three turnovers.

Warren got off to a hot start, with 12 points in less than six minutes of action, and made his first five attempts from the field. He was most effective in transition, as he loved using a right to left euro step to draw contact and finish at the rim. Warren made a pair of and-one finishes and showed his athleticism with a soaring dunk early on. He moved well without the ball and made a floater with 15.5 seconds left to cut the deficit to one. Warren had a bit of everything in his scoring arsenal, but showed improvements as a jump shooter.

As the 14th overall pick out of N.C. State, Warren was known as a pure scorer. He averaged 24.9 points per game as a sophomore while shooting 52.5% from the field. The major question came in his shooting ability, as he averaged less than one made three-pointer per game and shot just 26.7% from behind the arc. On Friday, he had no issues finding his offense and his 3-of-7 display from deep showed potential.

Ennis had a solid night of his own. The 6-foot-2 point guard scored 25 points on 11-of-23 shooting along with six rebounds, five assists, four turnovers, and three steals. He showed growth as a mid-range shooter, making 5-of-7 mid-range jumpers, but was just 1-of-5 from three-point range.

After a stellar freshman campaign, Ennis declared early for the draft and the Syracuse product will have a tough time finding NBA minutes in a crowded Phoenix backcourt. He’s played 18 minutes this season, but averaged more turnovers than points per game early on. As a 20-year-old rookie, Ennis will certainly be in Phoenix’s long-term plans and Friday’s contest showed why.

He’s a crafty ball handler that used a spin move to attack the basket on multiple occasions and did a good job setting up his teammates. Ennis uses screens effectively on the offensive end, but will need to work as a defender, especially in his pick-and-roll defense. He can lead an offense, but his lack of elite athleticism could hurt him against quicker guards.

The rookie tandem formed a nice 1-2 punch in Bakersfield’s first game as the Phoenix Suns single affiliate. With the new affiliation, Phoenix will be able to manage the minutes of its young prospects while incorporating its own system. It looks like a nice investment with so much young talent on the roster.

Warren and Ennis are only expected to be in Bakersfield for one more game before joining Phoenix on an East Coast road trip, but look for some assignments throughout the year. The Suns used a similar method with Archie Goodwin, who averaged 24.3 points per game in five games with the Jam last year. With an array of young prospects and a new affiliation, Bakersfield will be a team to follow this season.

Pierre Jackson's Rookie Season: Everywhere Except The NBA

Pierre Jackson had a huge opportunity ahead of him. After being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, the 5-foot-10 point guard was given a chance to receive his first NBA contract during the 2014 Orlando Summer League. With a good showing in the five-game event, Jackson would be able to impress the organization enough to earn the coveted prize of an NBA roster spot.

In Philadelphia’s opening game on July 5th, the 76ers faced the Orlando Magic. Jackson did not start and missed his first two shots when he entered during the middle of the first quarter. He started with a missed three-pointer from the left wing and then had a floater swatted out of bounds.

Jackson scored his first bucket at the 2:08 mark of the opening quarter on a fastbreak layup. Two possessions later, he hit a three from the right wing. On the next play, he converted a steal into fastbreak layup. He was starting to heat up.

But on the following possession, he went to receive a hand-off at the top of the key and pulled up hobbling, unable to put any sort of pressure on his right foot while hopping around on his left leg. He tried to limp off, but was in too much pain to stand. Play continued around him as he was on the ground wincing in pain. He had to be carried off the court while Jackson’s facial expression revealed that this was not some sort of twisted ankle.

It was soon discovered that Jackson ruptured his Achilles.

*****

Jackson grew up in Vegas, an area that isn’t known as a hotbed for NBA talent. He attended Desert Pines High School where he was a three-year letterman on the varsity basketball squad. Jackson rose onto the scene during his senior year, as he averaged 21.1 points per game and dished the most assists in the state of Nevada. He was named first-team all-state while Desert Pines finished the season 22-7. His high school career was so impressive that he had his No. 5 jersey retired in 2012.

“I tell a lot of people he is the best to come out of Vegas, and they just look at me like I’m crazy,” Jackson’s high school coach, Chancellor Davis, told Ray Brewer of the Las Vegas Sun in 2012. “I was saying that not just because I was his coach, but because I played against him every day in practice. If he was 6-2, he would have been the best recruit in the nation.”

Jackson didn’t qualify academically out of high school and attended the College of Southern Idaho for his next two seasons. In his sophomore year, he averaged 18.6 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. The explosive floor general was named the NJCAA Division I Player of the Year and led the Golden Eagles to a NJCAA National Championship.

After receiving scholarship offers from Baylor and Creighton, Jackson chose Scott Drew’s Baylor program in Waco, Texas.

“Jackson is big time,” Brad Winton of JucoRecruiting.com said in an article written by Clint Jackson of TarHeelIllustrated in 2011. “He’s definitely more of a scorer. Almost like a shooting guard type of player. He’s just so quick, 5-10 and about 175, so naturally there are questions about his size but he’s just such an explosive leaper and just blows by people with his quickness and change of direction. He can really get up and finish.”

As a junior, Jackson made an immediate impact for Baylor. He averaged 13.8 points and 5.9 assists per game as the Bears reached the Elite 8. In his following season, Jackson led the Big 12 conference in scoring (19.8) and assists (7.8) per game, becoming the first player to lead a power conference in both categories since Arizona’s Jason Terry back in the 1998-99 season.

Baylor missed the NCAA Tournament during Jackson’s senior season, but he still ended his collegiate career on a high note – winning the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) after scoring 17 points and dishing 10 assists in the title game. He earned MVP honors as Baylor defeated Iowa, 74-54.

Despite proving at every level that his size wasn’t an issue, the NBA evaluation process was a much different scenario. If drafted, Jackson would be facing grown men over a foot taller than him. Even the point guards he would need to guard were usually five inches taller.

Jackson measured at the NBA combine standing 5 feet, 10.5 inches with only a 5 foot, 10 inch wingspan. It was reported that Jackson had a 42-inch vertical leap at the Brooklyn Nets’ draft combine, but his lack of size and length was a major concern for NBA teams. His 3.4 turnovers per game also made organizations question his decision making as a point guard.

In an ideal scenario, Jackson could become a similar version of Nate Robinson, the 5-foot-9 athlete who was known as a streaky scoring threat as a point guard. Like Jackson, Robinson had out-of-this-world athleticism, shown in his three NBA slam-dunk contest titles. There were similarities, but a player under six-feet tall achieving NBA success was a rarity.

The Philadelphia 76ers selected Jackson with the 42nd overall pick in the NBA Draft; however, he was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans as a part of the biggest trade that occurred in the 2013 draft. The Sixers decided to trade All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and Jackson to the Pelicans in return for rookie shot blocking center Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first round pick.

Although the trade occurred on draft night, June 27th, it didn’t become official until July 12th. This became an issue because Jackson, like most rookies, was slated to compete in his first summer league in Las Vegas. The event ran from July 12th, the day the trade became official, until July 22nd. This meant that Jackson missed all of the pre-summer league practices and the first game of the tournament.

Missing a game in the NBA may not be a big deal, but for a rookie second round pick competing in a five-game event, there was now added pressure to perform.

Jackson finally made his professional debut in the Las Vegas Summer League on July 14th against the Milwaukee Bucks, but it certainly wasn’t the homecoming he was hoping for. He made only one of his seven field goal attempts and added a pair of free throws to score four points. He finished with three assists and three turnovers in 17 minutes.

The following game against Cleveland was forgettable as well. Jackson was 1-of-4 from the floor and finished with only two points. He added five turnovers compared to two assists in 12 minutes of action.

To make matters worse, Jackson came down with pinkeye during the middle of the week, forcing him to miss another game. With only one game remaining, Jackson decided to participate despite still having clear inflammation in his left eye.

In New Orleans’ final game of the Las Vegas Summer League, Jackson had five points on 2-of-3 shooting in 11 minutes along with a rebound, assist, steal, and two turnovers. It was his best showing of the week, but still didn’t salvage his previous two performances. He finished his first summer league with a Player Efficiency Ranking in the negatives.

On July 27th, only eight days after playing his last game in the 2013 NBA Las Vegas Summer League, Jackson signed with the French team ASVEL Villeurbanne, but never actually played a game overseas. He left the team in September, citing homesickness, and returned to the United States.

Jackson entered the NBA Developmental League draft and faced a peculiar predicament. Although his rights were still owned by New Orleans, he was eligible to be drafted by any D-League team because of the contract he signed in France.

The Idaho Stampede – affiliated with the Portland Trailblazers at the time –selected Jackson as the fourth overall pick and he returned to his normal form. In his season debut, Jackson had 29 points, five rebounds, and three assists. Idaho opened the season 8-0 as Jackson averaged 30.9 points, five assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game. He also had a pair of performances in the win streak where he eclipsed the 40-point mark.

Jackson continued to excel in the D-League. He was so quick with the ball in his hands that time seemed to freeze when he used a momentary hesitation move. When he was feeling it, Jackson scored in bunches. On February 4th, Jackson broke the D-League scoring record with 58 points on 24-of-33 shooting and a 7-of-13 display from three-point range. He had eight assists, six rebounds, and only two turnovers in the same game.

With the way Jackson was playing, it was shocking that the struggling Pelicans didn’t offer a 10-day contract to its budding minor league prospect. The 10-day contract, a common deal received by D-League prospects, gives an NBA organization a chance to evaluate a prospect within its own system. At the start of February, fifteen other D-League prospects were called up to play in the NBA, but Jackson remained in Idaho.

Jackson’s situation was much different than most of the D-League prospects. Unlike most D-Leaguers, who are free to sign with any NBA team, Jackson could only receive a call-up from the Pelicans because they still owned his draft rights. Despite his averages of 29.1 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game, Jackson was stuck in the D-League.

As the February 20th trade deadline approached, Jackson grew frustrated with his situation. He was the top prospect in the D-League and a call-up did not seem on the horizon. Jackson requested a trade, but the Pelicans didn’t make a deal as the deadline passed.

Later that day, Jackson signed a contract with Fenerbahçe Ülker in Turkey. He played in six games, averaging 4.3 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per contest in only 10.3 minutes of action. Jackson and the Turkish team parted ways on April 11th.

“I came into a team that was struggling, and I was a pretty hot topic in the states, but a role was never specifically given to me,” Jackson told Gino Pilato of DLeagueDigest.com. “I wasn’t able to showcase what I wanted to do. So, ultimately the team and I decided to part ways. It was still a good experience for me, I mean, I got to meet and work with the God of coaching (Zalijko Obradovic) over there.”

After quite an eventful rookie season, Jackson was still on New Orleans’ radar. General manager Dell Demps said in an article by John Reid of Nola.com after Jackson left Turkey, “He’s an interesting one. He played really good in the D-League. I think he was the leading scorer. We’ve followed him and been in contact with him. When we made the trade last year, we knew we were giving up our draft pick and we kind of looked at him as our draft pick for this year. So we have his draft rights and he’s going to be experienced, a little bit older. Can I promise Pierre Jackson is going to be on our team next year? I can’t say that right now. But he’s definitely an asset. I want to make sure I say that. He’s done everything and exceeded expectations.” 

Seen as an “asset” without a roster spot, Jackson needed to show that his previous summer league experience was a fluke. He was training with the New Orleans Pelicans preparing for the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League.

“I didn’t have a good summer last year, not being as healthy as I wanted to and the trade deadline and stuff like that,” Jackson said during New Orleans voluntary workouts in June. “So this summer’s big for me, big for my family, and I just want to make the best of it.”

But before Jackson could make another appearance in the Las Vegas Summer League, he was traded back to the 76ers on draft night. The Pelicans exchanged Jackson for Louisville point guard Russ Smith, another undersized yet ultra athletic floor general.

“I see myself as a spark,” Jackson said in a welcoming press conference to Philadelphia. “I like to play off the crowd and I always try to get the crowd involved. A team can always use energy. I want to be that burst of energy.”

While it was comforting that Philadelphia was willing to make a move for Jackson, he still had to prove himself in the Orlando Summer League. Philadelphia had Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams starting at point guard with Tony Wroten coming off the bench to play either guard spot, but the 76ers were definitely looking for another point guard to run the offense. Jackson was given the opportunity to be that guy.

*****

Jackson suffered the injury to his right Achilles and his career remained in limbo. Philadelphia would need to offer Jackson a contract to keep his draft rights, but as a borderline player who now suffered a crucial injury, an agreement seemed unlikely.

However, on July 24th, only 19 days after his injury, Jackson was offered a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $400,000. It was Jackson’s first NBA contract.

“Lost for words! Can’t even begin to describe the feeling I have right now just knowing that I’m actually wanted to be apart of something that can be so special in the near future!!” Jackson posted on Instagram. “Out of my many reasons to get back right and back to killing on the court this just added another HUGE reason! All I got are tears of joy smh!”

Not only will Jackson receive the NBA contract, Jake Fischer of Slam.com reported that Philadelphia will also cover his costs for surgery and rehab. While Jackson may not see the floor this season, his hard work has been rewarded while the 76ers invested their faith into his return.

With the rebuilding process underway, Philadelphia has a hungry point guard ready to prove himself upon his return. He’s undersized vertically, but compensates with an unmatched passion for the game. 

Follow @Cameron_Schott

Troy Daniels Rewards Rockets, Proves Detractors Wrong With Game-Winner In Game 3

In the middle of training camp in October, Troy Daniels listened to the Charlotte Bobcats’ front office inform him of his release. He was a prolific shooter at Virginia Commonwealth, a positive soul and a hard worker, and here was the Bobcats’ reasoning for cutting the undrafted Daniels: Too short, a point guard-shooting guard tweener.

For a night, Daniels justified his standing, draining three 3-pointers and the game-winning three-pointer in the Houston Rockets’ 121-116 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3 on Friday night. This was Houston’s season – a 3-0 series deficit staring them all the way into an offseason filled with regret and questions surrounding coaches and players.

Everyone understood the shooting prowess in Daniels, but no one plucked him out of the NBA Development League like the Rockets in February. They signed him to a non-guaranteed contract through 2015-16, an investment to reward his play with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, whom Daniels remained with in agreement with Houston after it also released him before this season.

Two months later, Daryl Morey’s acquisition paid dividends in the most ultimate way. Daniels isn’t a pure point guard and steady defender yet, but that’s why Houston has Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley.

By releasing Ronnie Brewer to create roster space for Daniels, perhaps the Rockets feared some franchise was bound to beat them to the deadeye shooter. He was their own, too, helping implement a transformative playing style in the D-League, with an emphasis on launching three-pointers because, well, they’re worth more than two.

In the end, the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic closely monitored Daniels and had interest in him before his deal with the Rockets, leagues sources told RealGM. And yet, these Rockets were the recipients of Daniels’ 3-of-6 shooting from three-point range, honoring his four collegiate seasons and commitment to the Summer League and D-League route to the NBA.

“It’s a dream come true,” Daniels said at the interview podium after Friday's game.

The Rockets have utilized Rio Grande Valley for serious roster development and invest in the minor-league franchise to grow players for the main organization. They sell players on the Vipers’ system, the environment they’ve created with coaches.

Daniels averaged 21.5 points and made five three-pointers while attempting 12.5 with Rio Grande Valley, and this is exactly why Kevin McHale turned to the 22-year-old rookie in Game 3: his shooting is special. The Rockets had been reeling through Games 1 and 2, receiving poor performances from James Harden and the bench, but Harden went for 37 points and Lin and Daniels combined for 22 critical points on Friday.

The Trail Blazers kept coming back, and Damian Lillard was brilliant and took advantage of mismatches. They forced overtime despite trailing by double digits early in the fourth quarter, but LaMarcus Aldridge missed all three shot attempts after regulation. For the Rockets, the Blazers’ frontcourt allows them to use Dwight Howard and Omer Asik together, big men able to provide length on Aldridge.

Suddenly in overtime, Lin probed the lane out of desperation and a scramble situation, when he found a streaking Daniels wide open and aired the ball out to the 6-foot-4 guard. Without hesitation, with Aldridge closing out, Daniels rose, fired his smooth jumper and rattled in the go-ahead shot with 11 seconds left.

One by one, they all mobbed him, Harden and Chandler Parsons, Josh Powell and Beverley. The Rockets were on the brink of an upset to a younger, more inexperienced team, on the brink of a 3-0 hole, and Daniels revived the season and restored their promise in this series.

“A couple weeks ago, [Daniels] was in the D-League,” Harden told reporters. “He saved our season.”

It’s simply one jumper, people will say, but clutch shots in the postseason have enhanced careers and padded résumés in the past, and they’ll continue to.

An inch too short, Daniels had heard in training camp. For him, Friday was all part of his goals. This was his job. Other teams paid close attention as Daniels’ three-point totals flourished in the D-League, but no one made the signing. Season on the line in Game 3, and the Houston Rockets found their hero: Troy Daniels.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (April 14-April 21)

On Isaiah Canaan, Lance Goulbourne, Cameron Jones, Tre Kelley, Darius Morris and Sadiel Rojas.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (April 7-April 13)

On the strong weeks by Seth Curry, Darius Morris, Patrick Christopher, Troy Daniels, Cameron Jones, Ognjen Kuzmic and more.

Searching For Journeymen

Amidst the D-League hopefuls and marginal talent, a few players have proven themselves as NBA caliber, and deserve to have roster spots either with the Sixers or with another franchise.

The Draft Deadline

The crucial earning years for a basketball player aren't their early 20's but their late 20's, when they are in the prime physically. At that point, it's not about whether they maximized their draft position but whether they developed their game and maximized their earning potential before they start to decline.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Mar. 31-Apr. 6)

Great weeks for P.J. Hairston, Patrick Christopher, Justin Brownlee, Ike Diogu, Scott Suggs, Kevin Murphy and more.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Mar. 24-Mar. 30)

On Micah Downs' great week, along with strong showings from Ricky Ledo, Lance Goulbourne, Josiah Turner and Shawne Williams.

RealGM's D-League Wrap-Up (Mar. 17-Mar. 23)

On the call-ups for Seth Curry and James Nunnally, Ike Diogu's trio of double-doubles, and the five-star performers of the week.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Mar. 11-Mar. 17)

On the excellent week for Shawne Williams, along with Five-Star performances for Josh Akognon, Frank Gaines, Daniel Orton, Henry Walker and more.

Michael Curry Envisions Standardized And Universal Player Development Model

Developing great basketball players require coaches such as Michael Curry who can see beyond the basketball court and can look at each player as much more than just a basketball player, but a representative of the organization, institution and community.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Mar. 3-Mar. 10)

On Manny Harris, Tiny Gallon, Damion James, Cameron Jones, Willie Reed and more from the D-League.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Feb. 24-Mar. 2)

On Jae Crowder's excellent week, a thriller between the Legends and D-Fenders featuring 11 players with NBA experience, several Call-Ups and more.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Feb. 17-Feb. 23)

On a breakout week for Bo Spencer, strong performances from Dee Bost, Robert Covington, Damion James, Kevin Murphy, Flip Murray, along with notes on the Pierre Jackson situation.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Feb. 10-Feb.16)

On Tiny Gallon's outstanding week, Seth Curry, Courney Fells, Darius Johnson-Odom, Kevin Murphy, James Nunnally and a recap of the D-League All-Star activities.

Troy Daniels Pursuing NBA Dream In D-League

As the best shooter in the D-League, Troy Daniels could see his NBA dream become a reality very soon. Until then, he’ll continue to rewrite the record books while raining threes for a championship contending squad.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Feb. 3-Feb. 9)

For the second time in three weeks, Pierre Jackson has been named RealGM’s Player of the Week. Also, notes on Robert Covington, Devin Ebanks, Grant Jerrett, Adonis Thomas and Shawne Williams.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Jan. 27-Feb. 2)

On Kevin Murphy's brilliant week, strong performances from Dee Bost, P.J. Hairston, Justin Hamilton, Tim Ohlbrecht, Terrence Williams and more.

RealGM's D-League Weekly Wrap-Up (Jan. 20-Jan. 26)

On Pierre Jackson's pair of 40-point performances, Isaiah Canaan's development, Archie Goodwin's shooting, call ups for Vander Blue, Othyus Jeffers, and more.

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