Minor leagues are clearly not a new concept in sports. Major League Baseball has had several levels of minors since before they were even called Major League Baseball. The NFL tried NFL Europe. The NHL has had minor leagues spread across the United States and Canada since the early 1900s. And every sport imaginable has independent minor leagues, from Arena Football to a multitude of baseball, hockey and soccer leagues all across North America.

Minor league basketball had existed since the NBA was born when the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League merged to form the NBA. The Continental Basketball Association was chief among the minor leagues for most of the 20th century. The CBA had developed itself as a feeder system to both the NBA and the ABA during the latter’s run. There were even some official agreements between the NBA and CBA for player and referee development, despite the two remaining autonomous entities. This is where the concept of 10 Day Contracts was born, and several of the NBA’s best coaches and officials cut their teeth in the CBA.

But the NBA had designs on their own minor league system. They wanted one akin to what MLB had, where the NBA team controlled the basketball operations as the parent club. This is how the D-League was born in 2001.

“We had a problem with controlling the development of our players," said one person involved in the founding of the then D-League said. "NBA rosters are too small to really stash prospects and just let them develop. And there was nowhere for them to get game action. You have to remember, when the first talks about a minor league came up, we had teams who had these high school kids on their end of their benches that needed to play. That, as much as anything, pushed us towards creating the D-League.”

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the NBA was still allowing players to declare for the draft directly from high school. Jonathan Abrams’ book Boys Among Men chronicles the challenges NBA teams were having with players making the leap from the preps to the pros. One of the themes of the book is that for every immediate success like Kevin Garnett, there were several players languishing at the end of an NBA bench. Often, these players were kings in their basketball worlds. Now, in addition to the pressure of being treated as a working adult, they had to come to grips with practicing, but rarely playing. With the lack of a minor league team with which to send them down to, several players flamed out. While some would point to the flaws in allowing 18 year olds to go directly to the NBA as an inherent problem, others point to the lack of a proper development system.

One coach went so far as to say “I had kids who had the talent and the work ethic to get there. What they didn’t have was the self-confidence to make it. These guys had spent the last 10 years being told how great they were and dominating everyone they played against. They get to the NBA and ride the pine. Think about how fragile you are at 18. Even the toughest guy gets a bruised ego. If we had a place to let them play to let that aggression out and see their improvement on the court in real action, some of the guys who are now considered busts and jokes, would have had long NBA careers.”

While the NBA ultimately negotiated to eliminate the jump directly from high school, the minor league seeds were already planted. The NBA started small and used the D-League to iron out what they really wanted it to be. The teams weren’t linked to an NBA franchise, but the then 29 NBA teams had access to the D-League to watch the development of players and then to call them up for 10 Day Contracts or, in rarer cases, standard NBA deals.

In 2005, the NBA further cemented their plans to make the NBDL their own personal minor league. They changed the name of the league from NBDL to NBA D-League, adding a layer of legitimacy by including the full NBA moniker in the title. The newly-styled D-League expanded over the next several years, even absorbing several teams from the CBA, as the former minor league shut down its operations. Most of the expansion was focused westward, as teams popped up throughout the Pacific and Mountain time-zones. The most important development was that each D-League team was affiliated with several NBA teams. This meant that NBA teams could now assign players to their NBADL partner team. This gave players some valuable game action, while allowing fans of the NBADL team the chance to see actual NBA players up close.

It was during this period that the first NBADL team to be directly owned by a NBA was created, as the Los Angeles Lakers founded the LA D-Fenders. A few years later, the Houston Rockets became the first NBA team to enter a single affiliate relationship, as they exclusively partnered with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In 2015, the Indiana Pacers purchased the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, ending the final multiple affiliate arrangement, as each NBADL team was now singly-affiliated with one NBA club.

David Stern’s vision, pushed forward by Adam Silver, is nearly complete. As it stands today, 26 of 30 NBA clubs have their own minor league franchise. New Orleans and Washington both have announced expansion plans for the 18-19 season, leaving only Denver and Portland without firm plans for their own franchise. Silver has often stated that a 30 team minor league system “is a priority for us (the NBA). In order for balance and to continue to grow as a league, we need to have an affiliate for each of our NBA clubs.”

Most around the NBA expect that each NBA team will have their own affiliate by 2020.

In addition to the growth, the NBA D-League rebranded itself entirely, for the second time in its existence. With the NBA tie firmly in place, the league entered a multi-year agreement with Gatorade to rebrand the NBADL as the NBA Gatorade League, or NBAGL for short. By partnering with Gatorade, the NBA ensured an infusion of money that has helped the legitimacy of the league as a whole. Considering the full title of NBA Gatorade League is rarely used, all it cost the NBA was swapping the D to a G.

Why was the added cash necessary? Quite simply, to make sure the NBAGL wasn’t still considered a second, third or even fourth tier destination for the most important commodity of all: players. Up until this season, NBAGL salaries were paltry in comparison with most of the professional basketball world. Players could still make considerably more money playing overseas in places like Spain, Russia or China. However, playing in a foreign league often comes with a contract that doesn’t allow an out if an NBA offer comes. It’s a balancing act for players and agents to weigh the pro of more money against the con of being stuck outside of the NBA.

With the infusion of cash from its new sponsorship, combined with changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NBAGL can now pay players at a far more competitive rate. The salaries still don’t match those of the top foreign leagues, but they are enough to give some players incentive to stay stateside.

One agent said “I wouldn’t push my guys to the D-League before. The money just wasn’t there. Now, the money is better and the NBA opportunities are better, so we’ve become a lot more amenable to the G League.”

Beyond the salary increases, the NBAGL has evolved in many other ways. Interestingly enough, considering the league’s original name included the word “development”, player development is chief among them. A recent statistic touted that over 40% of current NBA players had logged at least some time in the NBAGL. This number only figures to rise, as older players with no NBAGL experience retire and as teams continue to increase the use of their affiliate clubs.

Player development in the NBAGL comes in different forms. The first is through the assignment process where the NBA club sends a player down to the NBAGL for a period of time. Assignments have exploded in use in recent years, due to two developments. First is the single-affiliate model. When the NBA club has complete control over their NBAGL franchise on the basketball side, they can assign a player with the express direction that he is to play a certain amount of minutes or play a certain position. This has become a fairly regular occurrence over the past few years, as it allows the player to log valuable time in actual game situations.

The second reason assignments have gone way up is due to the location of the NBAGL team. As it stands today, most NBAGL teams are located within driving distance of their parent club. Several are even located in the same immediate city or county. NBA teams regularly have younger players practice with the NBA club, then assign them later that day to play a game with the NBAGL team, then recall the player later that same day or the next day.

When he took the job as President of Basketball Operations for the Orlando Magic, Jeff Weltman said “Part of the attraction (to the job) was knowing that the Magic had purchased an NBAGL team and were moving them down the road (to Lakeland, Florida). The NBAGL is an integral part of developing your players and having the team close by is extremely important to accomplish that.”

Frank Vogel said earlier this season “We don’t have a lot of minutes for Wesley Iwundu (the team’s 2017 second round pick), so it’s great that he can practice with us, but get over to Lakeland to play in games. It’s something we didn’t have before, so it’s a nice new development.”

Several teams have taken advantage of the closeness by having their young players wear a path between NBA practice facility and NBAGL game arena. When he was with the Boston Celtics James Young was assigned to the Maine Red Claws 24 times over a two-year period. And that number will seem insignificant soon, as some teams are now assigning and calling up players on a daily basis.

The second piece of player development comes in terms of two-way contracts. Players in the NBAGL are there on one of three types of deals: assignments, signed directly with the NBAGL but an NBA free agent or on a two-way contract. Two-way deals are a new inclusion in the 2017 CBA. Players signed to a two-way deal are exclusively signed to the NBA team, but with the idea that they will spend most of their time in the NBAGL. These are generally players that couldn’t quite make an NBA roster, but that the NBA team wanted to continue to work with exclusively. In addition, if injury or performance reasons open a spot in the NBA rotation, they can call these players up for up to 45 total days. This has caused some interesting roster maneuvering (see Mike James of the Suns or Gary Payton II of the Bucks), but allows the NBA team a longer look at prospects they might have lost otherwise.

Two-way contracts aren’t without challenges, especially relating to the 45 day rule. The Bucks had to let Payton go when he reached his 45 days, because they didn’t have a roster spot to convert him to a standard NBA contract. This was reportedly a very unpopular move in their locker room, as Payton had been with the team for parts of two seasons and was even starting games at the time of his release.

In addition, some agents aren’t fans of the two-way deal.

One agent, who has several players on the fringes of NBA rosters, said “I advised my players not to sign them. If they outplay it, they’re stuck. No team is converting a guy until they have to. It’s almost better to just sign with the NBAGL, get a 10 Day Contract or two, and then sign a rest of the season deal. The player makes more money if they can do that and gets a little more security.”

The final way NBA teams are using their NBAGL squad for player development is through affiliate players. Not to be confused with an assigned player or a two-way player, an affiliate player is one that completing training camp with the NBA club, but didn’t make the NBA roster or get signed to a two-way deal. But they are still an interesting enough prospect that the NBA club wants to continue to work them. The affiliate player then signs a contract with the NBAGL (all non-assigned and non-two-way players sign with the NBAGL itself and not the individual teams) and is placed with the NBA club’s affiliate.

The Texas Legends and Sioux Falls Skyforce, affiliates for Dallas and Miami respectively, have become known for not only developing young players, but also for rehabbing the value of NBA veterans. Several players have used their time with Texas or Sioux Falls to get another NBA opportunity or to get a bigger contract overseas. Those two teams currently stand as the gold standard for turning NBAGL players into NBA players, either for the first time or on second chance opportunities.

Beyond player development both the NBA as a league and its teams have used the NBAGL as an experimental playground. The NBA has tested rule changes in the NBAGL before implementing them in the NBA. They’ve run trials with only two officials and with four officials, as opposed the NBA’s standard of three. The NBAGL has even allowed the top playoff seeds to pick their opponents for the first round of the postseason.

The Houston Rockets have used Rio Grande Valley as a testing ground for styles of play. The Rockets are lauded for “Morey Ball” which emphasizes three-pointers and layups/dunks while eschewing mid-range shots, but some of the seeds were born in the NBAGL. The Vipers went through an entire season where they played at a seemingly absurd pace, while launching three-pointers at an unheard of rate. The entire idea was see if it could work, but testing it in a low to no-stakes environment. The Rockets haven’t gone quite to the extremes of their NBAGL team, but have brought some of their learnings to the NBA.

Being dictated to play a certain style or to put certain players in positions can be hard for NBAGL coaches. One said “It’s almost akin to being the Junior Varsity coach back in high school. Wins are nice, because everyone is competitive, but the real goal is get the kids ready for the next level. You have to balance your own desire to win against what the big club wants to see. If that means playing a guy at point guard who you know can’t really handle the ball, you have to do it. Makes for some long nights, but you know you are making a difference in the end. And you hope that gets seen when it’s time for your opportunity as a coach to jump to the next level.”

One prominent NBA coach to make the jump from the minors to the bigs is Quin Snyder of the Utah Jazz. After leaving college basketball, Snyder coached the Austin Spurs for three seasons. He parlayed that experience into NBA assistant coaching jobs with several teams before getting his shot to coach the Jazz. All across the G League there are coaches who are working towards the same goal. By focusing on system and player development, they use the NBAGL as their own personal proving ground.

NBA teams are also using the NBAGL for “rehab assignments”, which is something long-practiced by MLB teams. When a player is coming back from injury in baseball, the MLB team will have them play a handful of games in the minors to make sure they healthy and to get their timing back. The NBA has only recently started adopting this as well. Players like former NBA Finals MVPs Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker have logged time with the Austin Spurs this year. Neither played in a game, but both have practiced with the NBAGL club, as they continue on the path to return to play. The Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks have both used assignments for Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker respectively, as they rehab from torn ACLs. Eventually, this could expand into players actually playing a few minutes in a game here or there before returning to their NBA team.

Several executives see the NBAGL only continuing to grow.

One predicted “We’ll expand the two-way contracts to as many as five, which would bring NBA rosters up to 20 total. We have to get to 30 teams first, but that’s coming.”

Another speculated “I think we’ll eventually get to the MLB model where guys are drafted, signed and playing the NBAGL, but don’t count against our cap in the NBA. When that happens, we can add a round or two to the draft, which really helps you build a quality minor league program. Our rosters aren’t big enough to need several levels of minors, but having something like 5-10 players attached to the NBA team in some way makes a lot of sense.”

Finally, another said “I wouldn’t mind drafting guys straight out of high school if they aren’t taking up roster spots in the NBA. If we could draft them and then put them in the NBAGL for a year or two, that is a win-win. We get our hands on them and can really develop them and they get paid, but we don’t have to waste NBA roster spots while the kid gets ready for the NBA.”

The NBA continues to grow the G League’s presence, most recently in terms of broadcasts. As the product improves and becomes more tied to the NBA, interest in the NBAGL is growing. Fans want to see the players play and that means broadcasting games. A handful of games are shown on NBATV each week and the league experimented with streaming games on Facebook in the past. Recently, the NBA announced a partnership with Twitch to broadcast NBAGL games. This shows a commitment to growing the NBAGL beyond just teams and players. Commentators will get a chance to hone their skills calling games, as well as those on the technical production side. Growth for one side begets growth on other sides.

Perhaps the single biggest way the NBA will use the NBAGL as a proving ground may come in the form of testing cities as expansion candidates. While Silver continues to say expansion isn’t on the immediate horizon, he admits it is something the league will eventually look at it. Following the most recent round of games in Mexico City, the NBA said there is a chance they could put a G League franchise in the city, potentially as early as 2018. This is a way the league can test a market to understand how viable it is to be the home to an NBA franchise at some point.

In a fairly rapid period of less than 20 years, the NBA started and built an almost full minor league system. The NBAGL still needs tweaks to make sure things work out best for players and teams alike, but that is coming. The G League has re-invented itself continually since 2001 and will continue to do so, even long after the vision of a full minor league is attained.