- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

With NBA action not quite as fantastic as the slogan once proclaimed, the league is considering borrowing an implement from a sport it supposedly has surpassed in terms of attraction and esthetic appeal.

Slow, boring (as some critics see it) major league baseball, as well as hockey, might have a thing or two to teach the supposedly fast-paced, exciting NBA about developing talent. The concept of a farm system variation has been bouncing around the rim for years. Now NBA commissioner David Stern has indicated the league might try to grab it.

Amid slumping playoff television ratings and complaints about low-scoring, sloppy games and facing the prospect of as many as seven of the first 10 players taken in next month’s draft coming out of high school, Stern supports expanding the National Basketball Development League from six to 15 teams and allowing NBA clubs to use the league for selected young players who are under contract.

“The more we can have at a place where players can develop their skills, the better it is for the players, the league and the cities in which the players are developing their skills,” Stern said in an interview this week.

This would be a major innovation and not just in terms of numbers. Under the present system, the NBDL and other so-called minor leagues like the Continental Basketball Association and the North American Basketball League, in addition to leagues in Europe and other foreign locations, are for free agents trying to make a splash and land an NBA job.

There are many young players with NBA contracts who “show enormous potential but are not able to contribute and get the minutes to improve their development,” Stern said.

Stern is not talking about LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who entered the NBA after high school and one year of college, respectively, and had spectacular rookie seasons. He is addressing the likes of high schooler Ndudi Ebi, who turned down a scholarship at Arizona and wound up playing less than 35 minutes for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season.

There are numerous other examples. Two with local connections are Chris Wilcox, who left Maryland after two years and has made little impact in two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Kwame Brown, who has yet to blossom three years after the Wizards made him the No.1 pick in the draft out of high school.

Brown finally showed signs of life last season. But imagine if in his first pro season he had a chance to play 35 minutes a game against decent competition instead of being overmatched by opponents and intimidated by Doug Collins and Michael Jordan — with the Wizards still being able to oversee his development.

Stern said an expanded development league would provide an opportunity for young players, who are leaving high school and college in ever-increasing numbers, to sign with NBA clubs and then work on their game as opposed to struggling with big league competition and languishing on the bench.

“It would certainly be a place for kids to develop and learn how to play basketball,” Stern said. “Let them play their hearts out and, if they’re good enough, come back.”

Stern isn’t the only one who believes in such a concept. There seems to be widespread support within the NBA community.

“I think most coaches and general managers would be for it,” Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld said. “It would be very beneficial, if it happened, in light of the younger players coming into the league. Players are getting younger and younger, and they need game-type experience. But teams are trying to win, and they don’t get that experience.”

Said Houston Rockets GM Carroll Dawson: “It would be of great help. Teams have had to hire extra coaches [to work with young players]. For years, the training ground has been the NCAA, but now with guys skipping over that, it’s up to us.”

But everyone connected with the league, especially Stern, is careful to note the idea is just that, an idea, and one that requires approval from the NBA Players Association. It would have to be a significant part of the new collective bargaining agreement.

The current agreement expires after next season, and the issue not only is being discussed, it has turned sticky. At this point, the union reportedly is against it. The main issue is one of control. What Stern terms as sending a young NBA player to a “team that has appropriate training and developmental opportunities,” the union sees as a potential form of punishment by farming a player out.

There also is a fear that some prospects under contract would be stuck on development teams and kept from earning jobs with other NBA clubs.

Players union executive director Billy Hunter was not available for comment, and spokesman Dan Wasserman said it was premature to say anything about the concept.

It is still early in the process, and there are no details worked out, including how the league would be funded. Stern emphasizes he likes the current system and that his proposal is simply a modification, not a radical overhaul. He stressed that the proposal is designed to improve player development, not punish veteran players nor serve “as a place for teams to store players.”

Stern said he is not out to copy major league baseball, in which each club has several farm teams. Instead of NBA teams having their own affiliate, they would share development teams. “Don’t focus on baseball,” he cautioned.

Stern also is adamant the draft would not be expanded beyond its current two rounds as a means of stocking the development teams. Free agents, signed and unsigned, still would compose the bulk of the rosters. And he said the college game would not be affected more than it already is. Stern believes young players thinking of skipping college or leaving after one or two years would not be enticed by the prospect of spending a year or two in the minors.

“They want to be in the pros,” he said, meaning the NBA.

Steve Kerr, who played 15 NBA seasons and worked closely with the union as a player representative, said the league would have to establish stringent guidelines limiting who could be sent to the minors. The union, he said, “doesn’t want 10 year-veterans being sent down.”

But otherwise, Kerr likes the idea.

“I’d be all for it,” he said. “You’ve got so many young players coming into the league right now who are talented but not really developed, and a lot of them come in and don’t play right away.

“Not everyone is LeBron or Carmelo. You’ve got a kid like Ebi who plays, what, 30 minutes? You could send him to a minor league team, and that would help everyone. It’s a matter of putting it together. Everything’s changed with all these young kids coming into the league.”

Said Stern: “It would be good for the game. It would be nice to have it.”

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