The average NBA player earns over $5 million a season. That’s more than Major League Baseball, and more than the NFL. But there are only 400 jobs in the NBA. And for players just one notch below—in the NBA Development league—the glamor of pro sports fades pretty quickly.
On the court, the Santa Cruz Warriors feel every bit like an NBA team, with towering players sinking dunks and 3-pointers, and cheering fans in face paint who came to support them in a game against the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
Off the court, it’s a different story. The players ride a bus and fly coach to away games. They buy their own sneakers. There’s no weight room at the Kaiser Permanente arena, so they work out in a hallway, doing pull-ups from a beam in the ceiling.
Over the years, Baker has earned more playing pro basketball abroad, in the Philippines, Turkey, and France. “Some guys can make a D-League Salary in one month, goin’ overseas,” he says.
When NBA teams see something they need, D-league players get a “call up,” a ten-day contract to play in the NBA. A few, like Jeremy Lin and Chris Andersen, have gone on to become NBA stars. That outcome is pretty rare. So Santa Cruz coach Casey Hill says players weigh other factors too. “The decision really ends up coming down to, am I comfortable going to play in a foreign country that, they don’t speak my language, I don’t know if they’re gonna pay me,” Hill says. “There’s so many unknowns with going overseas that guys just kinda get scared away.”
Even for players without NBA prospects, playing in the D-League can be a useful bargaining chip. “They’ll play a year in the D-League, to get that on their resume, to get their numbers up,” Hill explains, “and then they’ll use those numbers to get a good deal in Europe.”
Some analysts are more cynical. Jonathan Givony owns the basketball site DraftExpress.com. He says there are only so many spots on European teams. As he sees it, “80 to 90% of the players that are in the D-League are in the D-League because they have nowhere else to be.
He says the D-league’s focus on call-ups hurts the style of play: “It’s the only league in the world that I know of where wins and losses isn’t really the goal. In the back of the players’ heads, they’re sayin’ like, I’m here to get noticed.”
Givony says that leads to poor defense and extremely high scores. Even so, more D-League players are getting noticed each year—the number of call-ups has grown from just a handful in the league’s first year to more than thirty last season.
That goes for more than just players: more than half of NBA refs were hired directly out of the D-league. D-League president Dan Reed says the league is “a platform for coaches, for players, for referees, for dance team members, for front office executives, for salespeople, for broadcasters.” One reason for that is that the NBA actually owns the D-League. We’re the only minor league that is actually controlled by the major league,” Reed says.
That relationship is only growing closer. More and more NBA teams are starting to manage affiliates in the D-League directly. In Santa Cruz, the Golden State Warriors decide everything from the plays coaches run in practice to who ends up on the training staff.