RENO - For decades budding baseball players have taken to minor league teams in an effort to reach The Show. For some of us, it was our dad, our grandfather or maybe some people reading this story right now that had a dream and stuck with it for as long as they could, playing the game they loved with the same enthusiasm they had as children.
Minor league basketball hasn't had the same vaunted history as its baseball counterpart, but with the advent of the NBA Development League in 2001 inspiring basketball players now have a home without having to uproot themselves to a foreign country.
"We have young players and this is a developmental league," said Jay Humphries, who returns for his second season as the Reno Bighorns head coach. "We call them veterans, but we're still trying to develop them to get to the NBA. Russell Robinson is in his second year and so he's still a young player, he's not a rookie but he's still a young player. Desmon Farmer's a young player, Rod Benson is a young player in the big picture of trying to play in the NBA ...
"You work in some (young players with veterans) because they're teetering NBA players, the other ones you work in to try and make better basketball players. So each player is at a different level in his game."
In just one season of D-League basketball the Reno Bighorns, who will play their home opener at 7 p.m. today against the Los Angeles D-Fenders, have already had a who's who of hoops talent: a son of a Hall of Famer in Patrick Ewing Jr., former Syracuse star Gerry McNamara, current Sacramento King Donte Greene and even visiting players like NCAA champion Mateen Cleeves.
The D-League system is slightly different than that of minor league baseball. For example, most teams have more than one NBA affiliate. The Bighorns are affiliated with the Kings and Orlando Magic, a change from last year where they were affiliated with the New York Knicks rather than the Magic. Teams like the Los Angeles D-Fenders, which are owned by the Los Angeles Lakers, have just one affiliate.
Another difference is the call-up and player assignment process. Current D-League players, not signed to an NBA contract are free to be called up to any of the 30 NBA teams. Players under NBA contract can be sent down to only their affiliated D-League teams, but to be eligible players must be within their first two years of their careers.
Six players are eligible to be assigned to the Bighorns: Ryan Anderson of the Orlando Magic and Jon Brockman, Omri Casspi, Tyreke Evans, Jason Thompson and Greene all with the Kings.
The Magic have assigned just two players since the assignment system began in 2005, while Greene was the Kings' first-ever assignment.
Most of the players that make up the league are like Robinson, who won a national championship in 2008 with the Kansas Jayhawks but went undrafted. While he his defensive specialist, often called on to guard the opposing team's top offensive guard, he needs to develop more on the offensive side of the ball and is hoping that he can impress scouts this season with his growth.
"First of all, (I) just (need to) win because when you win obviously you're doing something well," said Robinson, who averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists per game in his first year. "Basically, go out there and run my team, get assists, control the ball and get everybody involved. Basically, just playing basketball and build off what I did last year and show scouts that I've had some type of growth and hopefully they give me a chance."
The games are also very reminiscent of NBA contests. Humphries previously coached with the Phoenix Suns under then head coach Mike D'Antoni, where they employed an up-tempo style offense that stresses good ball handling by all five players on the court. He uses that same system with the Bighorns, which fans seem to get into a little more because there is constant action.
"The D-League is fun," said Benson, who played 17 games with Bighorns last season. "And a lot of people who come in like the rookies and stuff, not like they don't take it seriously, but they have to look at like, 'I've never been here before.' But for me, the games are fun, the practices are fun, the atmosphere is fun. It's much different than any other league you can play in."