Can you really call it a “Development” League?

When the Raptors drafted Bruno Caboclo 20th overall in 2014 it took everyone by surprise. He was famously labelled as being “2 years away from being 2 years away”. At the time many people, including myself, didn’t understand why the Raptors didn’t wait to draft him with their second round pick or even trade down. But after seeing flashes of his tantalizing potential and hearing that the Raptors weren’t the only team to scout him, I now understand why they made this gamble.

I distinctly remember watching this game in my residence common room last year and losing my mind! His pterodactyl-like arms and gravity defying hops leaves fans dreaming of his Durant (probably not), Antetokounmpo (more likely) type potential. But, as predicted in the draft day reaction video above, he has a long way to go.

Bruno possesses the skeleton of good jumpshot–quick, fluid and easy form–but hasn’t been able to consistently hit it. In 17 D-League games this year he is shooting a poor .287 from three and .363 from the field. He also needs to learn the nuances of the game. He has the length and quickness to be an elite defender… once he learns how to defend on and off of the ball. He also is a good ball-handler but is very far from being able to run an offense in terms of passing, vision and ball security. If this seems like a long grocery list of attributes to learn, that’s because it is. Which begs the question: where will he learn how to play?

This is the exact question that the Raptors were struggling with last season. While Bruno certainly gained valuable experience being able to practice with the NBA squad throughout the 2014-15 season, it didn’t help his development to not get much in-game action. The fact that he only played in 8 games with the Raptors while averaging a minuscule 2.9 minutes per game was definitely troubling in terms of his development. The Raptors planned for him to learn with the D-League’s independently owned Fort Wayne Mad Ants (affiliated with Indiana as of September 2015), but were annoyed that he couldn’t get more than 8.9 minutes per game through seven games. Because the Raptors didn’t own their own D-League team, they were at the mercy of a team that had no reason to play the Raptors’ raw prospects. Fort Wayne’s primary goals goals are winning games and making a profits, not developing players. The bad experience with Fort Wayne would prompt the Raptors to introduce their own D-League team; the Raptors 905.

Now my problem with the Mississauga-based Raptors 905 team goes well beyond their dumb name–I just hope this isn’t the start of a trend where team’s are officially named after their area codes. While the new D-League team does give the Raptors a new tool for developing and identifying talent, the D-League as a whole is very flawed. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the end of Toronto’s bench and explain to me why Bennett, Wright, Powell, Nogueira and Caboclo aren’t in Mississauga. All five players are young, talented, inexperienced and under-utilized. Is this not the type of player that the D-League is meant for?

The crux of the problem is that the NBA’s roster size is only 15 players. When you compare this to the NHL and MLB who both have established minor league systems–NHL teams are able to have 50 players under contract and MLB teams can have hundreds of players under contract–a larger roster makes it easier to let your top prospects develop. In the NBA only 13 of your 15 players can be dressed for a game(although teams often only dress 12), leaving only 2 players to be able to send down to the D-League. But with Demarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas missing significant time, the Raptors could often only have one of their players, if any, playing for the 905.

If the NBA increased roster sizes it would mean more spots for veteran players on the bench and it would give young players more time to get acclimated to the NBA game. There are very few college players that have the skill-set to seamlessly transition from the college game to the NBA. In college the three-point line is closer, games are 8 minutes shorter, shot clocks are 11 seconds longer and there is no defensive “3 in the key” rule making zones very common. There’s no doubt about it, the college game is a completely different animal. So why force these college players to learn the game so quickly under the NBA spotlight, where every move is critiqued and they don’t get enough playing time to really learn?

In my opinion the D-League is just a glorified tryout for failed prospects and undrafted players. As much as I have grown to like Sim Bhullar, Shannon Scott and Axel Toupane, I might actually tune into 905 games if I could watch Caboclo, Wright, Powell, Nogueira and Bennett play extended minutes. I could argue that the “all-stars” of the D-League should be the ones riding the pine in the NBA so the blue chip prospects can actually get some experience. Unfortunately the D-League is still only at 19 teams and will go up to 22 next season. It is a relatively young league (started in 2001), so maybe I shouldn’t be so critical as they are obviously still learning how to properly run it. But until every NBA team has an affiliate I’m afraid that no changes can be made and we will continue to see the cheer leading section littered with former first round picks. I’m just hoping that Caboclo won’t be 2 more years away from becoming “2 years away from being 2 years away.”




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