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NBA Daily: New Two-Way Players Worth Watching

The deadline for adding players on two-way contracts came and went on Monday, so which new signings have the potential to make a difference this season?

Ben Nadeau

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When the NBA created two-way contracts last summer, it not only produced a new path to the professional level, but it also added another intriguing wrinkle to roster building across the league. January 15th marked the deadline to sign players to two-way contracts during the 2017-18 season, so the transaction wire was mighty busy on Monday. In some instances, teams can utilize these deals to simply protect prospects as players on two-way contracts cannot be signed away by another franchise. But in other situations, these new additions could help fill some important roles and minutes for teams now currently entrenched in a playoff hunt.

Mike James was the first two-way player to make headlines while providing quality minutes within an injured backcourt for the Phoenix Suns — but that false start has recently led him to different horizons in New Orleans. While two-way players cannot compete in the postseason, there’s always the potential of a converted contract as well, just as the Milwaukee Bucks have done with Sean Kilpatrick. More than half of the NBA swapped out a two-way signee over the last 30 days, but here are five of them that could make a difference during the next few months.

Mike James, New Orleans Pelicans
With Phoenix: 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 turnovers in 20.9 MPG

Mike James is the most recognizable name on the list for good reason — he’s already made it. James’ story has been well-documented at this point, but after toiling away overseas, the 27-year-old rookie wasted no time with the Suns earlier this season. In 32 games with Phoenix — including 10 starts — James averaged 10.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 20.9 minutes per contest. In fact, James’ play was so impressive that the Suns converted his two-way contract to a one-year regular deal in December, quickly looking like he’d be a regular mainstay in the rotation. But the sudden emergence of point guard Isaiah Canaan left James as the odd-man out and he was waived, sending him back to square one in his pursuit of a permanent roster spot in the NBA.

Thankfully, James wouldn’t have to wait long as the surging Pelicans scooped him up ahead of their playoff push. The backcourt situation in New Orleans is fluid, but it could be a fruitful opportunity for James to get back on the horse. All season, the Pelicans have run with a starting combination of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday, leaving veteran journeyman Jameer Nelson (21.9 MPG) to mop up any needed bench minutes for the point guards. Snagging the 14-year veteran off the waiver wire was a shrewd move by New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be a shock for James to leapfrog Nelson before long.

The Pelicans rank dead last in bench points (23.3) and James is the type of dynamic scorer that can keep things going without the starters on the floor.

Amile Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
G-League: 18 points, 13.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 turnovers in 34.1 MPG

At long last, somebody grabbed G-League star Amile Jefferson and now the Minnesota Timberwolves are set to reap the benefits. Just a few days after dropping 29 points at the G-League Showcase, Jefferson joins a crowded frontcourt — but his high motor could be an interesting option in spot minutes moving forward. Collegiately, Jefferson started 100-plus games over five years for the Duke Blue Devils and went undrafted despite averaging 10.9 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior. Jefferson’s bright debut has seen him tally a healthy 18 points and a league-leading 13.1 rebounds per game, but his defense-first mentality is what might earn him some court time in the coming weeks.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau has a reputation for molding elite defenses — he reached the top five in defensive rating for four consecutive seasons back in Chicago — but he hasn’t quite reached that level in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have certainly looked better in that regard as of late, but their 106.4 rating on defense puts them in the bottom half of the NBA. For a young team looking to compete with the juggernaut powers of Golden State and San Antonio this spring, tuning up the defense remains an absolute must.

Additionally, the Timberwolves’ starters average 35 minutes per game, above and beyond the highest number in the league right now. If Jefferson can provide strong defensive minutes and allow players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Taj Gibson to grab some extra rest down the stretch, he’ll be a welcomed addition to this playoff-bound roster.

Markel Brown, Houston Rockets
G-League: 17.2 points, 35.8 three-point percentage, 4.2 rebounds and 1.5 turnovers in 31.4 MPG

Unlike many of the names on this list, Markel Brown has plenty of NBA experience already. After the Brooklyn Nets drafted Brown with the No. 44 overall selection in 2014, the hyper-athletic rookie started 29 games for an injury-riddled squad. Brown would eventually become a roster casualty and later joined Russian outfit Khimki for one season, but he’s always remained a player to keep an eye on. During his best moments, Brown was a stat-stuffing machine and he once racked up 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks with zero turnovers in 45 minutes of play as a rookie.

Athletic as they come, Brown showed defensive promise with the Nets, but he struggled to consistently convert from deep and his 29.7 three-point percentage over two seasons ultimately cost him his roster spot. Thankfully, Brown appears to have turned the corner and has made 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 35.8 percent clip over 22 contests with the Oklahoma City Blue. Of course, the Rockets attempt a staggering 43.6 three-pointers per game, nearly 10 more than the second-place Nets, so Brown could feel right at home here.

If Brown can bring some hard-nosed defense and contribute to Houston’s downtown barrage, there’s some definite potential in this two-way signing.

Xavier Munford, Milwaukee Bucks
G-League: 23.9 points, 46.5 three-point percentage, 5.3 assists and 3.6 turnovers in 35.8 MPG

As of publishing, the Milwaukee Bucks are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA, only knocking down 34.9 percent of their attempts. And at 23-20, the Bucks’ dismal showing from deep has been just one of many shortcomings for a team many expected to take the next step this season. Khris Middleton has led the way for Milwaukee with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34 percent clip is his lowest mark since his rookie season. Furthermore, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November due to knee surgery and the unfortunate reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs once again.

Needless to say, the Bucks need some shooting help in the worst way — enter: Xavier Munford, one of the G-League’s best three-point assassins. The 6-foot-3 guard has been an absolute revelation for the Wisconsin Herd, tallying 23.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists on a league-leading 46.5 percent from three-point range. Truthfully, it’s surprising that Munford hadn’t found a home before the deadline, but he’s been gifted the perfect opportunity now. Even in spot minutes, Munford could provide the Bucks with something they’ve sorely missed through the first half of the season.

Munford can get hot and stay hot too, perhaps best exhibited by the Player of the Week honors he earned two months ago after nailing 17 of his 24 attempts (70.8 percent) from three over a four-game period. It won’t come that easy at the NBA level, but Munford is an elite shooter on a poor-shooting team — so if his chance arises, this could be a quality signing for the Bucks.

James Webb III, Brooklyn Nets
G-League: 11.6 points, 36.6 three-point percentage, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 turnovers in 27.3 MPG

The Nets are likely the only team on the list that won’t be headed to the postseason this year, but the addition of James Webb III is certainly an interesting one nonetheless. Before going undrafted in 2016, Webb III was a standout at Boise State, where he averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. In spite of shooting just 24.8 percent from three-point range in that final collegiate season, Webb III has put together back-to-back seasons at 36 percent in the G-League. Naturally, this is where Webb III can make an impression with the chuck-em-up Nets.

In his second year at the helm, head coach Kenny Atkinson has his young roster shooting more three-pointers than ever. While backcourt players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Caris LeVert have all seen improvements from deep this season, the Nets still badly need a stretch four to open things up when Quincy Acy and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson aren’t on the floor. The latter, despite his best efforts, hasn’t turned into a consistent three-point shooter and Hollis-Jefferson still sports a subpar 24.1 percent career average from behind the arc.

Acy has been one of Brooklyn’s more recent G-League successes, plucking him away from the Texas Legends just over a year ago on a ten-day contract. Over 71 games for the Nets, Acy has become a valuable contributor in the Nets’ rotation and he’s currently averaging a career-high 19.3 minutes and 1.4 made three-pointers per game. Still, Acy is as streaky as shooters come and when he’s not chipping in from three-point range, the Nets really suffer. After Acy, there’s only Tyler Zeller, Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for three-point options in the frontcourt — so much for replacing Brook Lopez, right?

If Webb III can impress the coaching staff, he could have long-term potential on this three-point happy roster of castaways.

Breaking through from the G-League to the NBA is never easy, but these five players have taken the next big step in their professional careers. There’s no guarantee that two-way players will be given an opportunity to shine, but there’s still potential in all of these signings. Whether teams are looking to navigate injuries, rest their starters or uncover a diamond in the rough, two-way contracts have offered something new for both players and front offices alike.

Now it’s up to James, Jefferson, Brown, Munford and Webb III to make the most of their respective chances and hopefully stick around for good.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Report: Darius Bazley Opt to Not Join G-League

Basketball Insiders

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Darius Bazley blazed his own path in the basketball world when the top-10 prospect in the 2018 high school class announced his decision in March to decommit from Syracuse and enter the NBA G League. Now, Bazley tells The Athletic that he has decided not to play in the G League and will instead use the year to train and prepare himself as a professional.

“Talking about it over with my group, we felt confidently that the G League wasn’t going to be needed and now I can use this time to work on my craft,” Bazley told The Athletic. “It’s mainly me talking to [agent] Rich [Paul], he knows so much, and whenever he speaks my ears perk up. When Miles [Bridges] was in Cleveland for his predraft workouts, whenever he got a chance to work out in front of NBA teams, I was working out in the gym, too. So that played a part in it, me playing well in those workouts for us to say there’s no upside in the G League. If you play well, it’s expected. If you don’t play well, you’re not NBA-ready. That’s what they’ll say. For me, working out and preparing is the best route.

Source: Shams Charania of The Athletic

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The Los Angeles Lakers’ Success with the G-League

The Lakers effectively used the G-League to develop players and add depth to their roster when needed this season, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA recently announced that player salaries in the G-League will increase beginning with next season. In addition, players will also receive housing and insurance benefits. The league will also expand to 27 teams with the newest franchise being the Capital City Go-Go’s, the affiliate of the Washington Wizards.

The G-League has seen an increase in popularity and coverage, and five-star senior Darius Bazley withdrew his commitment from Syracuse in favor of spending a year in the league preparing for the NBA draft. Teams are now beginning to utilize their G-League affiliates more; this season saw a record of 50 players called up to the NBA.

One team that has found success with their G-League team is the Los Angeles Lakers. By the end of the season, the Lakers had seven players on the roster who either started the season with the South Bay Lakers or spent time being called back and forth. With a rash of injuries the last month or so, most of those players featured prominently in the rotation.

“The G-League has turned into a great resource for the NBA, for the development of young players and for finding people who help your team win,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton told reporters prior to their final game of the season. “You look across the league, almost every single team at some point this year has got a lot of help from someone either on a two-way or who they signed for ten days. These guys have grown up their whole lives playing too. They’re hungry, they mostly have an edge, they have a chip on their shoulder because they haven’t had the same opportunities.”

Most teams took advantage of the new ability to sign players to two-way contracts, having them split time between their NBA team and G-League affiliate. The Lakers originally had longtime G-League standout Vander Blue and Alex Caruso signed to two-way contracts. But they cut Blue in January and replaced him with Gary Payton II.

Payton, the son of former NBA star Gary Sr., has had some NBA experience prior to this year He was a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks for the 2016-17 season and he began this season with them before being cut in December. He caught on with the Lakers on a two-way contract and he spent most of the season with the South Bay Lakers.

He started out his career in the G-League after going undrafted out of Oregon State in the summer of 2016. He started out with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers before being called up by the Bucks. He’s also spent time with the Wisconsin Herd.

“The two years I’ve been in the G-League going back and forth has really helped develop my game, and it’s transferred over,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Down there they really help develop player’s games. I get my opportunity to just come in and help facilitate.”

Payton only appeared sparingly in six games as a rookie and was inactive during the Bucks 2017 first round series against the Toronto Raptors. This season started out with more of the same. He saw 12 games of action with the Bucks, mostly in garbage time, while shuffling back and forth with the Wisconsin Herd.

When he signed with the Lakers, Payton immediately made an impact with South Bay. In 17 games, he put up 17.2 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting from the field and dished out 5.1 assists. When South Bay’s season came to an end in the playoffs at the hands of the Austin Spurs, Payton rejoined the Lakers.

Injuries to key players saw Payton thrust into the rotation for the final few games of the season. On the final night of the regular season, Payton had his best performance as an NBA player in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers. He scored 25 points on 11-19 shooting, including 3-7 from three-point range. He also grabbed 12 rebounds.

“I just do what I do, try to carry over what I brought in the G-League and just try to be aggressive,” Payton said. “They tell me every time I’m up here and get an opportunity to just be aggressive and make plays for my teammates.”

Another player who has used the G-League to get an opportunity with the Lakers is Payton’s South Bay teammate Travis Wear. Wear is no stranger to the NBA. He went undrafted out of UCLA in the summer of 2015 but was able to make the New York Knicks roster following a strong training camp.

With the Knicks, Wear saw action in 51 games and displayed an ability to stretch the floor by shooting 36.7 percent from the three-point line. A back injury cut his rookie year short and he went overseas the following season. He returned stateside to begin the 2016-17 season and ended up in South Bay, when the team was still known as the Los Angeles D-Fenders.

Now that he’s back in the NBA, Wear credits his experience in New York as helping him learn what the NBA is all about.

“I kind of knew what to expect coming into this NBA game and the style in which it’s played,” Wear told Basketball Insiders. “It definitely prepared me. It was three years ago but I was able to look back on that experience and change some things from the past.”

Wear had a breakout season in the G-League this year and that strong play was what caught the Lakers’ attention. He was one of the best players in the G-League all season long. He put up 16.2 points per game, 8.1 rebounds and shot 41.9 percent from three-point range. Wear is a high energy player who is active around the rim and can draw opposing defenses to the perimeter with his shooting ability.

He shot 36.2 percent from downtown in the 17 games he received playing time after being called up to the Lakers. On Mar. 16, in a one-point loss to the Miami HEAT, he scored 11 points and shot a perfect 3-3 from long range. On Mar. 24, in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, he scored 11 points and had two steals while shooting 3-7 from three.

Wear believes his time in the G-League has really helped prepare him to make an easier return to the NBA.

“Since I’ve been here, I pretty much come in, space the floor, knock down shots and play good defense,” Wear told Basketball Insiders. “They know I can shoot so that’s how they’ve been utilizing me. I was definitely refining my skills down there. I just got a lot of confidence in my shooting ability from the G-League. It gave me the confidence to come up here and do the same thing.”

While Wear has had a successful end to the season, there is no guarantee that he’ll be back with the Lakers next year. His contract was only guaranteed through the end of this season. The Lakers have an option to extend him a qualifying offer this summer, which would make him a restricted free agent.

Although he wouldn’t mind sticking with the Lakers, Wear knows that the NBA is a business. He feels he’s shown enough that if it doesn’t work out in Los Angeles, another team will surely come calling.

“Whoever I can get an opportunity to get a contract with somewhere. There are things I need to improve on my game in the offseason and come back better,” Wear told Basketball Insiders. “But it’s been phenomenal, a dream come true.”

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Report: NBA to Increase Salaries for G-League Players

Basketball Insiders

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The N.B.A. is instituting a long-anticipated salary increase in its developmental league, the league announced Tuesday.

Effective next season, players signed to G League contracts will earn $35,000 — or $7,000 per month — in addition to housing and insurance benefits over the course of the league’s five-month regular season.

Players under G League contracts previously earned either $26,000 or $19,000. The increase will represent a pay raise of 35 percent or 84 percent, depending on the player’s classification.

The N.B.A. pays all player salaries in the G League.

Source: Marc Stein of The New York Times

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