NBA AM: Fringe Players Have Tough Decision

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Around the NBA, it’s unlikely that we’ll see much more player movement between now and the start of the season. By now, the free agent pool has mostly dried up with just a couple of notable names still without contracts.

Over the next several weeks, NBA D-League teams will be holding open tryouts with the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough. Prospective players can pay a $150 registration fee and participate in various workouts and on-court activities in an attempt to earn an invite to training camp.

Outside of the NBA and D-League, overseas players are beginning to cycle back to their respective clubs with the start of training camp just around the corner. Teams in the Euroleague kick off their 2016-17 seasons during the first half of October.

In recent years, many players (even some with significant NBA experience on their resume) have turned to the D-League. More players are getting called up to the NBA each season and the talent pool in the D-League seems to be getting much better. The league is expanding with three more teams set to tip-off next season and the goal is to eventually have 30 D-League teams so each NBA franchise has its own minor league affiliate.

While the D-League is growing, one facet of the system that has yet to improve are player salaries. Prior to this season, there were three different pay tiers. Players with prior NBA experience were placed into the A Tier and earned roughly $25,000. The B Tier paid players with some level of experience about $19,000 and those who went undrafted out of college earned $13,000 in the C Tier.

A source confirmed a report last month by Chris Reichert of Upside Motor that the D-League will raise salaries next season. Players in the A Tier will earn $26,000 and players in the B Tier will earn $19,500. There will no longer be a C Tier, which means the minimum salary in the D-League will rise a bit next season.

Until the D-League can raise salaries to a much higher amount, players on the fringe of the NBA are faced with difficult decisions. These players must decide if their best bet would be to play in the D-League or try their hand overseas, where they can earn a significantly higher salary. Putting up big numbers overseas could help catch the eye of an NBA team.

The benefit to playing in the D-League is that players are much closer to the NBA and can be easily monitored throughout the season. The odds of earning a 10-day contract are much higher than being overseas. Last season, there were 42 call-ups made to the NBA between 32 players. Two seasons ago, a record 47 players received an all-time high 63 call-ups.

The longstanding problem with the D-League are the salaries. While the D-League is a legitimate avenue for making it into the NBA, we’re beginning to see more players spend less time in the D-League or bypass it altogether to play for an overseas club. These teams can offer players exponentially more money than D-League teams can.

Some NBA teams work around a player going straight to an overseas club by guaranteeing that player some money to help offset the low D-League salaries. The idea is the player will go through the NBA team’s training camp and will be waived prior to the start of the regular season and be claimed by the team’s D-League affiliate.

For example, the Orlando Magic signed Seth Curry to a minimum contract two seasons ago with a partial guarantee. Curry’s guarantee from the Magic was $150,000 to come to camp and he was waived just prior to the start of the season. He spent the majority of that season with the Erie BayHawks. Typically, players will receive between $50,000-$75,000 in these instances.

For D-League players, the name of the game is trying to earn a 10-day contract. Depending on how long the player has been in the league, 10-day contracts can range from about $30,000 to $60,000. Considering that players can only earn up to $26,000 in the D-League, 10-day contracts are extremely valuable for players.

There is a lot of risk involved with playing in the D-League, as players are a serious injury away from missing significant time and losing the ability to make a living. Not all players are able to receive a guarantee as large as Curry’s was or even earn a call-up. Teams overseas can offer players a guaranteed six-figure deal and give them a chance to showcase their game in an attempt to play in the NBA.  

Last summer, former Florida Gators center Patric Young had offers from a couple of NBA teams to play in the Summer League. Young eventually turned down those offers for a two-year, $1.6 million guaranteed contract in Greece. He was just 10 games into his season when he tore his ACL. Signing for that guaranteed contract turned out to be a great decision on his part.

One player recently told Basketball Insiders that he turned down multiple offers to play in the Summer League in order to weigh his options overseas. A stipulation of those offers included a commitment to play this upcoming season in the D-League. He decided against that route and signed for a six-figure deal overseas.

Another player said that he had a training camp offer and D-League invite from an NBA team that already seemed to have its roster set. He wanted to know that there was a real chance to compete for a roster spot and this particular team didn’t seem to have any spots available. Rather than settle for the D-League, he decided to sign overseas.

For a lot of these fringe players, having to make these kinds of decisions can be a long and grueling process. They’ll often take as much time as they can to weigh their options and come to a decision they feel puts them in the best position to fulfill their dream of playing in the NBA.

Some players feel like grinding through a season in the D-League is the best way to stay on the NBA radar, while others believe playing well overseas against some of the best international competition is a better route. Several players this summer opted to leave the D-League and sign overseas, including Erick Green, Russ Smith, Michael Frazier, Dwight Buycks, Ronald Roberts and Ricky Ledo.

The idea for the D-League is to raise the salaries to a point where they can stay competitive with those overseas clubs. That likely is still a ways away from becoming a reality, but is something that has been discussed. The latest bump in salary set to take effect next season isn’t necessarily going to start persuading players to stay put, but it is a step in the right direction.

For the time being, these fringe players will continue to weigh all of their options. Every player considers different factors before signing a new contract, and their priorities will likely determine whether they take the bigger payday overseas or try to get a call-up from the D-League.