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NBA PM: Best-Ever D-League Players

Hassan Whiteside is the most recent D-League breakout, but there have been many others to come before him.

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Before the Indiana Pacers officially called “dibs” on the Ft. Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Developmental League earlier this week, they were the only one of the NBDL’s 19 teams not to have had a one-to-one relationship with an NBA franchise. As more and more teams hitch themselves to what clearly is eventually going to be a full-on minor league for professional American basketball, it’s evident that the league really does see this as an opportunity to develop young talent.

And why shouldn’t they? Over the course of the last dozen years, the NBDL has sent plenty of talented players to the bigs, and while none of them have necessarily transformed into All-Star-level talents, there definitely have been D-League standouts who have played their way into big roles, sometimes with championship teams.

All that said, here’s a look at the best players ever to have spent time developing in the D-League:

#5 – Matt Barnes – As good as Barnes is, it’s kind of amazing that he’s been such a journeyman over the course of his NBA career, and that journey started with the Fayetteville Patriots of the D-League all the way back in 2002, the first year that the NBDL was a thing. He played the entire season there, then another season with the ABA’s Long Beach Jam before getting a shot with the L.A. Clippers. But once he found his way onto an NBA court, there was no going back. A dozen years later he’s still one of the most respected role players in the league.

#4 – Shaun Livingston – Once the #4 pick in the NBA Draft, Livingston had a long journey back to the league following his gruesome knee injury in 2007 that had some doctors considering whether it would be best to amputate his leg. He worked his rear end off to get back into playing shape and got a few games in with the Miami HEAT in 2008 before being traded to Memphis and almost immediately waived. His only choice at that point was to sign with the Tulsa 66ers, for whom he played three weeks. The OKC Thunder called him up at that point and he has worked himself back to credibility in the years since. He even earned himself a ring this past year in Golden State.

#3 – Hassan Whiteside – The most recent D-League standout, Whiteside had a fantastic season with the Miami HEAT in 2014-15 and has emerged as one of the better defensive big men in the league, which is saying a lot considering he hadn’t previously played an NBA game since being waived by Sacramento in 2012. During his time under Sacramento’s rule, he spent a lot of time with the Reno Bighorns, but he also played for the Sioux Falls Skyforce Grande Valley Vipers and Iowa Energy before finally making his mark in an NBA starting lineup.

#2 – Marcin Gortat – Before setting foot onto an NBA court, Gortat was assigned to the Anaheim Arsenal of the D-League back in 2007, but he only played there for a couple of weeks before earning his call-up to the Orlando Magic. He had only played in Europe prior to that NBDL experience, so test-driving the new model against inferior competition seemed like a safe bet before an NBA debut. Obviously Gortat passed with flying colors, and now he’s a $60 million man.

#1 – Danny Green – Easily one of the best players ever to have come out of the D-League, Green had a rough start to his NBA career, getting released by the Cavaliers in 2010 and then waived by San Antonio after having played in only two games. He then hopped around the NBDL for a good chunk of the next two seasons, playing for the Reno Bighorns and Austin Toros before finally getting his first real opportunity following the lockout in 2012. He started 38 games that year, earned a three-year, $36 million contract and has been a major cog for that team ever since. Best known for the 2013 NBA Finals, where he broke the record for most three-pointers in a championship series, Green obviously has come a long way from Reno.

Honorable Mention:

Jeremy Lin – While Lin’s success hasn’t necessarily been sustained since getting called up from the Erie Bayhawks just a single game into the 2011-12 NBDL season, he was at the time a national sensation the likes of which the NBA hasn’t since duplicated. Lin played 20 games in Erie the season before, but it was his unbelievable stretch with the Knicks the following year that earned him the biggest paycheck of his career: a three-year, $25 million contract that came less than a year from his time on a D-League roster.

Rafer Alston – Anybody who used to watch And1 mix tapes back in the ‘90s knew all about Skip 2 My Lou long before he turned legitimate after a legendary stint as one of streeball’s most revered icons, but it took a little time (six games) playing for the Mobile Revelers in 2002-03 for him to convince NBA teams that he was ready for a real opportunity to play against the best players in the world. Alston had himself a strong NBA career, even earning time as a starter for some really good Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets teams. Interestingly enough, he bookended his career by finishing it as a member of the D-League’s L.A. D-Fenders, though by then he had nothing left to prove.

Chuck Hayes – It wasn’t an easy to start to an NBA career for Chuck Hayes, who owned the Portsmouth Invitation back in 2005 but still wasn’t drafted, and though Houston did agree to give him an opportunity they did so by immediately sending him to the D-League, where he got quite a bit of experience as a member of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds. Eventually, Hayes got his shot with the Rockets and has remained a contributing member of NBA rosters ever since.

Gerald Green – Everybody knows Gerald Green for his dunking, but later in his career he proved that he was more than just a springy athlete. Following a brief stint in Russia between 2009 and 2011, Green returned to the States to take a job with the L.A. Lakers, who promptly cut him days before the season was to begin. So Green signed on with the L.A. D-Fenders to stay sharp while he gave the NBA another try, and the 2012 season in New Jersey that followed was pretty easily the most promising and entertaining of his career. He turned that lone D-League season into the best paycheck of his life, and he hasn’t been back to the D-League since.

Chris Andersen – As a member of the Fayetteville Patriots for three games during the D-League’s inaugural season, Birdman wasn’t exactly an NBDL mainstay who spent years toiling for his opportunity to play in the NBA. He got his shot pretty quickly, but that doesn’t change the fact that it took a showcasing on that level to earn an opportunity on the next one.

C.J. Watson – As a career backup NBA point guard, Watson has made himself a pretty nice living, even though the Orlando Magic will be his fifth team in eight seasons. He got his start with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in 2007, however, where he averaged 26.3 PPG and 5.8 APG in 16 appearances.

J.J. Barea – While he hasn’t quite been able to match the magic he mustered in the 2011 NBA Finals in the few years since earning his championship ring, Barea has proven to be a heady little spark plug of an NBA point guard for going on a decade. Once upon a time, however, he started as a member of the Fort Worth Flyers, for whom he played only eight games. In those eight games he topped 40 points scoring twice, which shows why his stay in the NBDL wasn’t a long one.

Ramon Sessions – Now that Sessions is a regularly-contributing member of a burgeoning NBA team, it’s hard to remember the time when pundits weren’t sure if he’d ever make it as a pro. The Milwaukee Bucks, for example, sent him to the D-League for seasoning almost immediately after drafting him, but Sessions put on a show in the NBDL, averaging 30.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG and 5.0 APG in his first full week playing for the Tulsa 66ers. He of course was named D-League Performer of the Week, a feat which he’d repeat later in the season before getting the call to move back up to the Bucks.

There are, of course, many other respectable NBA players that have spent time in the D-League, but these are the best of those that earned their first real crack at NBA success following a strong showing in the NBDL. Whiteside is the most recent burgeoning stud from developmental pedigree, but it’s only a matter of time before one even better than him comes forth and makes it so those 11 teams without a one-to-one D-League team feel obliged to have the same minor league convenience that the other 19 have.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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