TORONTO — Only a few miles from the site of Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, before a couple thousand people in an arena primarily used to play minor-league hockey, Jimmer Fredette couldn’t help but think big.
And he hopes his second chance — or more accurately, his sixth chance — is still coming.
Such is the mentality of the NBA Development League, which held its All-Star Game on Saturday in Toronto on the same floor where LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kobe Bryant practiced a couple hours earlier. There was symmetry in that being in the shadow of the big league’s All-Star weekend almost served as a reminder to the D-League’s best that the NBA might not be as far from their reach as they sometimes think.
“You’re always hopeful,” said Fredette, the MVP of Saturday’s D-League game in which the Eastern Conference squad beat its Western Conference counterparts 128-124. “Everybody in this league, that’s what their dream is. They want to get back or into the NBA, or further their career. That’s what this league is for, and I’m no different.”
Well, he sort of is.
Fredette was the No. 10 pick by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2011 draft, not long after “Jimmermania” swept college basketball when he was the NCAA player of the year as a senior at BYU. He was traded to Sacramento on draft night, played in 179 games for the Kings before being waived and has had stints since with Chicago, New Orleans twice, and San Antonio.
Right now, he’s posting impressive numbers (22.6 points, 4.8 assists) with the Westchester Knicks in the D-League. Someone, he thinks, might notice.
“They want to see fight,” Fredette said.
More than half of the players in Saturday’s D-League game have some NBA experience, the league has a record 19 teams right now — with at least three more planned in the coming years — and the stigma that accompanies going to the minors seems to be diminishing over time.
It is becoming the true feeder league that the NBA always envisioned.
“I think it’s all attitude and your mindset,” said Tyus Jones of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a first-round NBA draft pick in 2015 who spent some time in the D-League. “If you look at it as an opportunity to play and work on things in a game setting, then you’re going to make the most of it. If you look at it as ‘Why do I have to go down there and I shouldn’t have to and this isn’t fair,’ then you’re not going to get as good of results as you can.”
The list of success stories just keeps growing.
The first D-League call-up was Chris Andersen in 2001, and when the Miami Heat forward was told of how common it is now — there were more than 60 call-ups to the NBA last season — he raved about how far the league has come. Heat center Hassan Whiteside, who also toiled in the D-League, could be in line for a big-time contract this summer. Seth Curry, the brother of the reigning NBA MVP, played in the D-League before his NBA chance came as well.
Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton played in the D-League for exactly three games. But what he showed in those three games, he thinks, might have been part of the reason why the Bucks got him as part of a trade with Detroit. And this past summer, Middleton signed a deal that will pay him $70 million over five years.
“I was only there for a few games,” Middleton said. “But I know they helped me. I needed to play.”
For as far as the D-League has come — and it has — there’s no denying it’s still a grind.
“This was a great opportunity for these kids,” Eastern Conference coach Dan Craig of the Sioux Falls Skyforce said. “It’s an All-Star Game at a professional level. It’s really great for them.”
Craig and his Skyforce assistant Octavio De La Grana were in a hurry to get out after the game, for a very simple reason. They had about two hours to get to the airport and catch a flight to ensure they would be back with the Skyforce on Sunday, because practice awaits.
Such is life in the D-League.
It’s not easy, but there a colossal potential payoff.
“It’s an opportunity to develop my game,” Fredette said. “That’s what this league is for.”
By Tim Reynolds -Associated Press