Hunter Atkins’s NY Times piece on the fragile existence that is the 10-day NBA contract eloquently illuminates the desperate, stress-filled lives of those operating on the fringe of the NBA. Andre Emmett, the article’s protagonist, gives fans a name and a face with whom to identify and, perhaps, sympathize. But Emmett’s individual story also sheds light the rampant, broad dysfunction of the NBA’s development system.
Compare Emmett’s up and down journey with Jeremy Lin’s much shorter rise to the NBA. We now know that Lin, despite his struggles in other organizations, did in fact have the ability to produce at the NBA level. But though the outcomes differ, the real parallel here is that both players fell victim to the NBA’s default methodology of outsourcing player development. Despite the reality that many teams, (contenders or otherwise) struggle to field productive nine-man rotations, the NBA virtually forgoes any attempt to control the development of the athletes that could potentially fill roster spots 7-12.
In theory, the D-League presents a great a chance for young up-and-comers to hone their craft under the watchful eye of a parent club. In practice, it’s a much different story. Only a few teams use it effectively (hint: two of them are at the top of the Western Conference) and some of those minor league franchises operate as general free-for-alls. Perhaps because of this, quite a few players spurn the slim opportunity for a call-up to make a better living playing, and developing, overseas.
Eurobasket sensation Bo McCalebb exemplifies the downside of talent development outsourcing. McCalebb was clearly not a player that could have helped an NBA club upon leaving New Orleans University. However, his time overseas developed his game to the point where quite a few NBA teams would have interest in adding him to their current rosters. Now firmly entrenched as a European superstar, the odds of McCalebb coming back stateside to help fix the Lakers or Magic’s point guard problems are slim to none.
Admittedly, part of this may have nothing to do with the NBA’s current developmental structure and more so to do with an individual’s personality. Maybe for a player like McCalebb, the NBA isn’t the dream destination as it is with many other players. Perhaps he is the type of individual who is happier being “the guy” for an overseas team rather than a bit player in the US. Or maybe the dude just likes living in Italy.
Yet one has to wonder how much talent the NBA misses out on with these middle-tier players by foregoing any real attempt to cultivate their skill sets. Could the NBA implement a full-proof system to turn every middling college player into a productive NBA one? Probably not. But recent events should make us wonder if a different structure could allow the right individuals to realize their full potential.
That’s not saying Andre Emmett’s story should have turned out any differently. There could be a number of variables from personality to physical limitations that could have destined him for a life on the fringe. Jeff Van Gundy always said a player could be one of three things: soft, selfish or stupid, but not two of three. Does Emmett have two of those maligned traits? Or is he simply just not any good? Those are questions of great importance, but they hide an even bigger one: Is the NBA’s domestic developmental system helping him succeed?