The connotation of a D-League assignment is quickly shifting from a negative one to a positive one as more and more success stories emerge from the developmental ranks. Richard Cho and the Charlotte Hornets appear to be big believers in the the system, incorporating former NBADL stars like Anthony Tolliver and Jeff Adrien into their rosters in recent years. And we learned on Sunday morning that the Hornets will send the ninth overall pick in last June's draft, Noah Vonleh, to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
To which I say, this is fantastic news.
Coach Steve Clifford has lamented the poor timing of Vonleh's sports hernia surgery that caused him to miss training camp. And as he told The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell, Vonleh has consequently fallen behind the learning curve while trying to play catch-up with his principles.
Going from the college game to the NBA game is an adjustment for any player: the game is faster, the athletes are quicker, and the schemes are more advanced on both sides of the ball. Add in the fact that Vonleh didn't turn 19 until August 24th of this year, and missing both training camp and preseason really hurt his development. As a result, Vonleh has played in just four games, mostly in garbage time, with modest results.
Garbage time minutes aren't what a team wants to help develop a player they're invested in. First off, the prospect won't be playing with the best teammates to support his on-court development. Consequently, playing with the back end of the rotation players makes it difficult to get a feel for how the offense would be run as if he was running with the starters or even the 6-9 guys. Additionally, the playing time is is too sparing and inconsistent for a player to get a real feel. Considering that lottery picks like Vonleh have been featured players and starters all of their careers, this makes it difficult to get in rhythm once they do check-in.
Talk to players all around the league, and they'll tell you how much different it is to come off of the bench versus starting. That is an adjustment in and of itself, no matter how much you hear them tell you about "staying ready for when the team needs me" because it's a different feel.
Going to Fort Wayne, Vonleh should see more of the featured player role that he's been accustomed to. With that will come steady playing time against opponents that always have something to prove. The Hornets share the Mad Ants with 12 other teams, which is far from ideal, but if Charlotte can give any input into Vonleh's time there, he'll be better for it.
Ultimately, Vonleh is better off in the D-League getting playing time and building confidence versus watching games from the Hornets bench. There is only so much that a player with Vonleh's potential can learn from watching alone; he needs live rounds and meaningful minutes to further his development. Playing in a more competitive environment greater than garbage time is how Vonleh will truly learn what works and doesn't at the NBA level.
At summer league in 2013, I spoke with John Milsap, Paul's brother, and he pointed out that playing in the D-League not only makes it easier for scouts and teams to follow you, but your family as well. For a 19-year old like Vonleh, being able to stay close to the Hornets and his family while he's in Indiana should help him get comfortable while he's there. Besides, Vonleh played at the University of Indiana.
Quincy Miller, formerly of the Denver Nuggets, echoed similar sentiments to me at that same summer league. "The D-League helped me a lot. I went down there and showed a lot of people what I could do. It was going well with my team even though we were losing, and I think I played pretty consistent," said Miller. Miller also added that getting the minutes and getting better was more important than sitting on an NBA bench.
The unfortunate thing about lottery picks is that not all of them are NBA-ready on draft night. Take the Timberwolves' Shabazz Muhammad for example. Muhammad also had to adapt to going from being the guy all of his life to being DNP-CD on a nightly basis. It wasn't because Rick Adelman had a vendetta against him, he just wasn't very good and was having trouble adapting his game to the NBA.
Muhammad spent a few games with the Iowa Energy, and was finally able to show that he could play in the NBA. He finally cracked the Timberwolves' rotation in the second half of the season, albeit in garbage time, but he showed flashes of improvement. Now, in less than one year, he's gone from being the 15th man to a starter averaging 13.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and an assist per game on 49.5 percent shooting.
Vonleh is currently where Muhammad was a year ago, and seems like this would be an ideal path for Vonleh to follow. If Vonleh can make the most of his stint with the Mad Ants and show the Hornets that he is deserving of a more expanded role down the stretch, he could be miles ahead of where he is now by this time next year.
Today, it seems that if a team is willing to invest a lottery pick and a D-League assignment in you, they believe in you. A team wouldn't waste valuable time and money on a player that they didn't feel was valuable. For Vonleh, this is a huge opportunity to make up for lost time and get crucial developmental minutes now. At his age, patience is certainly going to be a virtue with Vonleh, but this will undoubtedly benefit him if approached with the right attitude.
For Vonleh, he is fortunate to have landed on a team that embraces the D-League like they have with players like Tolliver and Adrien. Sure, Vonleh's teammates Cody Zeller or Bismack Biyombo never had an assignment, but there's no right or wrong way to make a path to being an NBA player. The only thing that matters is that you're able to become one.
Vonleh's assignment will be good for him, but also for the team.