Why you should care
Because Linsanity was born in the D-League depths.
Mississauga, Ontario, may not spring to mind for world-class hoops. But don’t be fooled — Toronto’s eternally gray neighbor and home of the Raptors’ minor league affiliate, Raptors 905, recently hosted the best collection of professional basketball prospects.
The NBA 2017 D-League Showcase is minor league basketball’s premier event and a coming-out party for future NBAers. Twenty-two teams compete in the NBA’s development league, each affiliated with a parent organization that plucks players who prove their worth. Halfway into every season, the league holds this five-day event for NBA scouts and international executives looking to spot — and poach — the next diamond in the rough. Last year, 32 players were promoted from the D-League to the NBA; four of those call-ups occurred during the 2015–2016 Showcase. In total, 132 NBA players have earned their stripes in the D-League.
Here are OZY’s favorite D-League prospects. Some are top prospects; some are sleepers. We think all will soon have permanent NBA homes.
Brianté Weber, Sioux Falls Skyforce (Miami Heat)
Weber has already proven he can play in the NBA — he just needs to stay healthy. From 2010 to 2015, Weber starred at VCU, leading the upstart Rams deep into March Madness with his ferocious defense. A brutal knee injury cut his senior season short, 12 steals shy of becoming the NCAA’s all-time leader. Weber had a great first pro season last year, earning six games (four starts) with the Memphis Grizzlies last season. His length and athleticism make him a versatile defensive point guard who excels as a rebounder (7.6 per game) and distributor (7.2 assists per game) and can score as needed (15.2 points). Weber is widely considered the top D-League prospect. Watch for the skinny guard’s ponytail to fly around Miami.
Dakari Johnson, Oklahoma City Blue (OKC Thunder)
College fans remember Johnson from his 2013–2015 run at Kentucky, where he helped UK reach two Final Fours and became one of seven teammates drafted in 2015. Johnson was the consensus top center in America out of high school, but due to a loaded roster, he was largely relegated to a backup role in Lexington. The Thunder drafted Johnson, hoping that increased D-League playing time would help the 7-footer soar. So far, so good: As a starter for the Blue, Johnson has become the D-League’s best young big man. He’ll have to build more strength as he matures, but his current 18 points and eight rebounds per game should land him on an NBA roster.
Abdel Nader, Maine Red Claws (Boston Celtics)
Most D-Leaguers fall into two categories: young, undisciplined athletes or veterans who can’t keep an NBA job. Neither applies to Nader, a wily decision-maker who defends well and shoots 40 percent from three. At 23, he’s older than most D-League rookies. The 6′8″ point forward has excellent court vision and a controlled style of play that would suggest a background in international competition. The Chicago-raised Egyptian native is not as flashy as other D-League stars, but he has a chance to be a forceful contributor for many years. Nader, who averages 22 points, six rebounds and four assists per game, is the most NBA-ready prospect to have not yet made the big league.
Quinn Cook, Canton Charge (Cleveland Cavaliers)
LeBron James politely reminded Cavaliers management recently that his team still needed better point guard play. While he probably wasn’t asking for a D-League call-up, that may well be what he gets. In his second D-League season, Cook, the former Duke national champ, has been lights out. He averages 25 points per game, along with half a dozen assists and 4.5 rebounds. His game is clearly more mature than most competitors’ and ready for the next level.
Axel Toupane, Toronto Raptors 905 (Toronto Raptors)
Toupane is a 6′7″ French swingman who can flat-out score, even with limited opportunities. At 16.6 points per game, he tops the league-leading Raptors 905 in scoring. The 905 are equal-opportunity scorers — evidenced by a cast of five double-digit scorers — but every so often Toupane decides to take over. He’s an excellent rim attacker from the wing and a comfortable distributor with a formidable deep shot. Toupane’s length makes him a capable defender at multiple positions, so long as he stops gambling on boneheaded steal attempts. He began his pro career as a 19-year-old in France, and he’s steadily improved every season since. Watch for an NBA contract to come from Toronto.
Alfonzo McKinnie, Windy City Bulls (Chicago Bulls)
Most scouts consider McKinnie a “project” because, up until this season, he was a relative unknown. The 24-year-old Chicagoan’s college career was stunted by recurring knee injuries. Postcollege, he “pretty much went off the grid,” says Windy City Bulls coach Nate Loenser. McKinnie played a season each in Luxembourg and Mexico before attending an open tryout for the expansion franchise Bulls this off-season. Now, he’s starring for the D-League Bulls and has a legitimate chance for promotion to his hometown parent organization. At 6′8″ and 215 pounds, he’s a bit small to play power forward and is still developing an NBA-quality three-point shot. But he possesses freakish athleticism, is an impressive defender and rebounder and creates his own opportunities.
Jalen Jones, Maine Red Claws (Boston Celtics)
Jones went undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, but after seeing him in action, you wonder how. The “tweener” label is likely the culprit — a name given to forwards who are too small to play inside and not quite skilled enough to hold the perimeter. That was the scouting report on Jones out of college, but halfway through his first pro season, he has improved his outside shooting tremendously and can still push around larger opponents through sheer will. Jones is a high-energy ball hawk and a vocal defensive leader. It’s just a matter of time.