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G League gains importance in 'NBA family'

G League gains importance in 'NBA family'
Joey Buss heads the South Bay Lakers, formerly the Los Angeles D-fenders, in the NBA's G League, formerly known as the D League. (Christina House / For the Times)

Every NBA referee hired in the past 15 years came through the G League, formerly known as the D League.

Three NBA head coaches (four to start the season) and 29 NBA assistant coaches came through a G League coaching staff.

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Many NBA basketball and business operations employees came through the G League, including the Lakers’ advance scout, head athletic trainer, video coordinator and public relations coordinators.

The G League’s on-the-job training touches all parts of the NBA but the minor league’s rapid expansion has footprints all over NBA floors. Currently, 42% of NBA roster players have G League experience.

The G is for Gatorade, the first entitlement partner in a U.S. pro sports league, and growth. With 26 teams, the league is close to producing its “30 for 30” with a single-affiliation partnership for each NBA team. Washington committed to adding one next season. Denver, New Orleans and Portland are deep into the process to complete a single-affiliation system.

What began as an eight-team league in 2001 has boomed in membership and reputation. The player development model shifted the business model in the past three years from most teams being independently owned to NBA franchises owning and operating most teams today.

“We’ve been moving fast and pushing hard but I’ve been absolutely having a blast,” said Malcolm Turner, who became president of an 18-team D League in 2014 after PGA and Major League Baseball experience. “We’re this league that’s still trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. You really have a chance to put your imprint on something. It’s one that the NBA family and our NBA owners, coaches and GMs have embraced.”

The G League is most known for hidden gems such as Hassan Whiteside, Jeremy Lin and JaMychal Green, or developed draftees like Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela and Danny Green. But it also had head coaches Luke Walton of the Lakers, Dave Joerger of Sacramento and Quin Snyder of Utah on its benches first.

The Lakers were the first NBA franchise to purchase an affiliate in 2006. Those Los Angeles D-Fenders became the South Bay Lakers this year but operate with the same model of shared offices, practice space and philosophies. Like most NBA/G League relationships, the teams use similar systems and terminology to smooth transitions with call-ups, assignments, training camps and NBA Summer League entries.

Nick Mazzella, the fifth-year general manager of South Bay, joined the Lakers organization in 2006 in public relations and now has an office next to those of Lakers GM Rob Pelinka, Lakers part-owner and South Bay president Joey Buss, Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and Walton.

“We try to look at our setup as a 27-man roster instead of it being two separate entities,” Mazzella said. “Magic, Rob, Joey and Luke are empowering people. Joey Buss and I work closely together. Magic and Rob trust us to build the South Bay and summer league rosters and to identify targets for two-ways and call-ups.”

The new two-way contract allows NBA teams to expand rosters from 15 to 17 players if they choose to give two-way contracts on a player with four years of experience or fewer. The players spend a majority of the season in the G League and up to 45 days with the NBA franchise. They are guaranteed a $75,000 salary but can make up to $275,000 because pay corresponds to which league they are playing in.

It also gives NBA teams more opportunity to protect rights to G League players, who otherwise can be poached by any NBA team or an international team.

“It really complements what we’re doing from a growth standpoint because we want to continue to grow and add teams but also inject more and stronger talent into the league even faster,” Turner said.

With the two-year contract’s addition, the G League average age (24.2) dropped by a full year from the end of last season (25.2). Every NBA team utilized two-way contracts except for Minnesota, which has one. In Phoenix’s case, rookie point guard Mike James started 10 Suns games on a two-way contract for a franchise that also called up a G League head coach to its NBA bench.

Quinn Cook embodies the G League opportunity. He was the league’s rookie of the year for 2015-16 and played in the NBA for Dallas and New Orleans after last season’s All-Star break. This season, the former Duke guard is on a two-way contract for Golden State and has played three games for the Warriors.

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“I don’t play the game for money,” Cook said as his Santa Cruz team boarded a flight for a game at Sioux Falls. “I don’t play for fame. I play to reach my dream and my ultimate dream was to play in the NBA.

“I like that I’m with the standard franchise for basketball. It’s an honor to be part of the Warriors. I get to learn from the front office, coaches and players. Every time I’m up with Golden State, I learn so much. I’m a sponge around those guys and they treat me like I’ve been part of the team for a while.”

Sioux Falls, Miami’s affiliate, and Erie, Atlanta’s affiliate, are the outliers in a purposeful proximity trend. The average distance between parent franchises and affiliates was reduced from 550 miles in 2012-13 to 120 this season.

“It clearly facilitates player movement between NBA roster and G-League roster for sure,” Turner said. “But one of the things that we’re also starting to see is the G League being able to leverage some of the business assets of the NBA team to drive the G League team’s business.”

Last season, NBA arenas hosted four G League games with attendance of more than 15,000.

The league is not just for the young players. Kendrick Perkins, a 13-year pro, is trying to earn his way back in Canton. NBA veterans complete rehabilitation with G League game action.

Retired veterans are carving new careers, like 2016-17 G League Coach of the Year Jerry Stackhouse (Raptors 905) and new GMs Elton Brand (Delaware) and Malik Rose (Erie).

The G League is used as a test market for rules, like four-referee crews in November and this season’s two-minute overtimes and shot-clock resets to 14 seconds after offensive rebounds. The Gatorade partnership also incorporates sports science opportunities.

“We feel it’s the second best basketball league in the world,” Mazzella said.

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