When the Hawks signed point guard Malcolm Delaney, who had last played stateside five years ago as a senior member of the Virginia Tech Hokies, it was the culmination of nine years of official and unofficial scouting. The current Atlanta Hawks assistant general manager, Jeff Peterson, got a firsthand look at his talent and almost a decade later Peterson is finally employing Delaney’s services.
After going undrafted in 2011, Delaney bounced around overseas on a journey that took him across two continents. The list of teams he has played for is almost indecipherable for those unfamiliar with the Euroleague. His first three years playing internationally were season-long stops as a member of Elan Chalon of the top-tier French LNB Pro A, then the Budivelnyk Kyiv of the Ukrainian SuperLeague, then a year with a sporting club you may have actually heard of in Bayern Munich.
The last two years, Delaney spent with PBC Lokomotiv-Kuban, which based in Krasnodar, Russia and a part of a newly formed top-tier league in Russia. Their league, VTB United League, is mostly comprised of Russian teams but essentially covers a large swath of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, from Kazakhstan to the Czech Republic.
In all, it’s a remarkable journey for a player who could have laid his NBA dreams to rest after going undrafted. Similarly, for the Hawks, this contract is the culmination of much more travel, note-taking and deliberation than the casual fan would realize. I imagine Delaney has had unique basketball experiences at each stop, on and off the court. He has dealt with many language and cultural barriers, and while receiving a salary to play a game he presumably loves is the dream for many, there are always pitfalls in your career. It makes for a well-rounded person, but also a difficult scouting experience for NBA teams looking to find cheap talent.
Imagine being able to develop a guy specifically for your desired environment, whether that’s a certain offensive or defensive scheme or preferred locker room experience. We know the current incarnation of the Hawks as a new age, pace-and-space offensive and blitzing defensive team. The organization strives to be cutting edge, as the unveiling of a state-of-the-art medicine and practice facility indicates. And yet, there is one glaring resource lacking into which almost three-fourths of teams have already tapped.
As the salary cap booms to unprecedented and unanticipated levels, a big inequality lies in the value of gaining an edge during draft night or plucking players who played professionally away from the NBA. A minimum salaried player represents a smaller and smaller percentage of the cap every season, since those numbers were written in stone via the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement without projection for a new TV deal that made the league flush with money.
What better way to find fits for your club than an emulation of it at a lower level of competition? Neither the Division-I of the NCAA nor international basketball are good proxies for the speed and the physicality of the game at the NBA level. In addition, there are the aforementioned cultural difficulties associated with playing in another country, not to mention the many rule differences between, say, the FIBA-controlled EuroBasket and the NBA.
Luckily, there is a minor league controlled by NBA clubs that provides development on and off the court under the watchful eye of parent clubs, the NBA Developmental League. In past seasons, as D-League clubs are snatched up in either one-to-one affiliations, when the parent clubs fully owns and operates the affiliate, or hybrid arrangements, when the parent club funds it but allows local ownership to maintain the business aspect, there was always a team to which unaffiliated clubs could assign young players.
But with no more unaffiliated D-League teams, those players must now be assigned to a team already in conjunction with a different NBA organization via a flex rule. Essentially only a team with an open roster spot can accept that player, leaving less control as to what D-League experience that player will receive.
As of the 2016-17 season, 22 teams will have a direct affiliate, which includes the inaugural seasons for the Windy City Bulls, Long Island Nets and Greensboro Swarm, with Chicago, Brooklyn and Charlotte as parent teams respectively. This does not include Milwaukee, who has been very aggressive in acquiring a club, and the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers who previously had singular relationships with a club.
Curiously absent from that 22 team figure is Atlanta, despite its forward thinking and some main organizational figures possessing extensive D-League experience. Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox at one stretch was in the same position of the Canton Charge, affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers. In addition, current assistant coach Taylor Jenkins spent four years as an assistant coach and one as the head coach of the Austin Toros, affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs. You may have seen him recently as the play caller for the Hawks summer league team in Las Vegas this past week.
A league source has estimated the startup costs of a D-League team at around $7 million, which is near the figure for the average contract for the 2016-17 season. For further comparison, the salary cap from last season to this upcoming season made a jump three times as large, and the spending spree that followed leads many to believe teams are not exactly hurting financially.
It’s time, folks. The Hawks need to exhaust every available resource to gaining an edge in the dog-eat-dog world of big time basketball.
The team needs a D-League affiliate to retain a competitive edge.
Just in the past four years, the Hawks have been among the most lauded organizations for finding free agent diamonds in the rough and developing useful players. DeMarre Carroll. Kent Bazemore. The organization has a clear knack for being able to churn out rotation players when other clubs had given up on them.
While their drafting exploits have been more hit-or-miss, think about how far third-year player Tim Hardaway, Jr. came last season. He clearly benefited from five early season assignments to the D-League, but because of a lack of a permanent partner, he split time between the Toros and Charge. Those are two very different schemes and environments. Imagine if he or Malcolm Delaney or the still raw Edy Tavares were to spend time in a kind of basketball laboratory experiment, headed by similar minds to the Atlanta Hawks’ front office.
Some teams have chosen to use their affiliate as a basketball workshop, carefully crafting and testing different modes of play that can be used by the big club. You think Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s obsession with threes and shots at the rim has gone overboard? Check out the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
The D-League can also be used to develop coaches and operational employees in addition to players, like Jenkins. Additionally, Hawks can increase their footprint by placing a similarly branded team in Savannah or Birmingham or Augusta or Chattanooga. Sadly, the Hawks’ plan to form a D-League team was given a setback this past year, as the person tapped to head the exploratory phase chose to resign shortly afterwards.
One of the biggest concerns with keeping talent in the de facto minor league of the NBA is the low wage scale. For the upcoming season, players will earn either $19,500 or $26,000 for their services if they aren’t on an NBA roster, which is actually a pay raise from years past. The low salaries of D-League players tend to steer away fringe NBA players, as they can typically garner six or seven-figure salaries internationally. Unfortunately, this means that without an NBA contract, the talent of non-assigned players in the D-League is watered down a bit. Still, success stories exist such as 2013 undrafted free agent Troy Daniels parlaying clutch deep shooting with the Vipers and later the Rockets during a playoff run into a three year, $10 million contract with the Hornets this off-season.
As the summer leagues come to a close, this is a time when fringe prospects begin to look elsewhere for a path to the big league. Summer league standouts may be turned away from the low salaries of the D-League in unable to make an NBA training camp. They may choose continue to earn a livable salary in the Euroleague or elsewhere, and the Hawks may have to devote more time and energy to scout these prospects halfway around the globe.
There is an easier way, a way 22 other clubs have deemed important enough to pursue. Atlanta can own and/or operate a team in their own image with their own vision. No more assigning players to whatever teams have space to accept them. It’s time to begin developing future Hawks on their own terms.