Minor league basketball players live for the dream

The dream brought them in droves, so many young men the Greensboro Swarm scrambled to find extra coaches to help with the open, preseason tryout for North Carolina’s first NBA Development League team in more than a decade.

For 186 aspirants the dream was worth sacrificing a $200 entry fee and a sunny, early-autumn Sunday for a chance, however slim, to play for the Charlotte Hornets’ new minor-league affiliate. In fantasy, at least, a jump to the NBA was not far behind. So many players wanted to come, late registrants were turned away.

The workout was held at UNC Greensboro’s Kaplan Center for Wellness, an impressive $91 million athletic and fitness facility opened this past summer almost within sight of the pro team’s home court, a new 2,200-seat fieldhouse adjacent to the Greensboro Coliseum. “There’s such interest!” marveled Swarm assistant coach Jaime Vathielil, most recently associate director of basketball operations on Jim Larranaga’s staff at the University of Miami in football-fixated Florida. “Carolina’s such a great basketball state, such a good culture over here.”

Trajan Langdon, general manager of the D-League Long Island Nets, was impressed by the Swarm turnout even though, as a former Duke All-America, he’s well-acquainted with North Carolina’s passion for basketball. “That’s fantastic. Good for them,” he said. Langdon’s Nets were pleased with tryout attendance they capped at 150. The Brooklyn affiliate was added for the 2016-17 season along with the Swarm and Chicago’s Windy City Bulls, which recently signed ex-N.C. State assistant Bobby Lutz to their coaching staff.

“You’re looking at players that are hungry,” said Swarm head coach Noel Gillespie, noting some tryout participants came from as far away as Florida and Maryland. “These guys are starving, they’re doing anything to get to the next level, to get a sniff from the Swarm. Everybody’s chasing the same dream.”

Among the Greensboro hopefuls was 6-3 guard Jalen Witherspoon, a Mars Hill University starter who graduated earlier this year after topping the Lions’ 2016 squad in 3-point accuracy and steals. Lamenting the fact Mars Hill was “overshadowed” in its neighborhood by programs like Western Carolina and UNC Asheville, the Monroe product was determined to showcase his skills and hard work. “It would be big time” to ultimately play pro ball in Charlotte, said Witherspoon, 21. “This is a kid’s dream, really,” he added, echoing the theme for the day.

For love of the game

Also trying to capture the fancy of Swarm coaches prowling the sidelines in teal T-shirts with “Charlotte Basketball” on their chests was Aron Nwankwo, one of the taller players at 6-7. Nwankwo, 24, attended Pitt as a pre-med major on academic scholarship. In 2014 he earned 16 minutes of playing time in nine games before a shoulder injury ended his senior season, then briefly played pro ball in Montevideo, Uruguay. He returned to the States to be near his young son.

“I still love basketball,” he said. “I want to get the most out of it when I’m young.” To demonstrate his D-League credentials, he applied lessons instilled in college by defense-minded coach Jamie Dixon. “I tried to play really hard,” said the dark-bearded forward from Baltimore, his long hair reaching the 88 on the back of his sleeveless Swarm shirt. “At Pitt that’s what got me on the floor was my high motor. (Today) I played hard D. I did the tough stuff, the little stuff. I got rebounds. I also tried to show my versatility, step out and shoot it a little bit.”

Gillespie, previously a 14-year NBA assistant, conceded the Swarm’s staff came to the tryout seeking role players, “end-of-the-bench guys.” That modest standard still left out Witherspoon and Nwankwo when 15 players were quietly invited downstairs to play a full-court scrimmage on yet another Kaplan Center basketball court. A handful of prospects from that session ultimately were asked to attend the club’s upcoming training camp.

“Most of these guys are pretty much good D-League players, and if they keep working they can get to the next level,” said upbeat Swarm assistant Corsley Edwards, a veteran of 28 teams in the U.S. and overseas during a 12-year playing career.

Former Virginia guard Teven Jones was among the chosen few. The 6-foot Kannapolis native felt relieved and reassured after shuffling colleges and spending the last two years recovering from a foot injury. “Getting picked out of all those people, it feels great,” said Jones, 23. “It’s a blessing, because honestly I thought I was done the last two years.”

Upstairs, the multitude of unsuccessful players were led through a last round of stretching exercises, thanked politely and then dismissed. As anyone with a bit of tread wear on life’s tires knows, not all dreams come true – regardless of exhortations from coaches and marketers.

“That’s the reality, right?” asked Langdon. The 11th choice in the 1999 NBA draft, he played most of his pro career overseas. “That’s just the way it works in professional sports. That’s just the way it is. That’s the thing we play to – the dream.”

Never give up

Gillespie, like Langdon, stressed his team would be more an “extension” of the parent club than an affiliate, running the same schemes to assure seamless personnel movement within the organization. The trend in the D-League – founded in 2001 with two of its eight long-defunct clubs in Fayetteville and Asheville – is toward such close collaboration. Now all but eight of the NBA’s 30 franchises have single-allegiance Development League satellites, where they can develop players to their specifications or park roster members in need of more playing time.

League teams will reduce their rosters to 10 in time for the mid-November start of their 50-game season. There are two grades of D-League contracts: players earn either $26,000 or $19,000. Lodging expenses also are provided.

Last season 40 percent of NBA players had some D-League experience, dulling considerably the sting and stigma of getting sent down to the minors. Current NBA players with ACC ties who spent time in the Development League include Danny Green, James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston of North Carolina; N.C. State’s T.J. Warren; Wake Forest’s Ish Smith; and Duke’s Miles Plumlee, Josh McRoberts, Lance Thomas and Seth Curry.

D-League rosters are made up primarily of selections from the league’s own draft, slated this year for Oct. 30, and of players acquired via cut or assignment from NBA clubs, or as free agents, returnees from overseas, and survivors of open tryouts.

This past August an expansion draft was held in which the new teams picked unprotected players from the rosters of the 19 franchises. Among the Swarm’s draftees were Ralston Turner, the former N.C. State shooting guard with a year’s experience in the D-League, and Damien Wilkins, a member of the Wolfpack before transferring to Georgia in 2002. Wilkins 36, has played with five NBA clubs and was a Development League all-star in 2015.

As for the NBA hopes of those who got their start at one of the D-League’s public tryouts, there are a very few tantalizing tales of success. These are celebrated as examples, not exceptions, by Edwards, the well-traveled assistant.

“I never let anybody give up on themselves, because you never know,” he said. “I’ve seen an 89-year-old woman lift weights and have maybe 3 percent body fat, so dreams are always attainable.” And what more can you say after that?