Friday, February 21, 2014

D-Leaguers: A Look at the Springfield Armor Standouts

For years, NBA executives have touted the NBA Development League as a place to experiment with potential NBA rules for young talent to rise. In 2005, the D League officially became a minor league farm system for the NBA, much in the same way that Major League Baseball teams use AAA, AA and A teams to bring up talent. Nets fans may remember the frequency with which Tyshawn Taylor and Tornike Shengelia were sent up and down from the D League. The Brooklyn Nets are lucky enough to be one of 14 NBA teams to have their own farm team: the Springfield Armor.

Watching D League games is not as close to watching an NBA game as one might think. D League games tend to have a weird, stop-and-go pace, and by that I mean that players usually tend to take a shot with fewer than 10 seconds gone by in the shot clock and it seems that foul calls are made very often. These teams' rosters also change at a pretty fast pace, too, which can make it difficult to establish chemistry. These two factors, along with the nature of the D League itself, indicate that the league is really utilized as an individual showcase for players looking for a callup. This is probably as true of Springfield as it is of any D League team, but this well-coached squad has established a small nucleus of Darius Johnson-Odom, Adonis Thomas and Willie Reed that works pretty well together.

Though the Armor have underwhelmed as a team this season, they have quite a few players with considerable talent. Currently, the Nets have two open roster spots – so there is a chance that one of these young talents might be called up to the NBA, though they are pursuing other options. Here's a quick breakdown of the players who might see a callup:

Willie Reed

A 6'10" power forward/center, "Showtime" Willie Reed has taken the D-League by storm with his exciting dunks and alley-oop jams. In addition to his exciting play style, Reed is a tough defender – think of a poor man's DeAndre Jordan but with a good, strong defensive foundation. A supreme athlete, Reed is a big man who can run the floor with relative ease and surprising grace, but also plays well in halfcourt sets and defends shots effectively. Reed plays with a lot of energy and really skies for rebounds, as he loves to showcase his leaping ability. Reed could definitely bring a spark of energy to a Nets frontcourt that is old and slow. Reed and Mason Plumlee could be a really electric duo.

Per 36 minutes, Reed averages 16.5 points, just over 10 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and is shooting 59.8%, good for sixth best in the D League. Reed is an adept defender – he told Ridiculous Upside in an interview that defense is his "identity." He excels especially in the low post and could help out with the rim protection that Brooklyn needs so badly. One cause for concern is his size – he looks big when playing against other D Leaguers, but he may be a bit undersized for an NBA center and at 220 pounds, his slim frame could make it easy for bigs to bully him down low. In the Nets' new small lineup, though, Reed might fit right in.

He also has a bit of NBA experience, as the Memphis Grizzlies called him up to their roster late last season and invited him to their training camp last summer. Reed is something of a fan favorite among Armor fans because of his athleticism and ability to dunk, but has also worked extensively on his offensive post moves, allowing him to become more of a scoring threat around the basket – but these post moves still leave a lot to be desired and he tends to get caught up somewhat easily. Nevertheless, his defense is valuable and if you put him in the right situation under the net, he will score. Reed fills a hole and is one of the most likely candidates to be called up this season, along with...

Ebanks is a long-armed slasher who could fit very well with the Nets' new-look, long-armed defense. Drafted 43rd overall in 2010, Ebanks spent time over three NBA seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. Ebanks is long, lean wing player who drew comparisons to Andrei Kirilenko and Trevor Ariza during his college days at West Virginia. Defense is his specialty and the area that Ebanks will offer the most contribution to. The Nets, who allow their opponents to shoot 38% from three point range (second worst in the league), could use someone like Ebanks.

In the NBA, Ebanks proved to be a solid rebounder for his size and position, despite his limited playtime, pulling down just over six boards per 36 minutes. Ebanks also posted per-36 numbers of .6 blocks and 1 steal – calling Kirilenko to mind again (albeit a very poor man's Kirilenko). He is not a good shooter and can really only score on cuts and slashes, but with the recent acquisition of Marcus Thornton, the Nets wouldn't need him to shoot much off the bench anyway. The Nets could use Ebanks similarly to how the Oklahoma City Thunder use Perry Jones III: as a solid body off the bench who will play nice perimeter defense and not be a liability on offense.

Ebanks is the newest addition to the Armor, joining the team via a trade on Feb. 19, and he has not yet played in a Springfield uniform. Given the facts that he has by far the most NBA experience of anyone on the Armor's roster and that he was acquired just prior to the trade deadline, Ebanks seems like one of the most likely callup candidates for Brooklyn. He is ranked sixth on the D League's top prospect watch.

Darius Johnson-Odom

At 6'2", DJO is a bit small for his natural position of shooting guard. Recently, though, he has been given the reins at point guard for the Armor and has been adapting his game nicely. His court vision has improved quite well, as he's been able to create some really nice assists and is adept at passing out of bad situations. He is considered to be a top player in the D League and is talented on both sides of the ball. His averages for the Armor, which he joined last month, are impressive: 23.7 points, 5.2 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.6 steals on 46.2% shooting. Watching him play, he often looks head and shoulders above his competition as he has the capability to carve up D League defenses with his scoring and newly-developed passing skills. His offensive skillset is diverse, as he can score from pretty much anywhere. He has a nice shot and a reliable high post game that nets him plenty of fadeaway baskets and his high-tempo style is an asset.

In the NBA, his size would limit him as a scorer and bigger guards would run him over at the two spot, but has shown drastic improvement in a pretty short amount of time as a point man. Besides Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston, the only other real point guard the Nets have is Marquis Teague, so Johnson-Odom could be a fit in Brooklyn. His defensive skills give him a lot of value, as his active hands would help out a Nets defense that has struggled in the backcourt especially.

One caveat, though, is that he is prone to making bone-headed mistakes on the court. His shot selection is iffy at times, he gets caught up in the paint easily, and he is prone to losing focus – in one recent game, he turned the ball over by traveling when he absentmindedly flipped the ball to himself off an inbounds pass.

The Lakers drafted him 55th overall in the 2012 draft. He saw incredibly limited action with the team, playing just 1.5 minutes in four games, but averaged 21 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in the D League with the Los Angeles D-Fenders before eventually playing in China and Russia.

Johnson-Odom is a nice talent who could very well turn into an NBA-caliber player, but his skillset is just too raw for a team that's looking for a deep playoff push. Despite the fact that he's probably the Armor's best player, it's not too likely that he'll see a callup. He is ranked fourth on the D League's top prospect watch.

Khalif Wyatt

In a few ways, Wyatt is actually sort of comparable to a mini-Joe Johnson: he plays an old school style of ball and is much more strong than he is athletic. He doesn't run the floor particularly well, but, despite his 6'4" height, is a good finisher at the rim. He has a 6'9" wingspan, but is not a great defender on the wing because of his limited quickness. A decent three-point shooter, this combo guard is certainly regarded more highly for his offense than his defense and is known for being streaky.

His shot selection is questionable at times, but he is a decent passer from the two-guard position. One wonders if he would be better off just making the switch to point guard and adapting his game like Johnson-Odom has been doing. The Armor have actually toyed with using Wyatt as a point guard, but mostly to less than satisfactory results. His skillset is sort of odd in that he is a better passer when he's not handling the ball, but is better as a shooter when playing the point as he struggles with catch-and-shoot situations. He's got notable talent, but seems to be somewhat of an experiment even for Springfield and will almost certainly not be called up to the big leagues this year.

Wyatt has only played two games for the Armor so far and has lived up to his streaky reputation. In his debut, he scored 19 points on 50% shooting, grabbed 4 rebounds and dished 5 assists. Last night, in his second game with Springfield, he was held scoreless on 0-5 shooting and added three assists and three rebounds. Before arriving in Springfield on Feb. 13, he was signed with the Philadelphia 76ers this season, but never played and was released. He played for a few months in China before returning to the D League. Add Wyatt to the list of guards who are talented, but not needed by Brooklyn right now.

Another Armor standout was Adonis Thomas, but it was recently reported that he will no longer be with the team:
Certainly a well-earned callup. Thomas was averaging 16.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists on a nice 46.3% shooting and a ridiculous 46.9% three point shooting percentage.

The Springfield Armor will play tonight at 10 p.m. against the Santa Cruz Warriors, whom they beat last night 94-80. The game can be viewed live on the D League's YouTube channel.

Which member of the Armor would you like to see the Nets call up, if any? Tell us in the comments.

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