Sean Kilpatrick was stuck on a bus somewhere between Newark, Delaware and Erie, Pennsylvania, watching Pennsylvania towns blur by behind falling snow. It was another D-League (NBA Development League) travel day, a long bus ride broken up with stops at Wawa and time passed with real talk.
His sights were always set on the NBA, its packed arenas, easy travel, glitz and glam, but in his immediate sightlines were small gyms, long bus rides and anonymity. He’d seen other players fold, either unable or unwilling to cope with their circumstance, but the best way to get out is to first, go all-in.
“Never stop working,” Kilpatrick said of his approach to the D-League. “You never know who is watching. [Some guys] blew their chances of really trying to make it to the NBA because there could be a scout there, or not even that, I mean, nowadays, they have the D-League website where you can go and watch games, so there are plenty of scouts just sitting there watching the games, and watching what you’re doing, and seeing how seriously you’re taking the D-League.”
There are typically two reactions to a D-League assignment: discouragement or determination. Kilpatrick chose the latter, using the time to work on getting his shot off quicker, adjust to the shorter shot clock and the bigger opponents. He parlayed his play into a pair of 10-day contacts and a multi-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets.
“You gotta be all-in, and being able to—be eager to learn,” he said. “Nothing is promised. And not only that, but everyone’s job is at risk. Being able to really take things seriously in the D-League—that’s really important.”
The Brooklyn Nets are taking the D-League seriously. The Nets invested in the Long Island Nets, set to play this season at Barclays Center, before moving out to Nassau Coliseum in 2017-18. They see it as another avenue to develop players, coaches and trainers and the focus on development fits in with their long-term goals of leaving no stone unturned in regards to finding talent.
“There are many ways to construct a team, and having the ability to build from within with our D-League team is very important,” Brooklyn Nets General Manager Sean Marks said at the LI Nets’ jersey unveiling. “We must be strategic and systematic, and utilizing the Long Island Nets for player development is a big key to our overall plan.”
The Nets aren’t alone. Three new teams – Charlotte, Chicago and Brooklyn – are joining the D-League this season and the league as a whole is now up to 22 teams, nearly tripling in size from the original eight in 2001-02.
“I was in the D-League three years ago and even three years ago, the D-League investment wasn’t where it is now,” Long Island Nets coach Ronald Nored said. “Now, pretty much all the teams are running what their parent clubs are running, so that there’s a seamless transition when a player gets assigned or if you have affiliate players, that’s something that wasn’t there three years ago league-wide. Now it’s getting to that point. This is truly the NBA’s minor league.”
The Long Island Nets will be in a unique position when they join the league this season. Their home arena – the Coliseum – is still undergoing renovations, so they will play this season at Barclays Center and practice at the HSS Training Center; NBA facilities. Nored said the facilities alone make this a top D-League destination.
“This is a really special opportunity for everyone who is affiliated with the LI Nets. No other D-League team will operate as we’re operating this year,” Nored said. “If you’re a player and you want to get into the NBA, you’re practicing in an NBA facility every single day. Our guys will get world-class treatment, first-class treatment and we’ll have the same opportunities to amenities and things like that, that the NBA guys have. If you can’t appreciate this opportunity, man, there’s another place for you.”
As for Kilpatrick, a guy who travelling to every gym from Delaware to Santa Cruz to showcase himself to scouts, he’d have killed for a chance to work out in the same building as NBA coaches every day.
“It’s probably going to be the best situation,” Kilpatrick said. “Every time you walk into the practice facility, you should want to work hard because, as you see, throughout our practices now, Coach Atkinson is just sitting here, walking around just to see who is working. So, you never know. You could be one of the D-League guys in the gym, and Coach just so happens to see you, and is like, ‘Yo, we should give this guy a look.’ So, like I said, you never know who’s watching.”