Imagine a league where a 38-year-old former All Star who made $13 million annually rubs elbows with a 21-year-old University of Mississippi product on the potential last leg of his hopefully NBA career.
The league you are thinking of is the NBA Development League (NBADL)—the NBA's attempt at creating a true minor league system. While it ran into rough patches during its initial launch, the NBADL is now a full part of the NBA and sports lexicon.
Games are routinely televised on NBA.TV and teams like the Los Angeles Lakers are beginning to form television stations centered around delivering all Lakers content, which includes their NBADL affiliate teams.
What's more fascinating about the 38-year-old and 21-year-old mentioned before is that the end goal for both of these players, despite completely different career paths, is exactly the same— return to the NBA.
The 35-year-old Antoine Walker is looking to resurrect his career. He was once an All-Star with the Boston Celtics alongside then-teammate and future Big Three member Paul Pierce.
Walker put up huge numbers as a member of the Celtics (23.4 points-per-game in 2001-02) but found success as a role-player for the 2005-2006 NBA champion Miami Heat. A team headed by an upstart Dwyane Wade and a still dominant Shaquille O'Neal needed the shooting and scoring ability of a Walker to reach that next level toward NBA glory.
Walker, now a member of the Idaho Stampede (a former CBA team resurrected in the NBADL) is averaging 11.3 points-per-game. While he is still far from an NBA return, he has not given up hope.
Walker has other motives for reaching the NBA again—he has had a multitude of financial problems, including owing the city of Chicago millions after a string of poor real estate purchases.
Still, though, Walker finds himself on the grind of an NBADL schedule traveling through the country with one goal in mind: Reach the pinnacle he once likely took for granted, a spot on an NBA roster.
Thankfully, for Walker, the NBADL provides that opportunity.
Sometimes opportunity is all a player needs. Case in point, the story of NBADL alum and former Reno Bighorn and Erie BayHawks guard Jeremy Lin.
Lin has exploded on the NBA scene after being cut by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets over the past three years. Lin has re-energized a once-lethargic New York Knicks team and has taken not only the NBA, but also the sporting world by storm.
He has been the most covered athlete on SportsCenter in recent weeks—his jersey is the highest selling in the NBA and Lin, as an Asian-American, has everything in place to become an international superstar.
Lin likely would never have this opportunity with the NBADL and that is really the core of why it exists—to give young players hope.
The 21-year-old Terrico White—a standout at the University of Mississippi and YouTube sensation—now plays alongside Walker as a member of the Idaho Stampede.
White, unlike Walker, has never had the pleasure of being an everyday NBA player. White was drafted by the Detroit Pistons, but a foot injury and subsequent release from both the Pistons and Hornets left White with only one opportunity, the NBADL.
Fortunately for White, he has brighter NBA prospects. White is the prototypical player the NBADL was created for in 2001. The idea of a feeder system not unlike Major League Baseball's Minor League system was the intention.
Obviously, the NBADL will never have the near 100 percent minor to major league rate the MLB achieves; there is simply no need for the Kyrie Irvings of the world to spend any time in development.
But, 23 percent of players in the NBA currently have spent time on NBADL rosters, a sign that the feeder system is working.
There haven't been a number of huge stars to emerge from the NBADL (Lin excluded and barring what the future holds), but bit players like Mike James, Bobby Simmons, J.J. Barea, Amir Johnson, CJ Watson and Dorell Wright are examples of players rising from the NBADL ranks to play significant roles on NBA teams.
The NBADL is unlike any other league in America. It is rare to ever see once great baseball players plying their craft in AA or AAA to try to get back to the majors. There are secondary veterans yes, but not stars on Walker's level in baseball.
Clearly, Alex Rodriguez at age 41 won't be slumming around Toledo trying to get back to the majors. Is some of that due to financial decisions? Of course, but the NBADL is still something to behold.