There has been much talk lately about the Buss family and what it will take to bring the Los Angeles Lakers back into prominence. The organization’s minor league affiliate should be part of that conversation.
The Los Angeles D-Fenders are presided over by CEO/President Joey Buss, who is charged with turning the team into a viable asset that can serve as an incubator for the Lakers themselves.
It’s not that much of a stretch—there have been times during the Lakers’ current woeful season when it seems as if the real firepower lies with their minor league siblings.
Terrence Williams had 50-points for the D-Fenders. That's pretty much the Lakers highlight of the night as they're trailing Bobcats by 20— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) February 1, 2014
Given the restrictions of the current collective bargaining agreement, it only makes sense for the organization to develop players in-house and eventually funnel the cream of the crop into their roster on the cheap.
A couple years back, Andy and Brian Kamenetzky interviewed Joey Buss for ESPN Los Angeles and asked about the family dynamic and how his role would grow into the future:
I think Jimmy and I are a generation apart, so there’s still that aspect where I have, like, 80 years in front of me. Maybe not 80, but a long time to [grow] into taking a very deep role into the Lakers. Right now the goal is to train me, for lack of a better word, in this D-Fenders role. As I gain more experience, then bring me along more so with the Lakers. The better I do here, the more confidence people have with me.
It sounds like a smart plan for Joey, but has this family-owned ancillary business actually become a productive pipeline for players?
So far, the successes have been limited. The team often functions more as a place for underutilized Lakers to get increased playing time in real game situations.
As for call-ups, they often don't last long, partly because of the NBA rule that only allows an NBA team to sign the same D-League player to two 10-day contracts in the same season. If the team wants to retain the player after that, it has to guarantee the rest of the season.
This season, Manny Harris was called up from the D-Fenders and averaged 8.1 points in nine games before being sent back to the D-League. Harris was one of the D-Fenders' true standouts, averaging 31.6 points, 7.9 boards and 3.7 assists through 22 games. With the rest of the NBA season slipping away, Harris decided to take the Euro route, joining the Turk Telekom Ankara in the Turkish league.
And then, there’s the Shawne Williams revolving door. Williams was signed by the Lakers at the beginning of the season and played 32 games before being cut, right before his contract would have become fully guaranteed. He was picked up off waivers by the D-Fenders, returning to the Lakers for four games and then heading back to the team’s minor league affiliate once again.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a current D-League success story for the Lakers, just not in regard to the D-Fenders. Kendall Marshall was signed from the Delaware 87ers in December and has averaged 8.2 points and nine assists through 42 games so far this season. Marshall’s solid play (plus a rash of Lakers injuries) resulted in a multiyear, unguaranteed contract.
So what about prospects for next season? Can the Lakers organization figure out a way to fully utilize its affiliate farm league team? Here are five prospects to consider:
Once seen as a big-time NBA prospect, 6’6” Terrence Williams was drafted No. 11 by the New Jersey Nets in 2009. Things haven’t worked out for the high-fly act. After playing 78 games in his rookie campaign, he was traded to the Houston Rockets and ultimately waived.
A promising end-of-season stint with the Sacramento Kings led to a multiyear deal with the Boston Celtics where he was again soon waived. After a couple short-lived gigs in Europe, he joined the D-Fenders and has started 22 of 26 games, averaging 20.7 points and setting a team record with 50 points against the Idaho Stampede.
A swingman who can score at will, Williams also has the ability to defend multiple positions—contesting shots and interrupting the passing lanes. His athleticism has never been in doubt, but disciplinary and legal problems have dogged his career.
A bumpy NBA journey led Williams, a former No. 17 draft pick for the Indiana Pacers, to the Lakers this season where he reunited with Mike D’Antoni, who previously coached him with the New York Knicks. The forward was waived by the Lakers after 32 games for financial reasons. Per Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, D’Antoni remarked:
“He will fight for you in a heartbeat and he was a voice in the locker room for us. I could trust him basketball-wise, anything I told him. He did the best he could do. He was good. I’ll miss him.”
Williams joined the D-Fenders, returned briefly to the Lakers and headed back once more to the minor league team. He was the overall D-League Player of the Week in early March and has started 15 of 17 games, averaging 20 points and 6.8 rebounds.
A combo forward, Williams has good passing skills, an impressive wingspan and a high release point on his shot. Could he be back with the Lakers next season? If D’Antoni is still around, bank on it. Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess.
Known as a sharpshooter at Syracuse, 6’8” forward James Southerland made it to the Final Four but couldn't make the cut in last year's NBA draft. He played for the Philadelphia 76ers and Golden State Warriors in summer league, plus one game with the Charlotte Bobcats before being waived.
Since joining the D-Fenders, he has started 14 of 36 games, averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds. Per RealGM Wiretap, Southerland has drawn interest from other NBA teams at the D-League Showcase in Reno, Nevada. At 23 years old, Southerland seems worthy of a closer look. Besides knocking them down, he can finish at the rim and is an active defender in passing lanes.
Brandon Costner is one of those undersized power forwards who has bounced around since going undrafted out of North Carolina State in 2009. He played overseas with Belfius Mons-Hainaut in Belgium and Limoges Cercle Saint-Pierre in France, and he also appeared with the Chicago Bulls in summer league and the Utah Flash in the D-League.
He seems to have caught on with the D-Fenders, however, averaging 14.3 points and 6.2 boards. A lefty shooter, Costner was on fire during a 140-121 win against the Santa Cruz Warriors on March 22, with 38 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocked shots. He was named Co-performer of the Week for the D-League for the week of March 17-23.
And then there’s the most unlikely of stories—Josh Magette. Generously listed at 6’1” and 160 pounds, this undrafted point guard out of Alabama-Huntsville is one of those kids who nobody picks to succeed but keeps proving people wrong.
After college he traveled overseas, playing for Landstede in the Dutch Basketball League before returning stateside. Trevor Wong for the D-Fenders' website wrote an extensive profile on Magette recently, quoting the team's head coach, Bob MacKinnon, as follows:
He’s one of the toughest players in this league. His mental makeup is he just keeps going and going. I think he surprised a lot of people, but he hasn’t surprised us. The way he plays and how tough he is has overdone what anyone could expect.
Magette’s teammate Southerland also heaped on the praise: “He does a great job controlling the offense. He kind of reminds me of Steve Nash or a Goran Dragic type of player (that) keeps his dribble alive and creates for others.”
Starting in 41 of 44 games for the D-Fenders, Magette is averaging 10.1 points, 7.1 assists and 1.9 steals. Given all the point guard problems for the Lakers this season, he seems like the kind of guy who should at least get a summer league tryout.
That’s it—five names, plenty of question marks and perhaps a useful prospect or two for a team that has only three players under guaranteed contract for next season. If there is ever a time for the Buss family members to find synchronicity between themselves and the many facets of their troubled empire, this era of the Great Rebuild is surely it.