Vander Blue has been blowing up box scores this season for the Los Angeles D-Fenders—an NBA D-League affiliate owned by the Los Angeles Lakers. This is a person of interest for the Purple and Gold as they wade through another perplexing season.
Undrafted out of Marquette in 2013, the rookie guard embarked on a serpentine journey that took him around the globe, playing for a myriad of professional basketball teams.
Now it’s time for the Lakers to give an extended look to a player who can score in a hurry.
While playing for the Delaware 87ers last season, a Philadelphia affiliate, Blue dropped 47 points in one game against the Bakersfield Jam. He also put up 39 points on January 13 for the D-Fenders against the Oklahoma City Blue and recently collected 34 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists for the D-Fenders against the 87ers in the annual D-League Showcase.
Over the course of the season, the second-year pro is averaging 21 points and has started 25 of 26 games to date.
After scoring 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting in a close win against the Sioux Falls Skyforce on December 18, Blue spoke with Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com about adjusting to his role with a new team:
I’m just coming in, getting up extra shots, working with the coaches, watching some film and taking the shots that are given to me…I really had to realize and figure out where I was going to score, where can I be effective, and I’m just trying to bring it on both ends.
At 6’5” and 200 pounds, Blue is an athletic guard with a high motor and a voluminous list of stat-stuffing performances. And after all, couldn't the Lakers use more offensive production?
Unfortunately, things aren’t all that simple—Los Angeles is already carrying a maximum of 15 players on its roster. Three of those players are out for the rest of the season—Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Julius Randle. Still, rules are rules—hardship exceptions can allow a team to increase its roster to 16, but only when four players are sick or injured for longer than two weeks.
For Blue, at age 22, roster instability has become an all-too-familiar story, with short-term contracts, an amalgamation of NBA, D-League and overseas teams, and development that has been inconsistent at best.
However, this season has provided a modicum of continuity and stability with the D-Fenders, who practice and play their home games at the Lakers' Toyota Center training facilities in El Segundo, California.
"Blue is playing a lot better compared to the first month or so of the season, in part because he's more comfortable," he said. "I think there was definitely a feeling-out process with a new roster and a new environment, especially in the D-League where the rosters change so frequently."
Change, transition and the maturation process have been Blue’s constant companion, from being raised with two siblings by a single mom in Madison, Wisconsin, to finding guidance from former Marquette coach Buzz Williams.
Williams said, per Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:
It’s fun that Vander’s having success on the floor. But the reason he’s having success on the floor is because of his growth and his maturity as a person off the floor. Your game always mirrors your life. His maturity has been on the upward tick for the last year.
Unfortunately, that success didn’t translate when it came to the draft—Blue slipped off the board after working out for numerous teams. While known for speed and athleticism with a quick first step and an ability to finish at the rim, there were questions about his streaky jump shot and where he’d fit in the NBA as a tweener guard.
And so a nomadic hoops-dream quest began. Last March, Eli Saslow of ESPN The Magazine, wrote about a year in the life of a rookie who “played 49 games in 27 cities; for 10 head coaches on eight different teams; in four professional leagues on three continents:”
The beginning of his career has unfolded in an endless string of transactions—not in blockbuster deals but in agate small print, the place where most professional careers quietly live, then die. Acquired and released. Acquired and released. He spent nine days on the Boston Celtics, then a day and a half on the Maine Red Claws; a month as a Philadelphia 76er, then a week as a Delaware 87er.
That circuitous path also included NBA Summer League auditions with the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies, as well as two months with Maccabi Rishon LeZion in the Israeli Super League. Blue closed out his rookie season by being traded from the 87ers to the Idaho Stampede.
The merry-go-round didn’t stop during the offseason—Blue was a member of the San Antonio Spurs’ Summer League roster, followed by a training camp contract with the Washington Wizards. After he failed to make the final cut, the Stampede reacquired and then traded him to the D-Fenders.
It’s not the typical development process, but Blue has learned on the fly, seeing far more opponents, cities and varying basketball philosophies than peers who were fortunate enough to land and stick with one NBA organization.
Along the way, he’s learned to shoot better and become a more rounded player, latching onto whatever chances come his way.
As Wong notes, the sophomore guard has had to shoulder more of the scoring responsibility for the D-Fenders since fellow backcourt starter Manny Harris left to join NSK Eskisehir Basket of the Turkish Basketball League.
"In the beginning, Blue had to play off the ball a lot, but now he is dictating what the team does on offense, and he’s certainly taking advantage of the opportunity," Wong said. "I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Blue as a point guard or a shooting guard. He’s a scoring guard, but he also has the ability to set up his teammates off the dribble and create for others.
The role of the D-League is transitory by nature—it is an incubator for young undrafted talent, a repository for veterans attempting comebacks, and a place to play and earn a modest salary for fringe players who are forever chasing the dream.
The Lakers haven’t tapped into their own minor league talent pool this season, although they have shuttled Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, Tarik Black and Xavier Henry to the D-Fenders to pick up extra playing time.
But given the obvious challenges of a season that stands at 13-34, it would make sense that a team so obviously rebuilding for the future would at some point avail itself of its own resources.
While it's true the Lakers are currently carrying their maximum 15 players, changes do happen—whether through injuries or trades. And if management doesn’t decide to give Blue an extended look on its own roster, someone else will.
Because that’s how it works, and the long list of teams that have given a young player a hard look over the past 18 months is proof that there’s something worth exploring.
Vander Blue is that player, waiting to see if he can make the jump from El Segundo to the bright lights of Staples Center.