Who's Got Next?

In what amounted to an American Idol for dunkers and dribblers, 141 players took their best shots last week in Boise at earning an NBA contract
January 28, 2008

THE SCOUTS woreblasé expressions even as they cataloged every pick, roll and box-out. The hometeam's coyote mascot momentarily got stuck in the rim while climbing down fromthe backboard, before delicately extricating himself. The 5,300 seats weremainly empty, the videos shown on the scoreboard looked as if they'd beenproduced at a cable-access studio, and the music thumped as gratingly andmonotonously as in, well, an NBA arena. ¬∂ Welcome to the D-League Showcase, afour-day event held last week at Qwest Arena in downtown Boise, Idaho, thatgave 141 minor leaguers a chance to make their cases for promotion. Each of the14 NBA Development League's teams played two regular-season games—with matchupsstaged one after another, starting as early as 11 a.m. and concluding afternine each night—in one location, as more than 60 NBA executives and scoutssought a fill-in in case of an injury or trade. (In the D-League's 6 1/2 years,68 players have received NBA contracts, including 10 this season.) Think of theShowcase as American Idol for role players. For as much as the scouts wereinterested in prolific scorers and rebounders, they also coveted players whocould fill a specific defensive need or make the extra pass. More thananything, they were looking for reliability.

The Showcaseperformances, like Idol auditions, were largely uneven. Which is no surprisegiven that every player in the D-League is there for a reason: Some are toosmall or too slow for their position; others have flaws in their character orholes in their game. Nine draft picks were on assignment from their NBA clubs,and two had their moments. JamesOn Curry, a 6'3" guard selected by theChicago Bulls out of Oklahoma State in the second round of the 2007 draft,erupted for 34 points in the Iowa Energy's opener—but two nights later he washeld to six, and his team lost both games. Shannon Brown, an '06 first-rounderfrom Michigan State, delivered a pair of impressive performances for the RioGrande Valley (Texas) Vipers, scoring a combined 63 points in his two games,and was almost immediately recalled by the Cleveland Cavaliers. But scouts werequick to point out that his jump shot remained inconsistent, a red flag for a6'4" shooting guard.

Most of theprospects, however, were free agents who could be signed by anyone—like pointguard Mike Taylor of the hometown Idaho Stampede. A week short of his 22ndbirthday, he practically leaped over the shoulder of a defender in an openingwin over Rio Grande Valley on Jan. 15. Yet that's not what had NBA scoutstalking; instead they were perplexed to see that the roster listed Taylor ashaving played at UCLA. "I know everybody from UCLA," said one EasternConference executive, "and I don't remember any Mike Taylor."

After helpingIdaho to a win over the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants last Thursday, Taylor wasasked about the discrepancy. "I don't know how they came up with UCLA,"he said. "I'm from Iowa State."

"Actually, ithelps you," a reporter told him. "They're all out there talking aboutyou, trying to figure out who you are."

THE SHOWCASEoffered a range of players with disparate backgrounds—journeymen desperate foranother chance in the NBA and youngsters waiting for a spot in their parentclub's rotation; those who had failed to live up to expectations and others whohad never endured such burdens. The roster of the Stampede alone had a littleof everything. Center Lance Allred, 26, played two years at Utah and two atWeber State, then divided a season among four European teams. Shooting guardRoberto Bergersen is a 32-year-old Boise State alum who after a six-year careeroverseas returned to live year-round in the city with his wife and three youngboys. Forward Brent Petway, 22, played four years at Michigan but didn'tdevelop much beyond his dunking ability. Puerto Rico native Ricky Sanchez, a20-year-old forward, was an '05 second-round pick by the Portland Trail Blazersout of the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla; he is now property of thePhiladelphia 76ers, the third NBA team to hold his rights.

Center MouhamedSene, 21, was assigned to the Stampede on Dec. 26 by the Seattle SuperSonics,who after taking him with the No. 10 pick in the 2006 draft had realized littlereturn for his two-year, $3.3 million contract. (Sene played 28 games as arookie and only nine this season before being assigned.) Thanks in part to NBAcommissioner David Stern's 2005 agreement with the players' association thatseldom-used rookies and sophomores like Sene could be dispatched to minorleague affiliates, D-League attendance and sponsorships have increasedsignificantly. But few prospects needed as much refining as Sene, a long-armed7-footer from Senegal who had been selected after blocking nine shots at theNike Hoop Summit 11 weeks before the draft.

Because of theSonics' huge financial investment, Sene was—by D-League terms, at least—a manof wealth and privilege for whom doors were opened and opportunities created.Seattle director of pro player personnel Bill Branch attended Sene's practicesin Boise, met with him after games and urged Idaho coach Bryan Gates toincrease Sene's playing time in order to make the parent club happy. Sene'sminutes went from 21 on Jan. 15 to 28 last Thursday to 32 in a post-Showcasegame last Saturday in which he poured in a career-high 26 points.

The Stampede'sother NBA assignee was 6'10" rookie power forward Josh McRoberts, 20, whois earning a more reasonable $427,163 as a second-round pick, from Duke, of theTrail Blazers. In his first Showcase game—he was sent down by Portland onlyfour days earlier—McRoberts missed all six of his shots, scowled at Gates whilereceiving extra instruction and committed five turnovers, including a reckless,one-handed jai alai heave while Idaho was squandering a 16-point lead."Just make a good pass, boy!" scolded Petway as McRoberts took a seatduring a timeout.

But when Stampedepoint guard Randy Livingston missed a runner in the final seconds of the game,guess who tipped the loose ball to himself for his 12th rebound, which helpedclinch the 93--89 victory? As McRoberts sat down during another timeout,Livingston said just loud enough for everyone to hear, "Josh! Goodrebound."

TWO NIGHTS later,NBA TV strapped a microphone to Livingston's belly and aired his commentsduring Idaho's second game. He received a bit of media instruction before thetip-off from former Milwaukee Bucks coach Terry Stotts, the D-League's newcoaches consultant. "You've got to come over and have a conversation withthe coach, because you're the coach on the floor," Stotts said. "You'vegot to have a conversation with a young player, because then you're mentoring.You've got to talk to the officials. And you've got to swear some. Those areall the things you have to do."

Livingston is thebest player in the D-League, its reigning MVP. At 32 he earns the maximum of$26,600, but he isn't fazed by the low pay. For one thing, he has spent partsof each of the previous 11 seasons in the NBA; though he had played in just 220regular-season and playoff games, his various appearances had added up to alucrative living. "If you get called up to the NBA for two 10-daycontracts," points out an NBA scout, "that's $150,000 rightthere."

But Livingston hasmore than 10-day contracts on his mind. He has heard that the Boston Celticsare in need of a backup point guard, and he wants to receive consideration ifthe job were ever posted. "I know Gary Payton and Travis Best are a coupleof veteran guys who have thrown their names in the mix," says the 6'4"Livingston. "But I really believe that I could help that team. I have agreat relationship with Danny Ainge—I played for him in Phoenix. I'm big enoughto guard Chauncey [Billups, the Detroit Pistons' All-Star point guard]. I'mplayoff-tested: I've played in a conference finals, I've played in four playoffseries. [Signing with the Celtics is] kind of my dream, but I haven't told alot of people that."

Livingston hasanother reason for sticking around: to get his bachelor's degree. He left LSUafter three seasons in 1996 without a diploma, and D-League players can takeclasses online free of charge through the University of Phoenix. He is majoringin mass communications with a minor in political science, and he hopes to coachcollege basketball, perhaps as early as next season.

But Livingstonwill find it difficult to stop playing while he remains so effective. ThroughSunday he was averaging 16.2 points and a league-high 11.1 assists in 40.4minutes and had led the Stampede to a 17--5 record, the best in the league.Most impressive is his enthusiasm despite misfortune that might have madeothers feel cheated: When Livingston arrived in Baton Rouge in 1993 he wasviewed as a peer to Jason Kidd, a rare blend of instinct, intelligence andslashing athletic talent. But two major knee injuries limited him to 31 gamesat LSU, and now here he was a dozen years later in Boise.

"If I wasn'tgetting hurt and I was a superstar at the next level, I don't know if I wouldhave been as humble and appreciative of a lot of things," he says."Maybe I wouldn't care about helping the young guys out. Maybe I wouldn'tcare about the game as much because I had so much athletic ability. Lookingback on it, I just know in my heart I would have been one of the best guards toever play. But off the court? I don't know."

IN THE LOCKER roombefore the Stampede took the floor for its opening game of the Showcase, Gatesaddressed the tension felt by every player but Sene, McRoberts and perhapsLivingston. The rest knew that dozens of NBA talent evaluators were in thestands and that one big outing might change their careers. "You guys haveworked so hard for one of these moments," the coach said. "All theseguys are watching because you've earned the right for them to watch youplay."

The speech wasmeant particularly for Allred, the 6'11", 250-pound center who had come along way just to reach this point. An illness at birth cost Allred 75% of hishearing, and he was raised in polygamist communities in Montana and Utah beforehis parents left the Allred Group, which was founded by Lance's grandfatherRulon Allred, who was assassinated by rival polygamists in 1977. "It'samazing if you sit in a polygamist home long enough and just watch from thekitchen table," Lance says. "You see the several wives or sister wives,you see all the manipulating and politicking going on, and it's justfascinating. They'll team up and say, 'We've got to get our husband to do this,let's all stick together.' But then one of them goes away, and then another onegoes away and another—and then when the husband comes back in the room andthey're all away but one, she will sell them all down the river to the husbandto get what she wants.

"But it'snothing I want any part of. Because marriage with one person, that's hardenough. Imagine being married to seven people?"

Allred, who issingle, did not play organized basketball until he was 14, and he had to learnhow to read defenders and others' body language to compensate for what hecouldn't hear on the court. (He removes his $5,000 hearing aids before gamesbecause crowd noise—even in the sparsely populated D-League arenas—renders themineffective.) In the fall of 2006 he barely made the Stampede roster but thentook advantage of late-season openings and played well enough over the lastthree weeks to enter training camp last fall as Idaho's starting center, with asalary of $24,000. He was averaging a solid 18.8 points and 10.6 reboundsentering the Showcase yet had been able to sleep only three hours on the eve ofthe Stampede's first game, so consumed was he by this rare opportunity to provethat he was capable of playing in the NBA. An obsessive-compulsive personalitywho tends to demand perfection of himself, he lay on his back near Idaho'sbench before the introductions with his knees bent high like twin pyramids, histhumbs wedged in between his teeth. This is my energy, he told himself. All Ican do is worry about what I can control and not the stuff that's beyond mycontrol.

Three minutes intothe game he took a pass from his roommate, forward Cory Violette, and spun in ashort turnaround jumper. "Hitting your first shot, that's alwayscrucial," he said afterward. He tipped in another basket, sank anothershort jumper and then squared up from 16 feet, launching a jump shot with atwo-handed style reminiscent of grainy films from the 1960s. The ball settledsoftly into the net like a cat snuggling into a blanket.

Rebound and run,Allred kept reminding himself. Rebound and run and keep it simple. He finishedthe opening quarter with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and six rebounds. Hisfinal numbers were just as impressive: a team-high 24 points (9 of 11 from thefield) and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes of Idaho's win. Because first impressionsare so crucial, it was exactly the performance he would have asked for.

Afterward andthrough the rest of the week, Allred and his agent, John Greig, receivedcongratulations and assurances that a callup to the NBA would be forthcoming.And so they waited. As of Sunday they were still waiting—as was every otherplayer who had been in Boise except for Shannon Brown.

Some D-Leaguers are too small or too slow; others haveflaws in their character or HOLES IN THEIR GAME.

"If I wasn't GETTING HURT and I was asuperstar," says Livingston, "I don't know if I would have been ashumble."

Allred was able to sleep only three hours before hisgame, so consumed was he by this RARE OPPORTUNITY.


Inside Game

More from Ian Thomsen on the D-League, plus other NBAnews four times a week.


PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesFLOOR EXTENDED BY SI IMAGINGCASTING CALL Chances are good that a dozen of these prospects will be NBA role players before this season ends. PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesBIRD DOGS' VIEW Executives and scouts were on the lookout for specific skills that would help their respective NBA teams. PHOTOPhotograph by Bill FrakesTHE GAMUT Allred (left) and Livingston represent league extremes: One has never made it, the other's itching to get back. PHOTOPhotograph by Bill Frakes[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Bill Frakes HANDLEWITH CARE Former lottery pick Sene (center) received special attention from aSonics staffer and the Stampede.  THREE PHOTOS