NBA earnings for D-League call ups since 2011 reach $400M

We have all been told — or at least heard — the timeless cliché, “money doesn’t buy happiness.” In the words of our Vice President, “MULARKEY!” Have a conversation with someone who is struggling to pay rent, their water bills, or even to buy enough food for their family and end the conversation with, “Well, you should still be happy because money can’t buy happiness” and let me know how that works out.

Money may not be the end all be all of happiness, but is essential and certainly helps ease the anxiety of bills and having the ability to provide for yourself and your family.

The NBA D-League’s salaries continue to be a lightning rod for debate year after year. Recently the league announced a change in salary structure and although this is a miniscule step in the right direction, it was not the move we have been yearning for.

While salaries have been a hot topic, the earning power of playing in the league and earning a call up has never been in question. The fact is, players sign with the league knowing their salary stinks, but they also know the NBA is a simple phone call away.

I’ve written about the earning power of NBA call ups here, here, and yet again here. Money can certainly be made, but there are no guarantees for players who sign with the D-League; it can be a dangerous gamble. However, if the bet pays off, it can literally mean millions for that player.

In those past pieces, I relayed what call ups made that specific season after being called up, but that does not encapsulate the full earning power of that opportunity. So, I went back to 2011 and looked at every call up and what they made, or are set to make, since that initial NBA chance. The results are quite remarkable.

If players had been in the NBA prior to their call up — like say Rasual Butler — then only their figures after the call up were factored in. Duplicates were thus removed and these figures are as exact as I could find.

This chart shows the true future earning power of an NBA call up over the past five seasons.

Chart created by Chris Reichert

Chart created by Chris Reichert

That figure is staggering. Just take it in…D-League call ups since 2011 have earned a total of almost $431M in current and future salaries. This figure does include non-guaranteed, partially guaranteed and fully guaranteed contracts that are currently in place.

Here are some other tidbits not included in the chart above:

  • Of the 155 players called up, 47 became millionaires!
  • Of those 47 players, 5 earned more than $20M
  • Of the 155 players, 28 are currently in the NBA (18 percent)
  • Not 1 of these players made an NBA All-Star game

The three largest earners of the bunch are Hassan Whiteside ($100M), Tyler Johnson ($52M) and Lance Thomas ($31M); bet you didn’t expect that last one!

The fact that none of these players have made an All-Star game and yet they have still amassed $430M in earnings speaks volumes to the value of knowing your role. Players have to realize that while their talent is immense, NBA teams are looking for them to fit a role, not be the star. Obviously, Whiteside could end up being the exception to that rule (and subsequently the first to make an NBA All-Star game), but the majority have to realize their niche and roll with that.

These figures don’t even factor in the money that players have made in pro deals overseas after showcasing their talent in the D-League. That number would likely surpass $500M and I am seriously flabbergasted by that fact.

Yes, D-League salaries — $19,000 – $26,000 — are not where they should be, but the earning power and opportunities this league provides are unprecedented when you factor in the immediate nature of a call up. One day players are rooming with teammates in Prescott Valley getting ready to play in front of 2,000 fans, and the next they could be playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers in front of 50,000 screaming fans; that’s not an option when playing overseas.

The D-League journey is an arduous one, but the road less traveled can still yield riches.