Look, I’m risking a lot by revealing my secret for getting answers to the D-League’s tough questions each season, but the people deserve to know the truth.
Years ago, I was entrusted with a magic 8-ball. At the time I didn’t know how to properly use this magical device which I had mistaken for a child’s toy my entire life. Friends and I would ask questions but the dumb thing never provided answers, so I cast it aside assuming it was broken.
Three years ago I started covering the NBA D-League with a passion that consumed all of my free time (as a married man this equates to substituting sleep as “free time”). One night while plugging away in my office I spotted the magic 8-ball and asked it a D-League related question — eureka! The answers just came rollin’ in and its true purpose had come to fruition.
In the interest of transparency, I share this information with you and now you know where my apparent omniscience originates. With that said, let’s tackle 10 vital questions as the league heads into the final third of the 2016-17 season.
Will Jarrod Uthoff have breakout success in Fort Wayne?
After going undrafted last summer, Uthoff played Summer League ball with the Sacramento Kings and parlayed the experience into a camp invite from the Toronto Raptors. He played a total of eight minutes in the preseason and his waiver was a foregone conclusion. He should have been a stud for the Raptors 905, but first-year head coach Jerry Stackhouse’s use of a nine man rotation nipped any chances of that happening.
Now the first place 905 (25-9) have traded Uthoff to the second place Fort Wayne Mad Ants (19-13), within their own division no less!
Last season D.J. Stephens was the recipient of this “breakout trade” scenario when Canton moved him to Iowa and he exploded onto NBA radars. Now, it’s Uthoff’s turn. Through fives games with Fort Wayne he’s averaging 26.3 minutes and producing 13 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 2.2 blocks at the power forward spot. It’s a very small sample size but he’s also got shooting splits of 51/63/91.
As a versatile 6-foot-9 forward who can man both forward positions, NBA clubs are going to fall in love with his two-way capabilities. Both of these teams look poised to make the postseason as well, so a matchup between the two would have added intrigue since Uthoff will now play a pivotal role for the Mad Ants.
Magic 8-ball answer: You may rely on it
Can the Los Angeles D-Fenders hit the 40-win mark?
Last season the Sioux Falls Skyforce set a new single-season win record in the D-League by notching a 40-10 record. Not only that, they blazed through the playoffs on their way to a championship by beating none other than the L.A. D-Fenders in the finals.
The D-Fenders now have the league’s best record at the All-Star Break (27-8) and are on pace for a 39-11 record. However, their remaining opponents’ combined winning percentage is a mere .427, and five of the 15 games will be against teams with a plus .500 record. This bodes well for them, especially when you consider only one of their eight losses came against a sub .500 team. Jeff Ayres was a quality power forward who just bolted for Japan, but the team still has Vander Blue, Josh Magette, Justin Harper and newly-acquired DeJuan Blair to hold down the fort.
Potential call-ups could certainly hinder their chances to match this record and they have to finish with a ridiculous 13-2 record to boot. Will the added bonus of stealing some of the shine from recent foes be enough to drive the D-Fenders to this mark?
Magic 8-ball answer: Don’t count on it
Is J.P. Tokoto the best NBA prospect on the RGV Vipers?
The Vipers are the D-League affiliate for the Houston Rockets and as such they play the same style as their parent club, sans a James Harden-type of course. Their offensive numbers are gaudy and their defense takes a back seat. They have a plethora of talent with Isaiah Taylor, Darius Morris, Chris Johnson, Gary Payton II and former McDonald’s All-American Chris Walker, but the top prospect might be Tokoto.
After leaving UNC following his junior season, Tokoto was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the No. 58 pick in 2015. They waived him after camp, however, and he played all of last season with the Oklahoma City Blue of the D-League. Tokoto is 6-foot-6, 200 pounds and burst onto NBA radars with displays of court vision, above-average defense and endless athleticism on the wing at Carolina. His own bugaboo was outside shooting. In three years at UNC he made just 21 3-pointers and hit only 26.6 percent from distance. Ouch. Last season for the Blue he shot just 25.0 percent from 3 with 16 makes.
With the 3-point heavy Vipers, he’s already made 52 3s and is shooting 34.9 percent from deep. That, my friends, is a vast improvement over the course of one season. He’s now made more 3s this year than the previous four seasons combined! His true shooting percentage is up to 58.6 and he’s producing 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.6 steals for RGV. He’s also second in the league in total plus-minus at a staggering +238 (only David Nwaba is better at +241). He’s got the size and versatility on both ends NBA teams are desperately seeking, so if the added 3-point shooting can be sustained, he has real potential at just 23-years-old.
Magic 8-ball answer: Signs point to yes
Is Alfonzo McKinnie the league’s best kept secret?
I had no idea who McKinnie was coming into the season. He’s a 24-year-old, 6-foot-8 forward who made the Windy City Bulls team as an open tryout player, and he has burst onto the scene in a big way. He’s got the added luxury of playing near home as a Chicago native and he’s making the most of it. Early on he was used for energy off the bench, but his play has been so stellar that he’s now a fixture in the Bulls’ starting lineup. He played well enough (15.1 points and 9.2 rebounds) to be selected as an injury replacement for the D-League All-Star Game and he also competed in the dunk contest.
The Bulls are just 14-17 coming out of the All-Star break, so they won’t be in the playoffs short of a miracle run, which means less time to see McKinnie. However, he’s already earning quite the reputation as this year’s breakout star. Numerous scouts have raved about his potential as a solid small-ball 4 option. He’s only hitting 31.4 percent (2.3 attempts) of his 3s, but his shot mechanics are solid meaning that figure could improve. The NBA isn’t likely in his future this season as a call-up, but this summer will be huge for McKinnie. Last year he played in Mexico and if the NBA does not work out, he will likely be playing over in Europe next year with a substantial salary in tow.
Magic 8-ball answer: Cannot predict now
Is Chris Obekpa the best shot-blocker in the D-League?
You might remember Obekpa as the guy who rolled his shorts up way too high while playing for St. John’s two years ago. He transferred to UNLV after his junior season but never played there, instead opting to go pro. His averages at St. John’s were pedestrian at 4.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in just 24.4 minutes, but please focus on that block figure. Goodness.
Obekpa went to camp with the Golden State Warriors and after being waived was allocated to their affiliate in Santa Cruz. The 23-year-old, 6-foot-9 forward is slowly but surely building his case as the best rim protector available this season. Obekpa has played 25 games for Santa Cruz producing 5.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in just 15.5 minutes. However, over the past six games he’s playing more at 23.5 minutes and is putting up 8.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and a whopping 3.8 blocks! He’s got the third highest plus-minus (+3.2) on SCW despite his limited minutes and it’s looking nearly impossible for coach Hill to keep him off the court.
He’s fourth in total blocks (not including NBA assignees) with 56 on the season and he’s the only player in the top-5 to play less than 650 minutes — he’s only played 387! Keith Benson leads the league with 94 blocks but he’s played 1,196 minutes. If we project Obekpa’s minutes to match, he would have 173 blocks and might have earned a call-up already. He’s shot-blocking prowess is uncanny and while he doesn’t provide much on offense, he could potentially be this era’s Ben Wallace if given the opportunity.
Magic 8-ball answer: Without a doubt
Will Quinn Cook finally get his NBA call up?
Cook has to feel a little miffed at this point. D-League success does not always equate to NBA success, but his accolades through 1.5 seasons in Canton are piling up. He’s a two-time All-Star, won Rookie of the Year in 2016, made third team All-NBADL in 2016 and is All-Star Game MVP. Apparently that’s not enough to be considered a playmaker? It’s not just the Cleveland Cavaliers who are missing the boat here, yet the fact they are the parent club to Canton and felt the need to look elsewhere had to hurt.
Read More: Quinn Cook is ready for his NBA close up
Cook is averaging 26.0 points, 6.8 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting almost 48 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range. His turnovers (14.2 turnover percentage) have been a bit of an issue this year, but the Charge have the ball in his hands 90 percent of the game, so turnovers are inevitable. His assist rate is up to 29.0, his true shooting percentage is 59.7 and he’s shown the ability to play both as a lead guard and be efficient at the 2 spot. At just 6-foot-2, he’s not an ideal candidate for an off-the-ball guard position, but Cook is an NBA level guard and it’s about time he gets his shot.
Magic 8-ball answer: Signs point to yes
Will the upstart Raptors 905 win the Eastern Conference?
The 905 are only in their second season but first-time head coach Jerry Stackhouse has the team humming along at 25-9 at the break. They are 13-7 at home and 12-2 on the road, so they clearly love playing in the United States. Stackhouse has employed a “spread the wealth” mentality in terms of minutes for his players as the team has nine players (including the NBA regulars) playing 18 or more minutes nightly and three more playing 12 or more minutes. For NBADL teams with only 10 active players, those figures are astounding. Most clubs play a 7-man rotation in terms of players getting around 20 minutes or more on a nightly basis.
There are a couple concerns with this style. Even though winning comes first, this is a stepping stone league where players come to show off their skills in hopes of earning a better gig. Giving them less minutes over the season for the betterment of the team might work early, but as the season wears on players could lose interest. Secondly, NBA assignees have played a combined total of 46 games for the 905 and many teams don’t use assignees come playoff time. Finally, if a player like Edy Tavares is lost to an NBA call-up, it could spell disaster for the 905’s top ranked defense.
The 905 have played well against their likely playoff foes going 6-5 against Maine, Canton and Fort Wayne, but they only have a winning record (3-1) against Canton of those three. Rotations usually tighten up and defense holds firm come playoff time, so it will be interesting to see if coach Stackhouse changes strategies to adapt or rolls the dice on his unorthodox rotations.
Magic 8-ball answer: Ask again later
Magic 8-ball answer one hour later: Outlook not so good
Will Xavier Henry’s return from the Blue into “elite” status?
The Oklahoma City Blue are 26-11 at the All-Star break after a disappointing 19-31 campaign in 2015-16. They will be in the Western Conference playoffs battling it out for the right to play for the championship. The Blue hang their hat on their defense where they give up the second fewest points per game at 101.1 (only the previously mentioned 905 are better at 99.5). However, they are 18th in points per game scored at 105.1 and their Western Conference foes (Sioux Falls Skyforce, Los Angeles D-Fenders and RGV Vipers) are all top-4 in scoring.
Read More: Xavier Henry biding time for NBA comeback
They need an added punch and Xavier Henry could be that guy. He’s been nursing an injury all season but played two games prior to the break and should slowly increase his minutes as the season goes on. The 25-year-old won’t likely be thrust into the starting lineup so as to not ruin the team’s chemistry, but he can absolutely thrive off the bench. Last year he was in the same situation with Santa Cruz and he averaged 15.6 points on 45 percent shooting in just 19 minutes off the bench. He did much of his damage at the free throw line with 7.4 attempts per game in those limited minutes.
So, it’s been done, but can he replicate it for OKC? And even if he can, does it really vault the Blue into elite status?
Magic 8-ball answer: Very doubtful
Can Kendall Marshall resurrect his NBA career in Reno?
The once lottery pick is now 25-years-old and utilizing the NBA D-League to renew his NBA prospects. Marshall is a 6-foot-4 point guard with unreal court vision and passing ability, which are the two traits the NBA latched onto leading into the 2012 NBA Draft. Marshall has endured an unconventional career path for lottery picks to this point, having played for four teams in his first four seasons. He also suffered an ACL injury and is clawing his way back to the NBA if possible.
The same issues which have plagued Marshall’s entire career still remain: Can he hit open shots? Can he stay with opposing guards on defense? Can he get by defenders to make plays? He’s only played six games with Reno due to a nagging hamstring injury and the results have been hit and miss. He’s averaging 10.0 points, 5.2 assists and 3.3 turnovers in those games. One game he had 19 assists and the very next game he only posted two helpers. Consistency will be important as the ceiling for Marshall is not perceived the same as it once was.
Magic 8-ball answer: Better not tell you now
Can Pierre Jackson become the D-League first 50/40/90 member?
The NBA D-League has never had a qualified member of the 50/40/90 club — not once in the league’s 16 seasons! Last season Canton’s Nick Minnerath came within percentage points when he finished with 50.8/40.2/88.8, but alas the pinnacle of shooting elitism is still out there waiting to be snatched by a worthy player.
Right now Jackson has played 13 games for the Texas Legends averaging 29.6 points with shooting splits of 53.5/45.1/82.3. Obviously a full eight percentage points will be very, very difficult to make up, but can it be done? And how? Jackson averages 7.2 free throw attempts per game. At that same rate he would finish the season (if he played every remaining game) with 269 total attempts. He would have to make 242-of-269 to hit 90 percent. This means he would have to make 149 of his final 156 free throws to reach immortality and the 50/40/90 club.
Magic 8-ball answer: My reply is no
Magic 8-ball answer 30 mins later: My sources say no
Magic 8-ball answer one hour later: I SAID NO, DAMN