The first round of the D-League playoffs were super competitive with three of the four matchups being pushed to a deciding game 3. The Raptors 905 — coached by Jerry Stackhouse — were the only team to sweep their series beating the Canton Charge 2-0.
Around this time of year D-League teams hoping to make a Championship run sometimes have to cope with losing a player or two to NBA call ups, and this postseason has been no different. In the week prior to playoffs starting the Maine Red Claws lost Marcus Georges-Hunt to the Orlando Magic, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants lost Alex Poythress to the Philadelphia 76ers and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers lost Gary Payton II to the Milwaukee Bucks. Once the playoffs kicked off the Raptors took two major hits as both Axel Toupane (New Orleans Pelicans) and Edy Tavares (Cleveland Cavaliers) earned NBA deals as well.
Each D-League playoff series is just three games, so each game is extremely important and sometimes coaches throw a monkey-wrench in the mix to throw off their opponents.
Last week The Step Back detailed some of the more intriguing prospects to watch, but now with the NBA regular season wrapping up and call ups coming to a close, we are focusing on the x-factor for each team remaining in the D-League playoffs.
Guerschon Yabusele, PF, Maine Red Claws
Yabusele was drafted in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics and after spending most of his rookie season in China, he has now joined their D-League affiliate in Maine. The Dancing Bear has only played five games with the club so far, but his imprint has been immediate as he helped lead the franchise to its first playoff win and first playoff series win as they beat the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in round one.
In the opening series Yabusele averaged 16.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 57 percent shooting from the field. He did struggle a bit turning the ball over (3.0 per game) and his 3-point shooting was spotty at best at 27 percent, but he brings instant energy and charisma for this team. Guerschon is coming off the bench for coach Scott Morrison and the 6-foot-8, 265 mammoth of a man presents an immediate mismatch for anyone who tries to cover him. He’s too quick for players his size and he’s too big if teams place a quicker, smaller player on him.
There’s been so much hyperbole written about Yabusele that I don’t want to delve down that path, but he’s like a freight train who can suddenly stop on a dime and be as nimble as a ballerina. Dammit. I couldn’t help myself. The point is, don’t miss the chance to watch this guy as he’s going to play a pivotal role in Maine either winning or losing against the vaunted 905.
E.J. Singler, SG/SF, Raptors 905
The truth here is the 905 probably have three or four x-factors in this series. Right before the playoffs they lost Will Sheehey to injury, then Toupane was called up and now Tavares is with the Cavaliers so everyone has to step up. Singler stands out however because he possesses the ability to affect the game on both ends. He’s not known as a defensive stopper by any means, but the Red Claws have Abdel Nader and Jalen Jones as two of the more versatile players in the league on their wings, so Singler is going to have to be solid on that end.
On offense he can really stretch the floor as he proved in game two of their opening round sweep of Canton, where he posted 17 points including 4-of-7 from 3 in just 26 minutes. Stackhouse has moved Singler into the starting lineup with Toupane absent, so now is a golden opportunity for the 26-year-old to show up on a big stage. Singler isn’t likely to garner NBA attention but international clubs are always looking for 6-foot-6 wings who can knock down 3s and defend, so Singler is definitely auditioning right now.
The 905 have pummeled teams with their defense all season long and their philosophy won’t change with players missing, however they will need to score more points so if Brady Heslip and Singler can team up to create a dynamic 3-point duo, then their chances of making the D-League Finals are exponentially higher.
Chris Johnson, SG, RGV Vipers
Johnson is a veteran at this point with 147 games of NBA experience and 108 games of D-League experience under his belt. Coach Matt Brase really unleashed his veteran wing in their opening round series win over the Los Angeles D-Fenders. It’s almost as if Brase sandbagged by not playing Johnson as much and then gave their opponent a big “surprise!” with his showing.
In the month leading up to the playoffs Johnson was playing 26 minutes a night and averaged 11.5 points and 6.0 rebounds on 55 percent shooting. Now, three games is a minuscule sample size but Johnson exploded for 23.3 points and 8.0 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 71 percent from the field and 67 percent from 3. The D-Fenders were one of the worst defensive teams in the league, but shooting 14-of-21 from 3 against anyone is impressive. The Vipers are loaded with NBA assignee Kyle Wiltjer, Chinanu Onuaku and Isaiah Taylor, but Johnson’s shooting may be the key to a victory over the defensive-minded Oklahoma City Blue.
The Vipers only shot 33.7 percent from deep on the season (18th out of 22 teams), but in the playoffs they are hitting 41.1 percent and are making the most 3s with 14.7 per game. Johnson is a huge part of that attack, so if he stays hot the Vipers could find themselves vying for a title.
Daniel Hamilton, SG, OKC Blue
Over the past few years Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder have become adept at obtaining players through the NBA Draft, and retaining them stateside to play with their D-League affiliate. The team has two such players this year in Hamilton and Dakari Johnson and they are the two-headed hydra who control the fate of this team’s playoff run. Hamilton has really stepped up his aggressive nature in the playoffs, and has added a playmaking ability as the season has gone on as well.
Hamilton is 6-foot-6 which allows him to attack smaller defenders, but still get shots off against players his size or even taller as well. Hamilton’s defense on Chris Johnson and J.P. Tokoto will be a major aspect to watch as this series plays out. His scoring has gone from 14.9 per game to 18.7 per game and perhaps more importantly he’s hitting almost 43 percent of his 3-pointers (7.0 attempts). The Blue also have Reggie Williams who is one of their top offensive threats on the perimeter, and Alex Caruso who is probably their best perimeter defender, but Hamilton combines the talents of both into one charismatic package.
In their two wins against Santa Cruz Hamilton averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists on 50 percent shooting, and in their lone loss in that series he averaged 15 points, 9.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds but shot just 29 percent from the floor and 20 percent from 3. He’s clearly their barometer and his play will gauge whether or not they have a chance at a D-League title this year.
*All stats are from stats.nbadleague.com and are accurate as of April 12