Every year, about 4,500 young men suit up to play basketball for a Division I program.
Fewer than 60 of them get drafted by an NBA team each year. And many of those players will get cut right around the time of the annual Pumpkin Spice invasion. Often, it’s simply because teams don’t have a spot for them.
The NBA has a very different way of cultivating talent than other sports. Baseball and hockey have extensive multilevel minor league gauntlets that prepare young players for the big leagues. The NFL is too brutal to allow teenagers into the league, so college football serves as a pseudo-minor league where players can be evaluated while playing the sport at a high level for years.
Basketball doesn’t have 53-man rosters or eight minor league teams in their system. Some NBA teams don’t even have a G League affiliate yet.
That’s why every little step toward getting guys more opportunities is such a big deal. For wannabe NBAers, the two-way contract has been a game changer.
“The beauty of the two-way player that we added to the league is that we get to see more guys,” Celtics assistant and summer league head coach Jay Larranaga said. “More players are given the opportunity to see what they can do.”
In a nutshell, the league created two extra roster spots for guys to make a little more money shuttling between the G League and the parent club, thus keeping more fringe NBA players in the United States and working within team systems rather than chasing international paydays. NBA players on two-way contracts can earn up to $204,000 instead of the $35,000 G League salary. It’s not the millions they might get overseas, but it’s worth the financial sacrifice for some players.
That’s how Jabari Bird and Kadeem Allen became Celtics. It’s how Bird got an opportunity to play meaningful NBA minutes last year. He says it’s also part of why he’s having such a successful summer in Las Vegas.
“I think it worked out great for me,” he told me. “You see a lot of guys drafted in my position, they just go to the G League the whole year and never get a chance to get called up. To have the opportunity to be a late second-round pick, get NBA experience, get reps in the G League, it was a really fun experience and it really helped my game a lot.”
“I feel it is (an advantage) because you get the best of both worlds,” said Washington Wizards forward Devin Robinson.
He was signed to a two-way deal last season and is also performing well in Las Vegas. “You get to play in the G League but also practice and work with the team on the higher level,” he added.
The poster boy for the two-way deal is Quinn Cook of the Golden State Warriors. He started the year on a two-way contract but quickly excelled and, due to injuries, became an important player for the Warriors. They ultimately signed him to a multiyear deal, and he was their starting point guard as the playoffs began. If it wasn’t for the new two-way system, Cook could easily have ended up stuck in the G League, or locked into an international contract.
“It’s just more roster flexibility, it’s a chance to look at young guys, it’s a chance to retain players to a greater degree,” said Golden State President of Basketball Operations Bob Myers. “It used to be you try to develop a guy in the G league and had no way to keep him on your team, so it gives us more flexibility. It’s good for the players, too. I think we’re going to see a lot of two-way guys have success. We’ve already seen it. Obviously we’re an example of that with Quinn.”
While the two-way deals have given some guys an advantage, they are still limited. The NBA is working to expand its minor league system, but it’s been a slow process. With only two two-way spots available to each NBA team, there are just 60 spots for this kind of increased visibility. It’s basically an audition to audition, and it means almost-NBA players still have a lot of grinding to do.
“You gotta compete each and every day because there’s always someone coming for your job,” Bird said. “Being on a two-way I was hungry trying to prove myself going into this summer. Being a restricted free agent, trying to prove myself again so I can be on a roster, whether it’s two-way or one-through-15, I’m just trying to be an NBA player full time.”
“I think it’s all positive,” Myers said. “I don’t see a lot of negatives for us or any other teams in regards to two-ways. It just expands the ability to evaluate guys and that’s important in our sport and it was pretty limited before. Now with that ability I think we’re going to see a lot of guys doing it, we’re going to see a lot of guys benefitting from it both from the individual player side and the team side.”