Dejounte Murray, Dewayne Dedmon and Bryn Forbes sit left to right on a bench in the opponent’s locker room. They trade inside jokes that elicit high-fives, tie their basketball shoes, and tuck in their jerseys. It is Murray’s and Forbes’ first NBA game at the Mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden. In a few short minutes, they will run out onto the court in front of 20,000 fans. Millions more will watch the nationally televised broadcast on ABC.
The San Antonio Spurs are 41-12 going into the game; good for 2nd place in the Western Conference. It is the Spurs’ 18th consecutive season with at least 40 wins. Now you may be thinking, “It’s the Spurs; Gregg Popovich is still coaching, what else is new?” Well, two things. First, Tim Duncan retired before the season. Second, this team has nine players who’ve played in the D-League. Five of those players are in their first season in San Antonio. Murray, Dedmon and Forbes are three names on that list.
The former D-Leaguers have all started their careers in different ways. Murray and Kyle Anderson are both former first-round picks. Established veterans Danny Green and Patty Mills, as well as rookie Davis Bertans, were second-round picks. Forbes, Dedmon, Jonathon Simmons and Joel Anthony each went undrafted. They’ve played for D-League teams across the United States — from Erie, Pennsylvania to Austin, Texas to Santa Cruz, California.
Dedmon who has had two different stints in the D-League, doesn’t take his opportunity with the Spurs for granted.
“It definitely gives you an appreciation,” Dedmon said. “Definitely gives you an appreciation because you’ve seen it from the other perspective.”
Dedmon says that the former D-League players generally share this sentiment.
“Sometimes we talk about it. Everybody, once you go through the D-League, you know what it’s like. It’s definitely not a place that you want to go back to. Once you get out, you’ve got to keep working.”
A strong work ethic is something all of the D-League players have in common. Without it, how would they graduate from places like Boise, Idaho?
Forbes has spent time this season between San Antonio and their D-League affiliate, the Austin Spurs.
“I get to just go down there and work on everything. They teach me here, but especially down in Austin. They keep a lot of stuff similar to the San Antonio Spurs, so I can just work on my game.”
Murray feels the same way.
“It’s good to get the repetition, to play 5-on-5 instead of just working out. I feel like it’s helped me a lot just playing.”
At the end of the day, where these former D-Leaguers come from does not matter. They now wear the silver and black jerseys. They are all here now.
The question then is how have the Spurs continued to be so successful as former stars have retired, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili enter the twilight of their careers? The answer starts at the top with Popovich, the man who has captained the ship for 20 years.
“They’ve really been important to us,” Popovich said before the game at MSG. “We’ve got six or seven new D-League guys. Dedmon, Murray, they’ve all been wonderful for us. They’ve allowed us to have some depth and rest a couple guys now and then and they’re playing really well.”
The Spurs crop of D-League players credit their coach with helping them to develop as NBA players.
Dedmon, who has been playing valuable minutes filling in for the injured Pau Gasol, said, “It’s been great [learning from Popovich], he’s definitely going to go down in history as one of the best to ever coach. Just being able to play underneath him is great experience.”
Forbes said he tries to soak up every possible lesson.
“I mean, Coach, he’s got a lot experience, a lot of wins. He knows what he’s doing and I listen and trust everything he says. There’s nothing I’d ever question.”
The Spurs’ veteran players also try to help their new teammates. Starting shooting guard Danny Green remembers his D-League days in Reno, Nevada. He has since gone on to win an NBA championship in 2014 and sign a $45 million contract.
The team dresses in street clothes after the game. The disappointment is palpable after the Spurs dropped a winnable game to the Knicks. Green straps up his cloud-white sneakers. A slight smile breaks across his face as he recalls his journey through the D-League.
“It’s always good to come across those guys and talk to them and see the journey they’ve taken. How long it’s taken. How far they’ve come. I’m happy for all their success. You can tell that they come from the D-League just by how hard they play. It’s good to see them gain some momentum, gain some time, get the opportunity.”
Just as quickly as it appeared, his smile evaporates as his thoughts return to the day’s loss.
“I’m sure they needed [the learning experience of] a game like today. … But we try to prevent that from happening.”
So far, the Spurs have been pretty successful at that.