The decisive Game 3 of the D-League championship will tip-off tonight (NBA TV, 9:30 p.m. EST) between the Austin Toros and the Idaho Stampede. Before the game I got a few minutes with Luke Jackson and Josh McRoberts of the Stampede, two guys playing in the D-League under very different circumstances.
Jackson was a 2004 Lottery pick whose NBA career has been marked by injuries. Knee and back ailments have limited him to just 73 games total in four years spent with the Cavs, Clippers, Raptors and Heat — this season Jackson’s most newsworthy moment came when he was the man Miami waived Penny Hardaway in favor of. Serving short stints with the Heat and Raptors this year, Jackson also played 19 regular season games with the D-League’s Stampede and averaged 13.3 points a night.
McRoberts, the highly-touted Duke prospect and second-round pick in the ’07 Draft, has been deployed to the D-League by the Trail Blazers multiple times to get on-court experience, while remaining property of Portland. He saw action in just 8 NBA games this year, and in 15 games with the Stampede averaged 7.7 points and 6.4 rebounds a night.
Dime: What’s your role on the Stampede?
LJ: I’m like the Jackie Moon of the D-League; I just come in gunning. (Laughs) Since I joined the team late and we already had a good winning percentage and everything, the coach felt like it’d be better to keep the starters intact and bring me off the bench.
Dime: Seeing as you have actual NBA experience as recently as this year, how did that sit with you to not be a starter?
LJ: As long as we’re winning, it’s OK. I think I’m leading the D-League in points per minute anyway. I’m always going to be professional about it. It’s not easy going from the NBA to the D-League, but I keep a positive attitude. I’m still getting paid by two NBA teams, so it’s not the end of the world. I just try to use it as practice for the NBA, trying to get better.
Dime: What’s the biggest difference between the League and the D-League?
LJ: Travel. In the NBA you’re on chartered flights and private jets. Here, I was on the way down to Austin and we had to get up at five in the morning, and we’re sitting in coach. And just as the plane was taking off, this 10-year-old girl spills a full Coke right on my crotch. I was like, “Wow, I’m in another world right now.”
When I got called up to Miami, there was like 4-5 inches of snow on the ground in Boise (Idaho) and I was living in a little tiny apartment that the team was paying for. I get to Miami and it’s 85 degrees in the winter; I’m sleeping with the windows open at a hotel right on the beach. Things like that makes you appreciate everything you have in the NBA. It’s humbling but it also makes you really hungry to get back.
Dime: You had a few double-digit scoring games in the NBA this year, so it’s not like you can’t play at that level. Does it ever get discouraging?
LJ: For me I try to keep a positive attitude. I’m pretty confident that I’m good enough to play in the NBA, but for whatever reason bad circumstances have gotten in the way. Like this year I was doing pretty good but Toronto fell in love with Jamario Moon, so I was the odd man out.
Dime: When you’re getting looks by NBA teams, do you have to fight against the stigma that you’re injury-prone?
LJ: A couple of years ago teams were concerned whether I was healthy or not, but I’ve been healthy for the last two and a half years. I’m a firm believer that if you work hard and are a good person, good things will happen for you. I look at guys like Ime Udoka and Bruce Bowen and other guys like that and it gives me hope. There are other guys who are good enough to play in the League, they just give up.
Dime: Are you following the NBA playoffs?
LJ: Oh yeah, of course. The Phoenix/San Antonio matchup is almost like watching the Finals — both teams could easily win a championship, but the West is so crazy this year they’re meeting in the first round. What Chris Paul’s doing down in New Orleans has been fun to watch. I’m still pretty close to a lot of guys on the Raptors, so I’ve been watching them when I can.
Dime: Is it strange joining a team in the middle of a championship chase when you’re not that familiar with everything going on?
JM: Yeah, it’s different. Like for me, we’re playing Austin in the championship but I’ve never played against them before. And since the teams change so much that it’s might be different guys on the team from the last time you saw them.
Dime: What’s your role on the Stampede?
JM: I just try to do what I can to help the team win and not screw it up for them. They’ve been on a roll, so I just try to blend in. I don’t worry too much about stats or anything like that.
Dime: You’re in a different spot than a lot of D-League guys seeing as you’re actually on an NBA team. It’s not like you’re fighting to get a call-up.
JM: Yeah, it’s a little different, but you’re still trying to secure your job for next season.
Dime: What skills in particular are you trying to work on in the D-League as well as this summer?
JM: For me, game experience is the biggest thing. With the Blazers I was working hard every day in practice, but not getting a chance to get game experience, so they wanted me down here to do that. My biggest thing in the summer will be getting in great shape coming into training camp, improving my shooting and just working on everything in my game.
Dime: Is the D-League kind of like NBA summer league in the way guys approach it?
JM: That’s a pretty good comparison. In the summer league you’re being coached by NBA coaches, but then the preparation is a little more loose. In both places it’s just guys trying to make an NBA roster.
Dime: What’s your day-to-day life like when you’re with Idaho as compared to when you’re in Portland?
JM: For me it’s definitely good to be at home in my own house (in Portland). I have more of a normal life there. Here, I’m in a hotel the whole day. Really, all I do is go to practice and go back to the hotel. I don’t have a car or anything, and the hotel I stay it is actually connected to the arena. I order room service, go to practice and that’s all I know.
Dime: Do you think the D-League is an effective minor league system for the NBA?
JM: I think so, and it’s getting better every year. It’ll be more utilized as time goes on.
Dime: Who are some of the best players you’ve run across in the D-League?
JM: There are lots of guys — Mateen Cleaves, Darvin Ham, Jelani McCoy, Sean Banks. Randy Livingston on my team is one of the best. There are a lot of good players in the D-League that people just overlook for whatever reason.