A former Husky from Northern Illinois University, Xavier Silas was one of the best players in the country in 2011, scoring more points than future NBA first-round draft picks MarShon Brooks and Jimmer Fredette. Seemingly at the top of the world, it seemed as if nothing could break his fall. Then, reality started to kick in.
Silas suffered a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for a few games prior to his season ending and the NBA Draft process beginning. After countless workouts, combines and the usual conundrums that plague a prospect, the day was upon him, the draft looming over his head like a thunderous cumulonimbus waiting to strike.
He went undrafted in that 2011 Draft, and his options shrunk and his dreams started to fade. He was one step from being an average citizen before getting a call from the Philadelphia 76ers. They invited him to training camp for the upcoming season.
After a strong training camp, Silas played during the preseason for the club and was slowly making a name within the franchise before he was suddenly waived prior to the regular season. He’d spend a few months in the NBA D-League playing for the Maine Red Claws.
Following an entire season down below, the 76ers called Silas back to the club for the remainder of the season. He played in a few games and even in the seven-game series in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics. He was at a pinnacle. A momentary all-time high that seemed impossible to stop, he had finally found his spot within a major team. Nothing could stop his progress.
Then reality stepped in… again.
During the 2012 Las Vegas Summer League, Silas was starting for the 76ers squad alongside newly acquired D-Leaguer, Justin Holiday. Things were going well, coaches were impressed with his skill-set and his play style, and then things took a sour turn.
Silas suffered a concussion after getting struck with an elbow from his teammate and a skull fracture that sidelined him from play. After a facial surgery and some rehabbing, he came back to the 76ers for preseason, but it took just a month before he was waived and reacquired again by the Red Claws.
To the average fan, a stint in the D-League prior to coming back to the NBA might seem like a vacation, some deserved time off. But that’s nowhere near life-changing experience of the D-League.
“It’s dark down there. It’s a grind,” Silas says. “Your character and persistence are really tested. Those who can make it out are those who can keep themselves warm when it’s cold.”
Players in the D-League are constantly tested, not just for their abilities but also a mental aspect that fluctuates with their play. It is a league that primarily focuses on the progression of a player so that they can reach a higher plane, a better league.
Although it supports player growth, the D-League brings players together that have different goals. When a team is composed of players that all have different agendas, it circumvents the chemistry in a club, whereas in the NBA, players are engaging in team play (outside of some superstars) and expect the team to compete for championships.
Another striking difference between leagues is the base salary, which comes in three tiers. Guys like Silas and Summers go from making a league minimum in the NBA of $473,604 to somewhere between $12,000-$24,000 in the minors.
There is also the glaring difference in transportation. Some NBA teams have private jets or isolated modes of transportation. For teams like the Red Claws, there are connecting flights to their games and long bus rides to certain destinations, almost worse than some Division I programs. The D-League is full of restless prospects hungry to make a difference on the court, but for some, like Silas, it’s the other stuff that ends up testing them.
“[It’s] the mental aspect,” Silas says. “The long bus rides and connecting flights. [It’s about] knowing that you are good enough but having patience throughout and understanding that it is about the right situation and not as much about your game.
“Playing the right way and being selfless in a selfish league is tough. Everyone is there to get somewhere else. It’s the guys who stay true to doing the right things that prosper. Selfishness never gets you far in life.”
But Silas’ story isn’t one that he shares alone.
Take his teammate, DaJuan Summers. Summers played 10 minutes per game in three NBA seasons from 2009-2012, but his name hasn’t been called at all this season. After recently being waived by the New Orleans Hornets, he found his way to Maine to accompany Silas on the Red Claws roster. Summers was the 35th overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft and was selected by the Detroit Pistons. Like many players who don’t get noticed quickly by league scouts, he could have played overseas but instead chose to remain in the D-League.
NBA veterans Jeff Adrien, Mike James and James Anderson all played in the D-League at a specific point in their careers. They now have seen extensive time in the NBA — Adrien with the Bobcats, James the Mavericks and Anderson the Rockets. But it doesn’t end there. There are also success stories that started in the minors. Jeremy Lin went from playing 21 total games for the Erie Bayhawks to his remarkable six-game stretch with the New York Knicks to a starting role with the Rockets.
Even before him, Rafer Alston and his crisp crossover shined in the minors. After playing six games with the Mobile Revelers in 2002, he had double-digit scoring in six-straight seasons with the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic.
Then, there is the unbridled and intemperate personality of Chris Andersen. Glowing in tattoos, Anderson played three games with the Fayetteville Patriots before starting a Mohawk-themed “block party” in the NBA. Anderson racked up 2.5 blocks per 20.6 minutes per game while scoring 6.4 points and grabbing 6.2 rebounds. One of the better journeymen in the NBA in recent years also appeared from the minors: Gerald Green. Green has been known throughout the EuroLeague and the D-League for his incredible dunking. Playing in and out of the minors from 2005-2012, Green finally found a home with the Indiana Pacers.
Lastly, the sure-shooting of Danny Green landed a spot with the San Antonio Spurs after three seasons in the D-League. In the 2011-2012 regular season, he averaged 9.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, shot 44.2 percent from the field and 43.6 from three-point range.
It is still a player’s choice to stay in the minors of the NBA instead of making double or triple the salary overseas. The minor league gives full benefits to its players, housing and per diem on the road for the 16-team organization, and the NBA is profiting from keeping the D-League around. Founded in 2001, nearly 30 percent of all NBA players have had D-League experience. Every official in the NBA since 2002 started their career in the minors, as well as nearly 40 coaches and 100 front office executives.
When entering the D-League, goals are set, salaries are cut and pride is put on hold. Yet for players like Silas, careers are far from over.
Silas has the potential to shock the world one day. Just like the Summers, the Greens and the Andersons, he can find a place in the NBA. It’s all about finding the right team to utilize his skill-set.
Silas has gone through almost every obstacle possible in a short career, from injuries to setbacks to demotions. But at this point in the 25-year-old’s journey, he’s just looking at them as stepping stones. Silas averaged 12.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists this season in Maine, a major improvement from his 5.5 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists he had with the Sixers.
Dreams of the NBA start with the very first jumper on the blacktop of any recreation center. They continue through every AAU practice and varsity game. They will progress to the first step into March Madness, and perhaps, even all the way up to draft day. But no matter the outcome or the result, the dream of playing in front of millions never dies. It’s more than just a game.
There is an ongoing stereotype among fans that minor league players can’t compete with NBA-level competition. But to the scouts, they may tell you differently.
The D-League is growing, and they are here to stay. More importantly, they are here to play.
“Players in the D-League can play,” Silas says. “The talent level isn’t as far off as people think. There’s no better way to prepare for the NBA other than the D-League. For instance, on our team we had Shelvin Mack, Chris Wright, Fab Melo, DaJuan Summers and I. All NBA players all on the court at the same time, it’s just a stepping stone.”
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