On July 18, the Thunder announced that the 66ers, their D-League affiliate that had previously played in Tulsa, would be moving to Oklahoma City for the 2014-15 season. Though D-League relocation isn't typically newsworthy, Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman viewed that relatively unremarkable development as a precursor to a much more meaningful one:
Two Thunder draft picks remain unsigned, and the arrival of the 66ers in Oklahoma City stands as confirmation that they’re likely destined to spend the year competing in the D-League.
For guard Semaj Christon, the 55th overall selection out of Xavier, it’s a natural landing spot. But with Josh Huestis, a first-round selection, the Thunder could be on the verge of breaking ground.
That's right: OKC could be planning to send its first-rounder straight to the D-League without signing him to a rookie contract. Mayberry says Huestis would be the first of his kind in that regard, terming him the first-ever domestic "draft and stash" prospect.
If that's how the Thunder let this scenario play out, it could have serious repercussions for the NBA going forward.
First of all, the notion of drafting an American-born player and immediately sending him to a developmental league signals the NBA is far closer to realizing its goal of a true farm system than we may have realized. Expanding and improving the D-League has long been among commissioner Adam Silver's pet projects, and he's discussed plans on everything from increasing salaries to expanding until every club owns its own affiliate.
Per John Lombardo of SportsBusinessDaily.com, Silver said:
Frankly, it got off to slow start. We launched in some cities that weren’t optimal. We shut down some of those and have created better relationships now between the D-League teams and their NBA counterparts. It’s more of a true minor league now. The goal there would be to ultimately have one-to-one relationships where every NBA franchise would have its own D-League team.
Silver's ambitious plan is still a ways off; there will be just 18 D-League teams next season, and only seven will be wholly owned by a parent NBA team.
Still, the overall relevance of the D-League has never been greater. Nor has its utility, as Huestis' situation proves.
By having him sign with the 66ers, the Thunder will get to develop Huestis in their own system under the watchful eyes of their own coaching staff. And, of course, the best part for OKC is that it doesn't have to pay Huestis like a normal first-round pick in the NBA, per Blake Murphy of TheScore.com:
"The maximum salary in the D-League, however, is just $25,500, far less than the $918,000 scale attached to the No. 29 pick this year (with a salary range beginning at $734,400 but almost surely landing at $1.1 million)."
This is a terrific option for the Thunder, and it's an even better development for an NBA that wants to establish its own functioning minor league.
But it's harder to understand the logic from Huestis' perspective, which is where things get complicated. OKC's move is a boon for the organization, but the one-way benefit might also draw some scrutiny from the players' union.
It's worth noting that Huestis wasn't even invited to the draft combine, and he was pegged by ESPN.com's Chad Ford (subscription required) as the No. 57 pick in his final mock draft. Draft Express had him at No. 47, while NBADraft.net didn't even list him in the top 60 picks.
So, Oklahoma City clearly reached when it took the Stanford product with the 29th pick in the first round. On its own, that bold play probably wouldn't have drawn more than a few raised eyebrows; it was hardly the first time a team stretched a bit to get somebody it wanted.
And besides, there are plenty of things to like about the exceptionally articulate, polished personality Huestis boasts—not to mention his blue-collar, defense-first makeup, per general manager Sam Presti's analysis on the Thunder's official website:
Josh is a guy that from the time we started watching him, we were really impressed not only with his athleticism and versatility, but he has a tremendous poise and focus to him that allows him to play the game at a very, very high level while applying his athleticism, his length and his size.
That's a perfectly good reason to select a 6'7" wing who defended very well in college.
But if the Thunder specifically targeted Huestis because they had already agreed upon a prearranged deal that would send him to the D-League and postpone his real rookie pay day, there might be a problem.
Rule 7.04(a) of the NBA's bylaws reads: "Prior to the annual NBA Draft, Members may have
preliminary discussions with players eligible for the Draft, but may not discuss the matter of compensation."
There's no evidence proving the Thunder and Huestis reached any sort of deal before the draft, but given the circumstances of OKC's draft-day reach and Huestis still not having signed a contract, it's easy to see why some of the NBA's most plugged-in thinkers are asking questions.
The NBPA probably isn't comfortable with a situation like this, either. Oklahoma City gets to evaluate a prospect, control his cost to a far greater extent than it otherwise could and, ultimately, still retains his rights if it decides to eventually ink him to a rookie-scale deal down the line.
Of course, Huestis wouldn't have been a first-rounder eligible for that kind of deal if not for the Thunder taking him early. So it's not like he's being grossly exploited.
Besides, what the Thunder are doing isn't any different than drafting an international prospect while fully intending to keep him overseas for a while. If anything, you could argue Huestis' situation is more equitable, as the Thunder are at least paying to coach and develop him with the 66ers, as opposed to letting some club team in Europe foot the bill.
What's happening with Huestis may not seem like a big deal, and it's telling that outside of the deepest reaches of NBA nerd-dom, it hasn't made much of a ripple. But we could be seeing the first step in a potentially transformative development phase for the NBA and its dreams of a real minor league.
The down-the-line fallout could be immense: Eventually, NBA age limits could become insignificant, as teams could simply develop teenagers on D-League affiliates. Players who don't want to go to college could become professionals (albeit minimally paid ones) right away.
Plus, organizations gain flexibility, fans enjoy the added bonus of following prospects in a team-controlled pipeline and potential flameouts could get a couple years of extra seasoning before hitting the bright lights and big bucks of the NBA.
It's hard to know what will happen with Huestis, and regardless, we probably won't see a wave of copycat behavior overtaking the NBA—at least not until every club has its own D-League affiliate. But the Thunder are doing something important, and there's a good chance we'll look back at Huestis as a uniquely critical figure in the NBA's ongoing development.