Four months ago, in his final preseason as the NBA's commissioner, David Stern told a group of Chinese reporters something he admitted would likely make headlines back in the United States.
The NBA Development League, Stern estimated, does a better job of preparing players than many NCAA programs.
“It's working,” Stern said of the D-League, according to the Houston Chronicle. “That march is continuing. … We now have a league that will accept players that are 18 and will do a better job of educating them than the college programs in which they are (currently attending).”
Sound the alarms in Stillwater and Norman.
Blame it on the budding basketball relationship between the Oklahoma City Thunder and its D-League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers.
The reputation of the NBA's de facto minor league system continues to grow among hoops prospects. Call-ups are becoming more regular. Assignments are becoming more accepted. The D-League is becoming a more appealing avenue to NBA success.
And that's particularly true within the Thunder's forward-thinking organization, the path-pavers of this expanding leaguewide trend.
Last season, OKC sent five players on a total of 40 assignments to Tulsa — 24 more than Houston, the next closest franchise.
Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones were among those to play for the 66ers — three premium young talents who, less than a year later, have now become three vital rotation cogs on one of the NBA's best teams. And all three have credited their time in Tulsa as a big reason for their success today.
The Thunder owns and operates the 66ers. And because of that, it has developed the infrastructure to maximize player development.
Tulsa runs the same offensive system as the Thunder. It preaches the same defensive principles. Its coaching staff is hired by Thunder general manager Sam Presti. Its day-to-day philosophy is the same. And the results speak for themselves.
At the start of this NBA season, 10 former 66ers were on an opening night roster.
And younger prospects, like Andre Roberson, are starting to reap the benefits of the D-League.
Roberson, who the Thunder snatched in last June's draft, could have stayed at Colorado another season. The reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year would have been the feature player on a top-25 team.
But Roberson, despite receiving a late second round pre-draft grade, decided to leave school. And the decision, according to his father, was simple.
“For him, it was just development and where he saw he'd be developing more,” John Roberson told the Denver Post at the time. "You look at all the different dynamics. You have what he'd be doing in Colorado versus the NBA.”
At Colorado, he was being utilized as an undersized forward, playing out of position. It gave Tad Boyle's team the best chance to win. And in college, it's all about winning. Long-term player development comes secondary.
But in the NBA, under the Thunder's umbrella, he has spent his rookie season focused solely on improving his game for the professional level.
Playing his more natural position as a versatile shooting guard, Roberson no longer has an hour limit for practice time. He no longer has classes to attend. Instead, he spends his days working on his jumper or chasing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook around the practice court.
And when he needs game work, Roberson has stout competition waiting just up the road, with a coaching staff whose main focus is player development, not wins and losses. He has already been assigned to Tulsa five times this season, playing an average of 35.2 minutes in his 12 games.
“It's a big level up from college,” said Perry Jones, who played 15 games for the 66ers last season. “There's guys with more experience, stronger, faster. The game just moves a lot quicker.”
And it's not just the NBA assignees who see the budding league as better option than college. It's some of the nonroster players who remain hopeful of an NBA shot.
Grant Jerrett is the perfect example. He's a 19-year-old who could be starting as a sophomore for the second-ranked Arizona Wildcats this season. But instead, he jumped in the draft and eventually landed in Tulsa.
It was a decision he was criticized for, but one he doesn't regret.
“You know, everybody's different,” Jerrett said. “For me, the goal and dream was to make it in the NBA.”
And he felt the D-League would prepare him quicker.
It's a league that, unlike college, plays with NBA rules. Shorter shot clock, quicker pace, more condensed schedule, professional accountability.
“Some people are college players, some people are pro players,” Jerrett said. “It's different for everybody.”
“We think a lot of it is about timing and purpose for the experience,” Presti said. “There is no question that adjusting to the NBA rules, and more specifically to our system of play, is an invaluable opportunity for the players who are in Tulsa.”
And an invaluable tool for the organization's long-term sustainability, as shown through the recent success of Jackson, Lamb and Jones.
Oklahoma City has laid the blueprint. And across the NBA, many franchises have started to follow, adopting a more progressive approach to the D-League.
Of the 17 minor league teams, five are owned by an NBA franchise and eight are being operated with a hybrid model, where an organization runs the basketball side of things without actually owning the team.
There remain some kinks to be worked out and some advancements to be made. But relatively speaking, the league, which began play in 2001, is still in its infant stage, yet growing at a solid pace.
“The teams are ready to advance the league, but the infrastructure has to be there to support those advancements and initiatives,” Presti said. “Once some of that ground is made up and there is clarity of purpose, I think you will see a big leap forward for the D-League as an entity and as a supplemental brand to the NBA.”
Good news for professional basketball. Potentially bad news for the college game.