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.