Utah Jazz: Sundiata Gaines, Othyus Jeffers stand apart from D-League counterparts
Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series exploring the NBADL experience.
SALT LAKE CITY — When he first learned the Utah Jazz wanted to sign him to a 10-day contract, Othyus Jeffers was a little blindsided by the news.
It's not that he did not expect to play in the NBA. Every time he took a shot, set a screen or grabbed a rebound while playing for the Iowa Energy, Jeffers believed he was pushing himself one step closer to fulfilling his goal of making it onto an NBA roster.
He just didn't expect that dream to materialize into reality so quickly.
"I was pretty much on cloud nine to play," Jeffers said. "A lot of my teammates got called up. So when my time came, it was only a matter of time. I just didn't expect it to be then."
At the time he initially signed with Utah, Jeffers was the 18th player from the NBA Development League to be called up by an NBA team for the 2009-10 season. One of those call-ups included current Jazz teammate Sundiata Gaines.
What sets players like Gaines and Jeffers apart from their former D-League counterparts? Simply put, their ability and willingness to defend.
"Everybody that is going to the NBA — they're not going to call you up to be a superstar on the team," Gaines said. "Defense separates a lot of guys because a lot of players can't play defense on this level."
Gaines came to the Jazz to fill the team's need for a third point guard after first-round draft pick Eric Maynor was traded earlier in the season — along with Matt Harpring — in a move designed to offer salary cap relief.
Before joining Utah, Gaines distinguished himself as a skilled playmaker in the NBADL. He averaged 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists in 14 games with the Idaho Stampede, prior to signing his first 10-day contract with the Jazz.
Gaines put himself on the map when he made a last-second, game-winning shot against Cleveland. He stayed on the map by doing the things Jazz coach Jerry Sloan expects out of a player at his position.
"He has a terrific body for a point guard," Sloan said. "He's strong and he can defend. He has to have the ability to defend and be consistent with that. I can't say a guy is always going to be consistent making shots. But defensively, you should be consistent if you take care of yourself and are ready to go."
Gaines seems to have gotten the message. Beyond that one shining moment against the Cavaliers, he has not tried to play the role of hero. Instead, he has focused on doing the same things that helped him stick with Utah beyond that initial 10-day contract.
"I try to pick things up here on another level," Gaines said. "I try to take my game to another level. I just plan on coming out playing hard and bringing energy."
Jeffers has embraced the same hard-working attitude.
Coming out of Robert Morris in Illinois — an NAIA school — as the 47th pick in the 2008 NBA D-League draft, he earned rookie-of-the-year honors with Iowa and averaged 14.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 22 games with the Energy this season.
Since coming to Utah, Jeffers soaks in as much as he can from practices, shootarounds and games to improve his chances of avoiding a return trip to the D-League.
One thing he appreciates in playing for the Jazz is the amount of time that Sloan and his assistant coaches spend on each player. From his first Jazz practice, Jeffers noticed right away that they took pains to work with him to improve his all-around game.
"They didn't shy away from helping me — even though I was the D-League player or the 10-day guy," Jeffers said. "They stayed on me. They gave me as much attention as they did all of the other guys — even Booz or D-Will."
Once an NBADL player reaches the NBA, sticking there usually requires as much effort as getting an initial call-up. Fifty-four players were called up in the last three seasons prior to this one. Out of that group, only 10 players are still with an NBA team.
Utah Flash coach Brad Jones sees the process of making it from the D-League to the NBA similar to building a career in another profession. A player has to start at the end of the bench and do the little things necessary to climb the ladder.
A player who hustles and plays hard, Jones said, is a player who can develop staying power in the NBA.
"That's kind of what teams are looking for," Jones said. "They are looking for the toughness and the efficiency because not many guys will leave this league and go be starters in the NBA right away."
Some former D-Leaguers do claim starting roles eventually.
Chris Hunter and Anthony Tolliver start at center and power forward, respectively, for the Golden State Warriors. Chuck Hayes starts at center for the Houston Rockets. And former NBADL players like Rafer Alston and Bobby Simmons have enjoyed stints as starters at different points in their NBA careers.
Other former D-Leaguers — like Denver Nuggets forward Chris Andersen — are on NBA rosters as key role players off the bench.
One thing that is helping more and more players get call-ups from D-League teams is the affiliation those teams enjoy. They work closely with the parent NBA clubs and function as a training ground for that team's offensive and defensive schemes.
"It definitely develops players a lot," Gaines said. "About half the teams used the same offense as the NBA teams they're affiliated with — so if they get called up, they got a good idea of what is going on."
There is no guarantee that either Gaines or Jeffers will be on an NBA roster beyond this season. Still, even if the odds of sticking around are long at best, both players feel confident they can stay at this level now that they understand what it takes to get here in the first place.
"I wasn't supposed to make it from the NAIA," Jeffers said. "I wasn't supposed to make it to the D-League. This is about knowing you can play basketball and believing in what you can do."
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