Sixers management aims to score big in the long term by growing a D-League basketball crew in Philly's backyard.
Dustin Salisbery scored 1,276 points in his four years on the Temple University men’s basketball team—a number that makes him Temple’s 27th highest scoring player of all time.
It also got him invited to the ultra-prestigious Portsmouth Invitational tournament in 2007, where his stellar performance kicked off a post-graduate career that’s seen him play professionally for most of the past six years. Not in the NBA, though; Salisbery wasn’t that lucky. Instead, he’s been playing overseas, on teams in Greece, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. “At the end of the day, wherever I land I can be satisfied,” he says, “as long as I know that I put that hard work in. I can look back on things and say, ‘I tried my best.’”
Today, the Lancaster native is back on home soil, and the NBA is closer at hand than ever. Salisbery’s one of 16 players who’ve just about made it through training camp to play on the inaugural squad of the Delaware 87ers—the brand new farm team the 76ers have started this year as a training ground for young talent.
Salisbery’s story is a fairly typical one for the Development League—the D-League, as it’s commonly called—which is the NBA’s equivalent to baseball’s Minor League. Players often bounce around from team to team, competing every game not only against the opposing squad for points, but also against their fellow teammates for attention. After all, there are only so many openings in the NBA; D-League players need to showcase their skills as best they can if they want to earn a shot at the big league.
Couple that pressure to perform with the low wages—on average, a D-League player earns roughly $20,000 a year, which is about what Sixers guard Evan Turner makes in one quarter of play—and the grueling travel demands, and it’s evident that this is a far cry from the glitz and glamour of the NBA lifestyle. It’s hard, says Salisbery, to be away from his family so much—“but it’s a sacrifice you have to take, because you can’t play basketball forever. So while you can, you have to make the most of it.”
The 87ers, who’ll play their home games at the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center in Newark, were still finalizing their roster as of press time this week, so there’s a slight chance that by the time you’re reading this, Salisbery may not have made the last training-camp cut from 16 players to 12. And if he has? Well—the NBA’s still a long shot.
But not as long as it was.
WHEN THE NBA first launched the D-League back in 2001, it comprised eight franchises across the southeastern United States; that number grew to 15 in 2005 and to 17 this season. In the early years, there was much less direct interaction between NBA franchises and D-League teams than there is now, and even today, there are three different models for D-League team ownership. Independent ownership is the most traditional in sports, where an owner finances the team and oversees operations. Then there’s the hybrid affiliation model, whereby an independent owner has sole ownership of the team but affiliates with one or more NBA franchises that run its basketball operations and draw from its talent pool. Lastly, there’s the parent-club ownership model, in which an NBA team totally owns and controls its own D-League affiliate.
The 87ers fall into this last category—and the team’s president, Aaron Moszer, says the entire league is trending quickly in that direction. The NBA, he says, “would like to eventually get to 30 D-League teams with the 30 NBA teams, one for each property”—a substantial increase from the current 17-team league. “I would anticipate probably within the next 10 years, we’ll be seeing that.”
From the NBA’s standpoint, the D-League has been a clear success: A record 103 players with D-League experience are on this season’s NBA opening-day rosters, up from 86 last year. That’s 24 percent of all NBA players—a list that includes guys like Houston Rockets sensation Jeremy Lin and San Antonio Spurs fan favorite Danny Green.
The 87ers aren’t Philadelphia’s first foray into the D-League, though. From 2001-2013, the Sixers were affiliated at various times, all via the hybrid model, with the Roanoke Dazzle, the Fort Worth Flyers, the New Mexico Thunderbirds and the Sioux Falls Skyforce. But those relationships were never monogamous; that is, the Sixers had always been part of a pool of NBA teams sharing stakes in an individual D-League franchise. Then Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie finally decided last April to purchase the D-League’s Utah Flash organization, inactive since 2011, and to base the team close to home. (The 87ers’ name, obviously 76ers-inspired, references the fact that Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution in 1787.)
“We’re 40 minutes down the road from the Wells Fargo Center,” Moszer says. “It’s a great tool for Sam Hinkie and his entire staff to be able to come down and watch somebody play at the D-League game and turn around and drive home that night. Not a lot of the D-League franchises have that luxury.”
Moszer, 38, was hired in April after 11 years with the Ripken Baseball organization, managing three Minor League teams. While he did play college basketball at the tiny Lewis & Clarke College in Portland, Oregon, the Sixers didn’t bring him on board for his jump shot; the expectation is that he can take that same marketing savvy that served him so well in baseball and transfer it to the hard court.
He’s got his work cut out for him. The only other sizable sports team in Delaware is the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Minor League baseball affiliate to the Kansas City Royals, so there’s not a big live-sports market yet; Moszer is aware that, as far as competing for local entertainment dollars, his main rival is the movie theater. “It’s an unknown commodity still,” he says of launching the D-League in Delaware. “It’s the education process, telling [people] that these are NBA players. These are guys that can and will be playing in the NBA, or did play in the NBA.”
SURPRISINGLY LITTLE hard data is available on the D-League’s profitability—although a Sports Illustrated report from earlier this year says that “more than half of the franchises claim to be profitable.” For the Sixers, while it would certainly be nice to turn a profit on their latest business venture, the 87ers’ main function isn’t to be a money pool but an incubator for talent. And earlier this month, drafting Norvel Pelle with the sixth overall pick in the D-League draft ensured that the 87ers would, at the very least, be regarded as a team willing to take a risk on a player who might pay off big.
Pelle, a 20-year-old L.A. native once regarded by athletic recruiting powerhouse Rivals.com as the top center in his high school class of 2011, never got the chance to develop his skills in college as almost all pro prospects do. Twice, Pelle failed to meet academic standards to play at the collegiate level; he was forced to forgo commitments to both St. Johns University and Iona College, two New York schools. Instead, he sought to make NBA history by becoming the first player picked without having any college or international experience since the NBA modified its eligibility rules in 2005. But that improbable plan was nixed when a foot injury caused Pelle to withdraw from the NBA draft.
So when the D-League came calling, Pelle was all ears. He knew it was his last path to the NBA—and “that’s everybody’s ultimate goal at the end of the day,” he says.
More than anything else, he says, the biggest challenge facing him at the 87ers is the sheer intensity of practice at this level. “In my position, coming from high school, it’s something new,” he says. “I didn’t go to college to experience the college practices and whatnot. Jumping into this is definitely something I have to adapt to.”
Pelle says that he should be back to playing soon—he’s still recovering from that foot injury—and the 87ers front office is hoping that their 6-foot-10, 210-pound center can make a difference not just for their own team, but maybe for their parent club as well.