There and Back Again: A Basketballer’s Tale
Two Spurs players tell their stories of shifting from the G League to the NBA.
For most everyone involved, the G League is basketball purgatory. It’s not hell, or even one of the sketchier international leagues. It’s an NBA-affiliated, American professional basketball league, and every player in the G League — we can say with some confidence — grew up wanting to play in the NBA. By making it into the G League, they know they’re close to that dream. By playing in the G League, they realize how far away they actually are from it. It’s not a bad facsimile as such things go— the broader event, from the light shows to the t-shirt cannons, follows the same rhythms of a NBA game — but not nearly close enough.
For most players, the slight differences of the G League might not always be in the front of their minds. But it’s different for players with two-way contracts. Two-way contracts debuted this year after being written into existence in the most recent iteration of the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and the player’s union. These contracts allow players to be shuffled more freely between the G League and that team’s parent franchises; players on two-way deals could spend up to half a season playing in the NBA proper.
While these players’ salaries don’t even approach the NBA’s veteran minimum, it’s still an improvement over what they would otherwise be making in the G League. “It made buying Christmas presents a lot easier this year,” Matt Costello, a big man for the Austin Spurs on a two-way contract, told me.
The money isn’t the biggest plus for these players, though. The real boon is playing time. Costello spoke about his Austin teammate and fellow two-way player, guard Darrun Hilliard, who had spent his career thus far atrophying on Pistons’ bench, saying, “He sat on the end of the bench for two years in Detroit and didn’t get any better,” Costello said. “It really hurt his stock. Not because of anything he did, just because he didn’t have the opportunity. So now he’s finally getting able to play significant minutes both ways.”
“I just knew that I didn’t get enough playing time in Detroit to really show what I can do and really become who I thought that I could be,” Hilliard said. “And just this year, playing a lot of minutes and being able to develop and find out a lot about myself, it’s a great opportunity for me.”
Hilliard noted that there was certainly a stigma surrounding the G League for those players that may be on the bubble. He said that some players shied away from signing two-way contracts, “not even for a reputation that it gives them, but everybody wants to be in the NBA. At this level you just want to be in the league.”
The Spurs have made a point of getting as much out of their G League team as possible; San Antonio’s rotation usually features at least one Austin alum, and the organization has worked to blur the lines between the teams to the extent possible. “It’s been pretty cool,” Costello said, “because we have training camp in San Antonio for two weeks, so everybody was able to see the facilities. We were able to see all the big time guys. I mean, everybody knows each other, so I can’t say there’s too much of a divide between the two teams which is really nice.”
Basketball-wise, the transition between the two teams is inherently tougher to manage. Both teams play a similar style in the broadest sense, but the differences between the G League and the league mean that plenty is bound to get lost in translation. “It’s tough,” Hilliard told me. “Because when we’re up there with the Spurs, Pop will throw you out there and you don’t really know the plays, don’t really know the system, things like that.” Costello noted that this gets taken into account by the coaching staff, and that the two-way players’ job descriptions get narrower when they’re plugged into the big league rotation. “They make it much simpler, they dumb it down for us, for me and Darrun,” he said. “Just because it’s harder to get all the little intricacies and switches or reverses in a play. They’ll maybe run four or five plays where they tell us before the game ‘hey we’re going to do this’ so we kind of have an idea what we’re going to do.”
San Antonio’s needs will always take priority over Austin’s; that’s the way this relationship works. But on those nights when Costello and Hilliard are trying to figure things out in San Antonio, Austin head coach Blake Ahearn is trying to figure out how to manage his team’s chemistry and rotations while working without his best players for a few days at a time. “Sometimes you find out a couple days before, sometimes you may find out the day of,” Ahearn says about game-planning around those player movements. Ahearn played in both the NBA and what was then the D-League, and knows the drill. When we spoke, he suggested that in the 15 games the team has played so far, he has rarely if ever had the same exact group of players from one game to the next. While the two-way contracts were built to serve the needs of the parent teams, Ahearn noted an unexpected knock-on effect at the G League level: because of the churn, no player ever falls too far out of the rotation. “It gives other guys opportunities,” Ahearn said, “which is what we try to tell our guys. There’s some nights we have X guy here, sometimes we may not. So you always got to be ready to go and continue to prep and do your everyday work and then you get your opportunity.”
For Hilliard and Costello, and for Ahearn and the players under his command, life in the G League is inherently liminal and uncertain. In an already unstable business, Hilliard and Costello are asked to oscillate between two different teams with little to no notice. Hilliard laughed when asked if the two knew in advance where they would be playing on a given night. “Nah,” he said, “it don’t work like that. It’s usually a phone call: get on the highway and get here.”
“It’s a hectic lifestyle,” Costello said. “But you know for these six or seven months you’ll be playing basketball that you don’t really have much time to plan anything. You just kind of fly by the seat of your pants, ready whenever.” He noted these two-way contracts may not be for everyone, that “it takes a special type of person — if you need structure and a settled area, you don’t get that living out of hotels, living out of cars and backpacks.” There is the distinct sense, this early in the two-way contract experiment, that everyone involved is still figuring things out. Right now, most of that labor lands on players like Costello and Hilliard, who can at least say that they’re a little bit closer to the NBA dream than they were a year earlier. “It’s kind of crazy,” Costello said. “But it’s worth it. We get to play the game we love.”