Mavs Donuts: Mekel, Cuban & The D-League

Sources tell DB.com that rookie point guard Gal Mekel is heading to the Legends, and it's one more way the Mavs are making the D-League work for them. Another way? Mark Cuban suggests the D-League can be a superior option to NCAA basketball. His outside-the-box notion and its deeper meaning in Mavs Donuts!



DONUT 1: Mekel to Frisco ...

A source tells DB.com on Monday night that rookie point guard Gal Mekel will be assigned to the D-League today and will play for the Frisco-based Texas Legends on Wednesday and Thursday and possibly beyond.

This represents an ideal and traditional use of the "farm system'' that the D-League is -- or should be. Mekel underwent arthroscopic surgery in mid-January on a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. At the time, he was playing nine minutes a game (this before the elevation to full health of Devin Harris) and had appeared n 30 games, averaging 2.4 points and 2.1 assists in 9.6 minutes per game.

Mekel is not only coming off an injury but is also a rookie who has undergone some growing pains since signing with Dallas following two MVP seasons in Israel.

And again, that's what the D-League is for.

DONUT 2: The Cuban Difference ...

But what if it could be so much more? What if the D-League could supplant NCAA basketball in importance.

Dallas Mavericks boss Mark Cuban happens to be good at lots of things.

In my experience with Tony Cubes -- and I've known him for almost 20 years now, before he was a billionaire, before he was an NBA owner, before he could create a tsunami across the sports world with one stride atop his Stairmaster -- his greatest talent isn't in the areas of finance, investment, management, negotiations, basketball, acting or dancing.
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Oh, he's done all of those things -- some with billion-dollar successes to show for it. But no, Cuban's greatest talent is in the area of non-linear thinking.

DONUT 3: Non-linear thinking ...

It is his greatest gift and it is his greatest gift to the NBA. Cuban not only thinks outside the box, he's willing to question why the box even exists.

Over our 14 years at DB.com, we've chronicled all of the times a Cuban thoughtbomb became an NBA reality. (Research this; there are bunches of concepts created by the "maverick'' Mavericks owner that have been adapted into the league's new standard operating procedures.)

And there are other times when he's just thinking in a manner that pushes the envelope. (See: Griner, Brittney, the drafting of.)

He is at it again now, getting attention for a wealth of in-depth reflections that are, in some circles, being boiled down to headlines like, "Cuban Thinks The D-League Is Better Than The NCAA.''

The nut graph of what Cuban is actually saying:

"The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there's absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he's not going to class, he's actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball," Cuban says. "So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League.''

This is not the sort of remark that endears Cuban to the establishment. The NCAA is a billion-dollar business; the D-League is a place where guys make $25,000 a year.

How can the latter be superior to the former?

DONUT 4: Proper interpretation ...

I attend more D-League games than most, as you might know. In my role as the TV analyst for the Texas Legends, I'll end up at 22 of the 24 home games, I'll attend more than a few practices, I'll engage in hundreds of conversations with everyone from the D-League executives to its coaches to its players to its trainers to its referees to its fans.

I effort to get it. I think I do.

The D-League has long been part dumping ground and part developmental ground. But more than ever, it is now more than that.

Mekel's assignment proves that. P.J. Hairston's presence in Frisco speaks to that. He broke his ties with North Carolina to instead finish out the year with the Legends, thus helping to showcase himself for the June NBA Draft. And what Bernard James and Jae Crowder have done in their recent trips up 75 have done the same.

"We understand a big part of it is just getting to play,'' says Crowder, who in his two Legends games recorded a pair of triple-doubles. (On Saturday, 22 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists following up Thursday's 23-point, 18-rebound, 10-assist performance. ''I was in a little bit of a slump (with the Mavs) and Coach (Rick Carlisle) explained this is a way for me to work out of it. It's not that you're 'happy' to be in the D-League. But you are glad to have a way to get some playing time and to work your way through it.''

DONUT 5: Wondering aloud ...

But Cuban is wondering whether the D-League can become muscular enough to allow the NBA to scale back its affiliation with college basketball.
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"We can get rid of all the hypocrisy and improve the education,'' Cuban says of the present bond with the NCAA. "If the whole plan is just to go to college for one year maybe, or just the first semester, that's not a student-athlete. That's ridiculous."

Mark is referring there to the "one-and-done'' rule that has resulted in high-school players attending college for one season and then turning pro. Cuban would prefer a three-year rule and would also like to have the minimum age moved from 19 to 21.

"It should be either three years or 21 for sure," Cuban says. "If you go to the D-League you'd probably make it less than that. ... The balance should be, if you go to the D-League and elect to take classes and don't make it, we'll still continue to pay for your classes until your class would graduate. (Then) there's no reason for the NCAA to exist. None."

DONUT 6: Shorthand-speaking ..

Obviously, Mark is speaking in shorthand here, as it's not all so simply as an impromptu answer to an off-the-cuff question from the media, as is the case here. But he's not only put some time into thinking this; he's also put some money into doing this.

"I actually talked to a college AD and I said, ‘For your conference, the top 10 teams, I would put up $500 million for you to withdraw from the NCAA and create a new conference or new setup without the same hypocrisy geared toward student-athletes,' " Cuban says. "They laughed, but I was serious."

In Cuban's mind, players come to the NBA too young (and un-ready) after having been taken advantage of by the NCAA system ... and by the AAU system before that.

"I don't think a lot of coaches like one-and-done (either)," Cuban said. "I think it helps enable all the bastardized AAU scenarios and it creates graft with agents."

DONUT 7: The problems? ...

There are a few.

The NCAA world is itself a billion-dollar business, just as the NBA is. Cuban doesn't like the co-dependence, but others do ... in fact, others make a great deal of money from it.

And an attempt to "buy'' our way away from the NCAA doesn't necessarily eliminate "bastardized scenarios and graft''; it just moves the power base where graft can still exist.

This concept would put the NBA in competition with the NCAA, and again, there are reasons of financial comfort for many of Mark's colleagues to prefer the status quo.

The NBA would also have to figure out the finances of this. ... and figure in overseas offers, too. When Brandon Jennings jumped from high school to the pros, he did so by accepting an offer from Italy that paid him $1.65 million and came with a $2 million endorsement deal from UnderArmor.

The top-paid D-League guys get $25,000.

That's why, mostly, this is spit-ballin' -- which is a very good thing for Cuban to be doing.

DONUT 8: Ch-ch-changes ...

Can the two bodies -- college basketball and the NBA -- work together to alter the one-and-done problems? Maybe.

Can the NBA work by itself to make the D-League an even more viable option? Now we're talking.
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"Hopefully at some point,'' Mark says, "we'll have kind of a secondary draft like baseball where you've got the choice and we can draft a kid starting in the third round and let him play in the D-League."

Completely viable. Oh, and if he also wants to take classes? At night, online or even on a local campus? The D-League could help him do that.

You should know that even though P.J. Hairston is no longer on the UNC campus and no longer on the UNC basketball team, he remains enrolled there. And even as he stars for the Frisco club, he's taking online classes from North Carolina.

Modern technology ... outside the box ... because the way we structure leagues, the way we create relationships and even the way we "go to school'' doesn't have to be the way it was in 1969.

Cuban: "(The player is) to maximize your ability for your chosen profession. But you'd also have to make a commitment of some sort one way or the other, either to life-skills training and/or academic training."

DONUT 9: Join DB.com Boards! ...

Mavs conversation about this and ... well, everything? The best discussion forum in the NBA, The DB.com Boards, is in its 14th season and membership is free, fun ... oh, and sometimes frustrating! But mostly free and fun!

DONUT 10: Quoteboard ....

"We're trying to teach these guys that the way to get from the D-League to the NBA isn't necessarily by scoring 20 points a game here, or 30 points, or 40 points. The NBA is full of guys who can come to the D-League and score. They want smart basketball players. That's what we're trying to help them be here.'' - Legends coach Eddie Najera.

DONUT 11: A thesis statement? ...

So the following is a thesis statement, or maybe just a question, and certainly an out-of-the-box notion ... but not a master plan:

"If the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League," says Mark.

DONUT 12: The Final Word ...
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What the Mavs, Cuban, Donnie Nelson and others have done to build the Texas Legends into a big-league organization is truly serving as a model for the rest of the D-League and beyond. The baseball-like "farm system'' concept is already in place as we've seen with Larkin, Ledo, Crowder, James and, this week, Mekel.

(And a shameless plug: You can see Ledo and Mekel and the Legends in person this Wednesday and Thursday and Saturday by purchasing your tickets here and you can watch our telecast of the games on Channel 47. Come say hi!)

Sources tell me the smooth-working relationship between the Mavs and Legends (with Nelson serving as the Mavs GM and as the Legends owner) is being examined by other NBA teams who may start creating tighter bonds with D-League clubs -- and maybe even start putting the minor-league franchise without shouting distances of the big club.

The innovations are happening now. They come as a result of action. But before the action must come thought -- non-linear thought.

"We'd have to think it through," Cuban says. "I'm not trying to jump to conclusions and say I've analyzed this whole thing out. I haven't. ...''

But the outside-the-box thinking is triggering important league-wide conversation. That is what Mark Cuban does best. That is his gift.

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