In the second quarter of an early February game in Portland, Mavericks rookie point guard Yogi Ferrell, with the ink barely dry on the 10-day contract he had signed just days earlier, scored 14 points in the first 13 minutes of the game, drawing the attention of ESPN broadcaster Dave Pasch.
“You could make the case,” Pasch said during the broadcast, “of anybody that’s ever signed a 10-day contract, (Yogi is) playing better than anybody. He’s averaging 13 (points) per game, he’s a starter, he has 14 points tonight and he’s on day seven of a 10-day contract.”
In the span of 10 days, Ferrell had gone from being a D-League player who was seriously considering an offer from a Russian team, to agreeing to a two-year deal with the Mavericks. By February, he was the Western Conference Rookie of the Month. On the final day of the regular season, NBA.com ranked Ferrell seventh in its Rookie of the Year ladder, one spot behind No. 6 overall pick Buddy Hield.
Not bad for a player who could’ve been playing 5,000-plus miles, a hemisphere and a dozen time zones away in Russia.
“I had a really nice offer overseas. They wanted me,” Ferrell said, per Mavs.com. “Then I got the call from the Mavs, and decided to come over here.”
Ferrell signed a 10-day contract with Dallas on Jan. 28, started in his Mavericks debut and hit a pair of game-sealing free throws in a road win against the Spurs on the 29th. He then outscored Kyrie Irving in a victory over the Cavaliers on the 30th.
On Feb. 3 against the Trail Blazers, he hit his ninth three of the game — tying a rookie record, giving him a game-high 32 points — with 19 seconds left in the Mavs’ 108-104 win, propelling Dallas to its first four-game winning streak of the season.
What impressed Mavericks owner Mark Cuban the most about Ferrell during his 10-day contract with the franchise?
“His defense. His tenacity,” Cuban told Sporting News in an email. “He wasn’t afraid. He made shots.”
Ferrell was one of 34 undrafted players to debut during the 2016-17 NBA season. The group, which accounted for roughly 39 percent of last season’s 88-player rookie class — nearly a 10 percent increase from the 2015-16 season — combined for 946 games played and 195 starts in the regular season.
On June 23, 2016 — the day of the 2016 NBA Draft — 60 names were read, but none their own. Sporting News spoke with people connected to the NBA Draft process at various levels, from an undrafted NBA player to the college coach of two of this season’s undrafted rookies to an NBA owner, and found that going undrafted is far from a death sentence for an NBA hopeful’s future in the league.
Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith appeared in 81 games for Dallas this season. Former UNLV jumping bean Derrick Jones Jr. played in 32 games for the Suns and was the runner-up in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Wayne Selden Jr. started multiple games in the playoffs for the Grizzlies. None of them were drafted.
When asked how many players on an annual basis go undrafted but have the talent to play in the NBA if given the opportunity and right fit, Cuban said it depends on the peculiarities of the draft. When a couple of teams have a high number of picks, such as Boston with eight picks last year, it changes the dynamics. So does the perceived quality of the talent pool available in a given draft.
“No team can draft and add to their roster four or more players,” Cuban said. “So we knew that would require them to draft players they could stash. Which meant quite a few players that would otherwise get drafted and get a shot for a roster spot would not get picked.”
Dallas’ roster this season was full of players who went undrafted, from players with varying degrees of veteran status like Wesley Matthews, J.J. Barea and Seth Curry, to rookies like Ferrell, Finney-Smith and Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff. The Mavericks also had undrafted players from previous draft classes who made their NBA debuts this season, including Nicolas Brussino (2015), Quinn Cook (’15) and Jonathan Gibson (’10).
The Mavericks signed Finney-Smith to a partially guaranteed three-year deal last July, then picked up Ferrell in late January from the NBA Developmental League’s Long Island Nets. Cuban said Dallas saw heart, desire, work ethic, athleticism and skill in the pair of undrafted rookies.
“It’s fit, opportunity and courage,” Cuban said when asked about what it requires for an undrafted player to make an NBA roster. “We tell our (players who sign) 10-days to act as if they have been here all year. Don’t spend time trying to fit in because by the time you feel comfortable the contract is over and you may not have shown us your best play.
“They need to put in the time to learn what we do on both sides of the ball and go out there and show us what they can do within our system.”
NBA teams make many draft decisions based on the ever-fleeting ideas of potential and “upside,” especially in the draft’s lottery and first round, which inherently hurts upperclassmen who are older and viewed as closer to being finished products. Many of last year’s undrafted rookies left college as upperclassmen, ranging from juniors to fifth-year seniors.
On average, the undrafted rookies who made their NBA debuts during the 2016-17 season are more than two years older than their drafted counterparts.
The former Wichita State backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker had the opportunity to get drafted in the second round last summer, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall told Sporting News, but both players would have been sent to NBA teams’ D-League affiliates. Baker and VanVleet passed on the opportunity, electing to become undrafted free agents.
“You get to pick the organization that you want and the one that you think you have the best opportunity to make a roster,” Marshall said. “I think that’s very important.”
After agreeing to a partially guaranteed contract with the Knicks on the night of the 2016 NBA Draft, Baker will be a restricted free agent this offseason. VanVleet signed a multiyear deal with the Raptors, giving him a team option for next season.
At 12:01 a.m. on July 1, free agency for the 2017-18 NBA season will commence, allowing Baker to sign an offer sheet with any team in the league, but the Knicks will be able to retain him by matching the terms of the offer.
“(He) is going to have a slew of organizations bidding on his services, and then the Knicks will get an opportunity to match or let him walk,” Marshall said, “so (he) played (his) cards right.”
Both guards finished among the top 40 NBA rookies in games played this season, even despite spending time in the D-League. Baker was assigned to the Westchester Knicks six times last season, and VanVleet was assigned 16 times to the Raptors 905, according to Basketball Reference, as both players bounced between the NBA and the NBA D-League, which has been renamed the NBA Gatorade League (G-League).
Undrafted players who move between the two leagues can benefit from the creation of “two-way” contracts, which were agreed to in December 2016 by the NBA and NBA Players Association in a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Players who sign two-way contracts are guaranteed a baseline salary of $75,000, with the ability to earn up to $275,000, depending on how much time they spend in the NBA. That’s a significant pay raise over regular D-League players who make $26,000 or $19,500, depending on their classification as a Level A or Level B player.
Each NBA team is allotted a pair of two-way contracts that allow players to move between the NBA and D-League without counting against a team’s 15-man roster.
“The quality of play has improved significantly in the D-League,” Cuban said. “The delta from there to the NBA is shrinking every day. Particularly for guard play. With the new two-way contracts it will improve even more and we could see more players that have an impact in the NBA.”
Remember Jones, the man who put on a show at this year’s Slam Dunk Contest? He took a winding path to the NBA, declaring for the draft after a freshman season in which he was ruled immediately ineligible when his test scores were canceled by the ACT in March of 2016. He went undrafted but made his NBA debut on Nov. 19. However, he didn’t play in consecutive games for Phoenix until mid-February, after playing 19 games for the Northern Arizona Suns in the D-League.
“I knew I was going to play in the D-League a little bit,” Jones said, when asked about his thought process when he declared for the NBA Draft. He said that he knew he’d spend time in the D-League even after signing with the Suns.
“It was probably one of the best feelings of my life, honestly, because being down in the D-League, it was a great experience for me, being a young player, 19-year-old coming out of college after my first year.”
The D-League is a proving ground, where Jones averaged 14.5 points on almost 11 shot attempts in nearly 32 minutes per game (well above his NBA per-game averages of 5.3 points and 3.8 field goal attempts in 17 minutes per game).
He could be a bigger offensive threat in the D-League; in fact, Jones said he knew he had to be. On the defensive end of the floor, he let his coaches know he wanted to guard every opposing team’s best player, whether it was a point guard or power forward.
“I want to be that person to stop them,” he said. “That’s something that I told my coaches I was going to do. That just proves I’m a defensive stopper.”
Jones took the road less traveled to the NBA, from being an undrafted former one-and-done player who spent a quarter of the season in the D-League. He wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. The development of the D-League and implementation of two-way contracts are there to catch, and develop, players who may have slipped through the cracks.
When NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum read the 60th pick on Thursday, marking the end of the 2017 NBA Draft, there were a handful of familiar names that weren’t selected for one reason or another.
Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, who started for North Carolina in the national championship game, went undrafted. So did Kris Jenkins, the Villanova forward whose buzzer-beater knocked off the Tar Heels the year before.
Arizona’s Kobi Simmons, a former top-30 recruit, was this year’s Derrick Jones Jr. — a top prospect who declared after his freshman year only to go undrafted. South Carolina’s P.J. Dozier, Maryland’s Melo Trimble, Nevada’s Cameron Oliver and Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe also surrendered their remaining college eligibility to enter this year’s draft, which came and went without their names being called.
Maybe they were viewed by NBA personnel as too small, too old or positional “tweeners” at the next level. Others may have declined the opportunity to get drafted in the second round, like Baker, VanVleet and Jones Jr. did last year, in favor of pursuing the flexibility and negotiating leverage provided by free agency.
Some fans and media members will question why certain players declared for the draft as early entrants, forgoing their remaining college eligibility, only to go undrafted. But that doesn’t mean a player’s dream of playing in the NBA is over. For some, it’s just the beginning.
“Me going undrafted,” Jones said, “that was honestly the best thing for my basketball career. Everybody wants to be drafted on draft night. That’s everybody’s goal, but it really don’t matter when it comes down to it.
“The number that’s beside your name when you get drafted, that don’t mean nothing. That number’s not going to help you on the court. You could get drafted No. 1 and get killed by the 60th overall draft pick, I mean, it doesn’t matter. That number is nothing. It matters on the work ethic that you have and how much work you put in the gym and how much you give on the floor.”