The season ended for the Bakersfield Jam last week in disappointing fashion. After an impressive Game 1 victory over the Austin Spurs, the team dropped the next two games and were quickly eliminated from the D-League playoffs.
Despite the early exit, the Jam had a strong first season as a solo affiliate of the Suns. There were a number of bright spots on the season:
1.) Player Achievements
One way to evaluate a D-League team is to look at how well it is developing its players. Development is always difficult to measure, so its sometimes useful to look at player achievements.
This season, 3 Jam players were called up: Elijah Millsap (Utah Jazz), Earl Barron (Suns), and Jerel McNeal (Suns). This compares to just one player last season (James Nunnally). While Millsap, Barron and McNeal are all relative veterans, they all added new wrinkles to their games with Jam this season, which helped make them credible targets for an NBA roster.
In a similar fashion, this season the Jam had three players make All D-League teams. Earl Barron made First Team All D-League, Jerel McNeal made Third Team All D-League, and Joe Jackson made Second Team All-Defense. In comparison, last year the team had only one player selected, as Ike Diogu made All D-League Honorable Mention.
All told, this was possibly the Jam's best overall season in terms of player achievement. While three of the four players mentioned likely won't be back next year, the foundation that allowed them to succeed (coaches, trainers, etc.) will still be there.
2.) Winning Consistently
The Jam were something of a juggernaut during the regular season, going 34-16 and finishing 2nd in the Western Conference, the deeper of the two conferences in the D-League.
What is more impressive about the ways the team performed is that it managed to keep winning games after losing its best player not once, not twice, but three times. The team lost Chris Wright and Elijah Millsap, the two leading scorers, within a week at the beginning of January (Wright went to player overseas, Millsap signed with the Jazz). They then lost Earl Barron, the leading rebounder, and Jerel McNeal, the starting point guard, to the Suns toward the end of the season.
Despite this, the team continued to win. After losing Earl Barron in February, who had been an integral part of the team to that point, the team went 10-8. 4 of those losses came after the team lost Jerel McNeal.
The team has also won consistently without the aid of a lot of NBA assignments. No player for the Suns appeared in more than 10 games for the Jam. In contrast, the Santa Cruz Warriors, enjoyed 29 games with big man Ognjen Kuzmic, and more than 15 games with James Michael McAdoo after he was called up by the Warriors. The Austin Spurs, who eliminated the Jam, enjoyed 26 games of 2014 first round pick Kyle Anderson, as well as 11 games with Adreian Payne.
3.) Youth Movement
While the Jam early in the season relied more on veterans who had lingered around the fringes of the NBA for a while, by the end of the season significant contributions were coming from relative newcomers.
Joe Jackson was probably the brightest spot. After starting the season injured and not playing much, Jackson ended the season on a tear, averaging 18 points and 7 assists per game in the month of March. His ankle injury at the end of the season prevented him from playing much in the playoffs, and likely contributed to the team's early exit.
Jamil Wilson was a consistent part of the rotation from day 1 because of his tenacious defense and ability to hit the three ball. He averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds per game in the month of February before an injury sidelined him for much of the rest of the season.
Other young players also contributed heavily. Casey Prather saw his minutes increase dramatically after the departure of Jerel McNeal, and responded well, averaging 12 points and 4 rebounds per game in March. Xavier Munford also saw his minutes go up dramatically, and averaged 16 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists per game while shooting 40% from beyond the arc in March.
These four players are likely the core of next year's Jam team, assuming they don't make an NBA roster or pursue an overseas contract.
4.) The Curious Case of Alec Brown
Alec Brown signed with the Jam in the middle of the season, after finishing rehab on his dislocating shoulder. It was expected that Brown would take a larger role with the team after the departure of Earl Barron, but that never really materialized.
Why that never happened is still something of a mystery. Brown played pretty decently with the Jam. While he didn't shoot a very good percentage overall (just about 40%), a large chunk of this is because 40% of his shots were coming from beyond the arc, where he was hitting at about 34%. While Earl Barron shot much better overall (46%), this is tempered by the fact that he took only 18% of his shots from beyond the arc, and hit at the same rate.
Brown's biggest weakness with the Jam probably wasn't his offense, nor his defense, which is what we might expect given his reputation coming out of college. Instead, was likely his rebounding. This is probably the reason that Brown lost out on minutes towards the end of the season to Cameron Moore, a big out of UAB with a knack for rebounding.
This decision may have been a mistake by coach Nate Bjorkgren, however. The +/- stats on the season have Alec Brown as the second best player on the team. This is heavily influenced by his much improved defense: Brown averaged 2 blocks per game, and looked much more developed defensively than he had in previous showings. Brown graded out middle of the pack in terms of metric stats for the team, finishing 6th in box plus/minus and 8th in VORP among players who appeared in more than 10 games.
Brown definitely has things to work on, including rebounding and shot selection. However, he looked better than his playing time might indicate, and it shouldn't be surprising if he gets a training camp invite this upcoming season.
All in all, this was a pretty good year for the Jam. While they didn't win it all, they were able to make the type of progress that will hopefully help develop the team into the kind of model set by the Austin Spurs or the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.