Each season in the NBA Development League, a few dozen enviable players get the call to the NBA for their striking skills, clear upside or an ability that fits a niche.
Mario West holds that distinction for the Maine Red Claws.
West left Jan. 10 for a 10-day tryout with the Atlanta Hawks and ultimately was signed for the season.
In Maine he ranked among the most dynamic players to come through the franchise, best remembered for his drive to the basket. He may still claim the dunk of all dunks – a one-handed arcing slam over the head of NBA prospect Taylor Griffin on New Year’s Day.
With Atlanta, West averages 3.2 minutes per game.
For points, he averages .6 – a fraction of a basket.
And one of his major responsibilities is to work with star guard Joe Johnson in practice, readying him to face opponents.
“It’s all about a role,” said West. “That’s a role I take pride in. I’m not playing a lot, but my position is to make sure I’m supporting the team, pushing those guys to the limit. I’ve been really blessed. A million people want to be in my shoes. I don’t take it for granted.”
West is one of the 25 call-ups this season in a league whose primary purpose is to provide a high-level system for NBA teams to both send their developing prospects and pluck away talent from a pool of free agents.
Last year the D-League had 14 call-ups at this point.
If the pace keeps up, their call-up total in the 2009-10 season will shatter records, according to Chris Alpert, the league’s vice president of basketball operations. Last year the record total number of call-ups was 24.
“There’s the Mario Wests who’ve had a taste of the NBA, played a little and are trying to get back up,” said Alpert. “We have some rookies who are very good players and get a lot of interest. Some guys feel it’s a long shot but decide to stay domestic, get great coaching, play NBA rules and get scouted on a nightly basis. That could open up a veteran-camp invite, a summer-league invite. We’ve had a tremendous track record this year.”
West said he relishes his role helping Johnson stay prepared for opponents. The Hawks (46-25), who clinched a playoff spot Wednesday night, are tied with the Boston Celtics for third place in the Eastern Conference.
“Any chance I get to guard Joe, I love his game, I can be biased and say that,” said West. “I love what he’s able to do on the court. I try to get him ready. Teams focus on him. I try to make him work as much as possible.”
The call-up went deeper still for West, who grew up 25 minutes outside Atlanta, walked onto his college team at Georgia Tech and is rooted in the area.
He played for the Hawks in 2007-08 and 2008-09, but was a late roster cut this year and signed on with Maine for the exposure the league provides. He logged heavy minutes and got a chance to run the floor at point guard, averaging a little over 13 points per game.
“We didn’t think he’d be here long,” said Red Claws General Manager Jon Jennings. “He made quite a difference for us. He literally won us a few games. He was one of those players that I love. The guy you’ll see in the gym when no one else is around. We were sorry to see him leave but obviously thrilled for him to get back.”
Over the course of the season, Jennings said he’s fielded calls from NBA teams inquiring about almost every player, if not for a call-up this year, perhaps about a summer-league invite.
Recently, Jennings said he’s had interest in leading scorer Morris Almond (21.6 ppg), center Paul Davis (15.3 ppg), and guards Maurice Ager (15.2 ppg) and Russell Robinson (15.4 ppg).
“Those are four players people have consistently talked to me about. I think there is a strong level of interest,” said Jennings. “It’s a funny position to be in. You don’t necessarily want to have your players called up. It doesn’t mean it will translate into wins for you. But that is our ultimate responsibility, to get the players to the next level. It’s what we’re here for.”
Some D-League success stories this year: Reggie Williams, a 6-foot-6 small forward from Sioux Falls signed with the Golden State Warriors and is averaging 25 minutes a game and 14.2 points.
Anthony Tolliver, a 6-9 forward, scored 25 points against Phoenix on Monday night for the Warriors. He was playing for the Idaho Stampede just two months ago.
Cedric Jackson was playing for the expansion Erie BayHawks as a rookie before signing a 10-day contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this month with guard Tony Parker injured.
Sundiata Gaines, the No. 3 point guard for the Utah Jazz, found himself with a very key shot just a few games after being called up from the Stampede.
“He was not in a camp, gets called up to the Jazz, and in his third or fourth game with three seconds left, the ball is in his hands,” said Alpert. “He shoots. Wins the game. This is a guy on a 10-day contract whose coach believed in him to put the ball in his hands with seven seconds left.
“We still think we have a lot of very talented young prospects.”
West counts his time in Maine as a critical period, and has higher aspirations for his NBA future.
“It was a wonderful growing process for me,” said West. “The fan support was great. The teammates and coaching staff were great. When I got called up I was really, really excited. Nervous. I had every emotion. I love every bit of it.”
Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at: