The link between the NBA and the NBA Development League, better known as the D-League, is stronger than ever. This past offseason, five NBA teams bought into D-League franchises, bringing the total of one-to-one affiliations to nine.

“That is perhaps the strongest symbol of the importance of our league to the NBA,” said Dan Reed, the president of the D-League.

This winter the D-League may become even more important. With the 2011-12 NBA season in jeopardy, and with several NBA stars possibly heading to Europe, the D-League may be the source of the best basketball talent in the U.S.

“Everything is business as usual for us,” said Reed. “We plan to operate the league regardless of the outcome at the NBA level.”

The league will hold its draft lottery Tuesday, at which time league officials will announce the date of the draft, expected to be in early November. The Maine Red Claws open the season Nov. 25 at Springfield. Their first home game will be Dec. 3, also against Springfield.

“Things are looking good,” said Reed. “We had over a million fans attend our games last year, we had a record number of (NBA) call-ups. We’ve signed 145 players so far, including several all-stars from last year. Teams are out selling (tickets); revenues are up this year.”

The Red Claws, who have sold out every home game in their first two years at the Portland Expo, rank No. 1 among merchandise sales in the D-League. Season ticket sales mirror last year’s pace.

And the team is starting to prepare for life on the court. Like many teams in the D-League, the Red Claws have held tryout camps — one in Boston and the other in Philadelphia, two of the team’s NBA affiliate cities (the other being Charlotte) — to identify talent.

“We were able to identify a couple of players,” said Jon Jennings, president and general manager of the Red Claws.

Among them was Josh Jones, the former forward at Husson University in Bangor. Jones averaged 19.2 points and 11.4 rebounds for the Eagles last year. He has signed into the league and will be eligible for the draft.

Players like Jones are important for several reasons. One is the league is restricted by the NBA lockout. D-League teams cannot have on their rosters anyone who played in the NBA last season, or anyone who was drafted by the NBA last June.

In addition, many former D-League players have already signed to play overseas, in Europe or Asia. Of last year’s team, only guard Kenny Hayes had indicated he will return.

Among the others, Jamar Smith is playing in the Czech Republic, DeShawn Sims in South Korea, Vernon Goodrich in the Ukraine, Craig Winder in China, Antonio Anderson in Germany, Stephane Lasme in Spain and Bamba Fall in Estonia.

But neither Jennings nor Reed think the loss of veteran players overseas, combined with the lack of NBA-level talent, means the D-League will be any less talented this year.

“There are a lot of players out there who haven’t signed in Europe or Asia,” said Jennings. “There are a lot of players who have tried out in tryout camps. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to player agents the last couple of months. … God, there are a lot of talented players out there.”

Reed said the league is signing players “with a higher caliber of talent” this year.

Admittedly, the loss of NBA talent “will hurt us slightly,” he added. “But overall, the fans can expect a comparable level of talent (to the past). The fastest way to further your career is still through the D-League.”

Plus, many players who signed overseas are likely to return. Seasons in Europe have begun, with regular seasons ending typically in March or April. But players usually start returning beforehand. And if NBA stars end up in Europe for the season, those D-League stars may be back sooner than expected.

“We feel confident we can put together a team that is competent and entertaining,” said Jennings. “We have great faith in our staff to coach our team up and be very competitive in this league.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH