The NBA G-League kicks off Friday, which means the Grand Rapids Drive is ready to kick off its fourth season. The Drive host the Erie BayHawks 7 p.m. Friday at the DeltaPlex, as the team seeks to reach the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
As the minor league affiliate of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, the Drive haven’t yet been an overwhelming success on the court, but did finish last year with a winning record at 26-24 and have had some exciting players.
The league became the G-League thanks to a sponsorship from Gatorade, following 12 years as the NBA Development League, or D-League, and four years as the National Basketball Development League.
Things to look forward to this season
There are 23 home games for the Drive this season, including 14 weekend games. The Drive start with three games at home, Friday, 1 p.m. Sunday, and 7 p.m. Nov. 7.
Tuesday and Thursday games, like Nov. 7, are $2 beer and $2 hot dog games. Saturday games are Family Nights, including Feb. 3, 2018, which is also Star Wars Night. Each Family Night includes $44 family packs, which include four tickets, four hot dogs and four sodas.
There are a variety of other themed nights, including 90s Nights (Dec. 15) and Ugly Sweater Night (Dec. 22).
Grand Rapids will also play at the new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Feb. 28, 2018.
A Meijer School Day Game will bring area students to the DeltaPlex at 11 a.m. March 13, 2018.
A new coach
Otis Smith was the team’s coach during the first two seasons and Rex Walters led the bench last season, but both have graduated to the coaching staff in Detroit.
The 6-foot-11 Robert Werdann will lead the team this year, following a three-year stint as a scout for the Pistons.
He played three seasons in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets and New Jersey Nets in the 1990s.
This year, the NBA implemented a new program allowing the NBA teams to keep a 16th and 17th player on the roster and keep them stowed in the minor league affiliate. The contract allows the players to spend up to 45 days on the big league roster.
The contracts will allow fringe players the ability to make more money in the G-League, hoping to solve an issue of losing decent players to foreign leagues.
The Pistons will keep guards Luis Montero and Dwight Buycks as their two-way players.
Michigan State University has two former forwards as two-way players: Matt Costello with the San Antonio Spurs and Adreian Payne with the Orlando Magic.
Neither team makes a trip to Grand Rapids.
Players from Michigan colleges
The hottest name for basketball fans in Michigan playing in the G-League this year is former University of Michigan standout point guard Trey Burke. Burke is playing for the Westchester Knicks, who come to Grand Rapids March 17, 2018.
The 2013 NCAA national Player of the Year and the ninth pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Burke played 267 games in the NBA for the Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards.
Derrick Walton Jr., also a former Michigan guard, plays for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, visiting the Drive Nov. 24.
Central Michigan University guard Kyle Randall plays for the Memphis Hustle, coming to West Michigan Feb. 11, 2018.
Former Eastern Michigan University standout Karrington Ward will visit Grand Rapids Dec. 22 and 28 with his team, the Maine Red Claws.
Max Hooper, a guard from Oakland University, is also playing with the Westchester Knicks.
The NBA’s minor league has been to expand over its 16-year history, but has picked up in recent years.
The G-League is making its way to a one-to-one NBA to G-League team affiliation and with 26 teams this season and two more in the pipeline the 30-team goal is in reach.
This year, an all-time high of 38 percent of players on NBA rosters have NBA G-League experience, so there’s a good chance a few of the players on the court might make it to the next level.
Smith, the first Drive coach, once said in a Grand Rapids Business Journal interview the key to growing and increasing the quality of play in the G-League will be paying players more, and with more players surviving in the NBA and more affiliations might mean better play on the court in Grand Rapids.
*Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Drive