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Paul Watson had been eagerly anticipating April. After a quick stint in Germany and two seasons in the G League, he was finally on the cusp of an NBA job.
In January, after he was released by the Atlanta Hawks following a 10-day stint, the Toronto Raptors had signed him to a two-way contract. The deal came with limitations. Two-way players split their time between the G League and the NBA, but their days in the latter are capped.
Still, Watson, 25, was ecstatic. He’d pierced the NBA bubble, and at the conclusion of the G League season, he’d be gifted 18 uninterrupted days to absorb everything about the NBA.
“That’s what everybody in my position looks forward to,” Watson said. “Being able to be around guys like Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam. But also to learn more about what you need to do to get that guaranteed spot on the roster the next season.”
There’s also the money.
Two-way players are allowed to join their NBA team for training camp before the start of the G League season, 45 days during the G League season and whatever is left of the NBA’s regular season after the G League’s conclusion—a stretch that would have lasted 18 days in 2019-20. When in the NBA, the payday is essentially commensurate to a rookie minimum contract, which was $898,310 this season. When in the G League, they get paid a rate commensurate to the G League’s two-way player salary, which was $79,568 this year.
The COVID-19 pandemic might have robbed Watson of that chance. Instead of spending April listening to Nick Nurse coach and watching Lowry run the point, Watson holed up in his mom’s Phoenix home, where he honed his jumper on a driveway hoop. Instead of padding his wallet with NBA-level checks, he’s started watching his expenses.
“I’m good with managing my money and not in a bad position,” he said, “but it’s not like I’m a millionaire. I’m definitely feeling this loss.”
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Of the NBA players most affected by the coronavirus and the possibility of the current postponement of games morphing into a cancellation of the season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a group feeling the pinch more than Watson and the 55 others currently signed to two-way deals. The loss of 18 post-G League-season days, which many two-way players would have accrued (“That’s kind of the thing we often talk to the NBA team before the season,” one agent said, “that we expect our guys to get the max amount of NBA days”), will cost them $91,350. That’s a big number for players whose contracts top out in the low six figures.
Two-way players also have no guarantee of future NBA minutes or checks, which puts them in a more precarious position than the majority of their NBA peers, even if the latter have had their salaries temporarily reduced.
It’s possible two-way players could recoup some cash if the season does resume. Maybe, as a way to protect from the risk of players being forced to quarantine for multiple weeks, rosters will be expanded and two-way players will be made playoff-eligible. The NBA has certainly made clear that it intends to try resuming the season, but given the current state of the world, it’s impossible to guess whether it will succeed. If it doesn’t, it could be the league’s lower class that loses out on the most.
“We were going to play our two-way guys until the end of the season,” said Tommy Sheppard, the general manager of the Washington Wizards, who utilized two-way players this season as much as nearly any team in the league. “We really believe that that time at the end of the year is a tremendous opportunity for them.”
Two years ago, Luke Kornet was in Watson’s position. He’d gone undrafted the previous summer and then signed a two-way deal with the New York Knicks. He made his debut in February 2018. But, he said, “the one-off practices, it’s fun to be there, but a lot of the times you’re just mostly trying to not get in the way.”
In late March that year, with their playoff hopes dashed, the Knicks inserted Kornet into their rotation. He played at least 15 minutes in each of the Knicks’ final 10 games. That stint, he said, laid the groundwork for the two-year, $4.5 million deal he signed with the Chicago Bulls last summer.
“If I didn’t have that period my first year, I don’t know what would have happened,” Kornet said.
It provided an opportunity for the kind of feedback necessary for NBA-level development. He grew comfortable with the rhythms of the NBA’s daily grind. Being burned on pick-and-rolls laid bare the poor habits his 7’2″ frame had afforded him. The stretch also helped clarify what role he’d need to adopt—”a catch-and-shoot guy who creates stuff for other people,” Kornet said—in order to build an NBA career.
“There’s no substitute for being around the NBA team,” Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said. “It shrinks the learning curve. You pick up what’s expected of you, what the team needs, what the dynamic is. It’s hard to get that stuff if you’re not around.”
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The rebuilding Timberwolves have relied on the services of their two-way players more than most teams this season. Jordan McLaughlin, a point guard, has appeared in 30 games and averaged nearly 20 minutes; Kelan Martin, a wing, has appeared in 31 and averaged 16 minutes. Part of this was the result of a few trades that gutted the roster. But Rosas also said that he and his staff had mapped out the schedules of their two-way players to ensure the majority of their NBA time was spent playing in games.
“NBA teams rarely practice, and when they do practice, it’s usually light, walkthrough stuff,” Rosas said. “We wanted those guys to work, to be on the floor. We thought that’d be the best way for them to get better.”
McLaughlin agreed. “I’m somebody who learns by example, by getting in there and adjusting to the style of play, the pace, what the coach wants, things like that,” he said. “I think most players are.” Now he’s had his audition with the team cut short. “It’s about being able to show what you can do. Losing some of those chances is something I worry about much more than missing out on some checks.”
For two-way players on playoff-bound teams, these chances would have extended into the postseason, as well. Two-way players can’t accumulate official NBA days during playoff runs, but they are allowed to be around the group. The Raptors, for example, have used their two-way players to outfit a scout team. They had planned on doing so again this year, according to Watson.
That would have provided Watson additional opportunities to impress the people who hold his future in their hands.
“It sounds dumb, but seeing little stuff like who comes in early, who can follow instructions, whether their teammates like them, that stuff can make a difference,” said one longtime NBA player development coach. “There’s always front office people or coaches in the gym. And they notice these things.”
In the meantime, Watson is doing all he can to keep ready. He meets with Raptors coaches over Zoom. He follows the workouts they prescribe. He’s thankful for everything the Raptors have done for him, for how they’ve treated him. He’s confident in himself, and his skills, and how his game has grown.
“I feel like I can compete in the league, that I have a lot that I can bring to an NBA team,” he said. This was supposed to be his period to prove so. “But now,” he said, “all I can do is wait.”
Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.
Eric Pincus contributed to this report.