Mad Ants at Maine
Tipoff: 1 p.m. Sunday
On the web: NBA.com/dleague
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Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jamaal Franklin sits near the court at the Concordia Theological Seminary gym with his foot in an ice bucket. This seems redundant.
It's hard to say how cold it is inside the old, sturdy Wambsganss Gymnasium, but Mad Ants guard Ron Howard wears long sleeves and sweat pants while scrimmaging. Presumably, a meat locker needing extra space could inquire within.
“To come out here and practice in this cold of a gym, I haven't done that in a long time,” Franklin said, “it makes you appreciate things where you are (in the NBA).”
Wambsganss is about as far away from the NBA as it gets.
On this day, Franklin is in the midst of his longest assignment with the NBA Development League's Mad Ants and he's embracing the environment.
Being sent to the D-League for more playing time and growth no longer seems like punishment to most players. In fact, the flow between the NBA and the D-League has never been more fluid. Players, such as the Ants' Tony Mitchell, are regularly going up to the league. Rookies, such as Franklin or the Detroit Pistons' Peyton Siva and (the other) Tony Mitchell, who have been down a couple times with Fort Wayne, are sent to the D-League
But the difference in practice facilities, travel accommodations and overall amenities is wide. The Ants prefer a charter bus for more leg room, but sometimes end up flying coach, which is quite uncomfortable if you're 6-5 and taller. Don't even get started on disparity in NBA vs. D-League paychecks.
NBA players sent to the D-League can pout and whine about slumming in the minors, and the Ants have had a couple prima donnas here. Or, they can take the approach shown by Siva, Mitchell, former Indiana Pacers guard Orlando Johnson and, now, Franklin: Make the most of the situation and be grateful for your NBA contract.
“I have way more respect for the guys down here and what they're doing, because they have to do that every day,” Franklin said. “When you see guys going through it and bumping their way up, like Tony Mitchell, you have to salute those guys. This is what they have to do to make it. So you count your blessings and salute the guys going through it now.”
Respect for the grind is one side of Franklin's approach to the D-League assignment.
The other is embracing the chance. In his three games since returning to the Mad Ants, he has played his best basketball of the season. He has soared the last two games, especially. Franklin scored 31 points with 11 assists and seven rebounds in a home win over Iowa on Saturday, then followed that with 32 points and four steals in a road win at Maine on Thursday. The Ants play again at Maine at 1 p.m. Sunday.
A 6-foot-5 shooting guard who can also play the point, Franklin has come off the bench for the Mad Ants and added a dynamic offensive boost.
“Jamaal is making shots and continuing to play hard defense and sharing the basketball, just like he did the last time he was here,” Mad Ants coach Conner Henry said. “He's come back with a great mindset.”
Franklin declared for the NBA Draft after his junior season at San Diego State, where he was Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, and was picked by the Grizzlies in the second around (41st overall). He has played in 19 games for Memphis, but has only played 22 total minutes for the Grizzlies since Jan. 1. He's in their plans, but not this season.
While it's possible to get better from NBA practices and game-night observations, Franklin understands how his trip to the D-League will help his game even more.
“Getting more court time, that's the biggest thing for me,” he said. “I'm playing on a team (in Memphis) with a lot of vets, older guys. The second-youngest to me is four years older than me.
“I have to make sure I'm able to come here and take advantage of what I'm doing,” he said. “It's not a bad thing I'm here. It's a good thing I'm here. I'm getting an opportunity to play. I could still be with the (Grizzlies) traveling and not playing. I have to take advantage of my time down here.”
Franklin, like many NBA-assigned players, has to consciously resist the temptation to take a bombs-away approach to offense. Some rookies, figuring – usually erroneously – that they're better than the regular starters in the D-League, hog the basketball and disrupt a team.
Franklin has been able to break 30 points in consecutive games because he's playing within the framework of Henry's share-the-basketball approach. That's why Franklin had 11 assists against Iowa.
“For me, being a guy coming from the NBA, being dropped down, I don't want to come down and play rec-league basketball,” Franklin said. “I still have to play in the style of game I'm playing in the NBA. I can definitely tell the difference between a D-League and NBA game, but I have to make sure I stay with my game, so when I go back up after these extra two weeks, I need to still be set and not be out of control.”
Franklin doesn't know how long he'll be with the Mad Ants this time. He could be called back to Memphis on a moment's notice. He could be here for the bulk of March.
“We could have him for quite a while, which is great,” Henry said. “He shares the ball.”
For now, Franklin shares the “comforts” of the D-League. And he's the first to acknowledge how good he really has it in the fully heated NBA.