Most players in the NBA follow a simple pathway to the league. After one or more years playing at the college level, they enter the draft and are selected by one of the 30 teams. Players with top-level talent then spend a good chunk of years competing in the world’s best league. Other players, meanwhile, don’t have quite as streamlined a trajectory.
Some such players go undrafted and end up playing in the NBA’s G League (formerly known as the D-League). Even drafted players sometimes slide down to the G League to continue developing their skills. For the most part, players who spend time in the G League don’t have much of an impact at the pro level. Here we take a closer look at three of the most notable current exceptions to that rule.
J.J. Barea is one of the greatest underdog stories in NBA history. The 5’10” point guard from Puerto Rico originally went undrafted in the 2006 draft. He was, however, picked up by the Dallas Mavericks, who soon assigned him to their G League team, the Fort Worth Flyers. Barea played a total of eight games with the Flyers before the Mavericks called him back up to the NBA.
Barea remained in the league ever since, playing a key role as the Mavericks backup point guard. He also won a championship with the Mavericks in 2011 playoffs. Over the course of his 14-year career, the crafty guard has put up averages of 8.9 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game.
Danny Green is another former NBA G Leaguer who has gone on to contribute at the championship level. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Green with the 46th pick of the 2009 draft, only to waive him after 20 games.
The San Antonio Spurs then picked up Green and waived him after two games. Green then played 16 games for the Reno Bighorns before the Spurs signed him again.
Aside from a one-game stint with the Austin Toros that same year, Green has played continuously in the NBA ever since. The 3-and-D specialist won a championship with the Spurs in 2014, and then again in 2019 while a member of the Toronto Raptors.
Green was a coveted free agent last summer and ended up signing a lucrative deal with the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers, where he has a real chance to contend for a third title.
Robert Covington holds the distinction of being the most coveted player at this season’s trade deadline, thanks to his excellent shooting skills and lock-down defense. Yet Covington wasn’t always considered an NBA-level talent. After playing four years of college basketball, Covington went undrafted in the 2013 draft.
The Houston Rockets signed Covington to a deal and sent him to their NBA G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Covington played 42 games with the Vipers, putting up an impressive stat line of 23.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 2.4 steals per game.
Those numbers were more than good enough to earn Covington G League Rookie of the Year honors in 2014. Nonetheless, the Rockets chose to waive Covington the following fall. The Grand Rapids Drive subsequently selected Covington with the first pick in the 2014 G-League draft.
At that point, however, the Philadelphia 76ers stepped in and signed Covington to a four-year contract. He has been a solid NBA player ever since. He spent a little over four seasons with Philadelphia before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Last month, the Timberwolves sent Covington back to the Rockets as part of a three-team deal.
Now in his seventh full NBA season, Covington has put up more than respectable averages of 12.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. He also ranks among the greatest examples of how G League players can go on to lead successful NBA careers.