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Farm to Market: The Ricky Ledo Experience

Photo by Sergio Hentschel/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Sergio Hentschel/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s 10:35 a.m. and Ricky Ledo is nowhere to be found at the Texas Legends’ practice. To be fair, neither am I. The Legends frequently practice at Fieldhouse USA, a sports complex a few miles north of Dr Pepper Arena, the team’s home floor. That’s where I thought I’d find the team. Apparently, Ledo thought the same.

Ledo and I arrive at around the same time. As I’m explaining to the Legends’ media guy why I showed up later than expected, Ledo is having the same conversation with a coach. (“I showed up to Fieldhouse and didn’t see anyone’s car there,” he says to the coach. “Then I saw the text, and thought ‘ah, God d—.’” He laughed.) He isn’t late to practice — in fact, he’s still among the first to take the floor. But before practice begins he’s supposed to warm up, watch film with an assistant coach, and talk to me, and he’s running out of time. The well-traveled 21-year-old rookie finds it funny that, once again, he’s being pulled in all sorts of directions.

“Am I watching video?” Ledo asks as Legends coach Eddie Najera calls the team to center court. Turns out he won’t be today, at least, and I’ll have to wait until after practice to get with him. Once the whistle blows, it’s all basketball.

By now, Ricky Ledo is used to his status as somewhat of an NBA nomad. You might have forgotten that he’s under contract with the Mavericks for four years; he’s played only 11 games with them and 31 with the D-League Legends, where he’s scoring 12.4 points per game on 40 percent shooting. He’s been assigned to the Legends six different times this season. He’s played games against the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Miami Heat in between contests against the D-League’s Iowa Energy, Delaware 87ers and Canton Charge. Ledo has flown commercial to Idaho and charter to Canada. He really has been everywhere.

And, in this, his first year of pro basketball, he has reason to be uncomfortable. During his time with the Mavericks, he rarely plays. When he plays with the Legends, it’s in front of a few thousand people somewhere in the Midwest.

But he’ll also be the last one to complain. After missing out on college ball after being declared academically ineligible at Providence, Ledo considers this season to be his equivalent of a freshman season at a D-I school. “Everybody had their minutes. They played that year,” Ledo says. He’s a rare case, but dozens of players have done done a similar term of service in the D-League, too. He doesn’t view his repeated assignments in Frisco as a punishment. It’s a time to grow, as others before him have done.

“You look at (Oklahoma City’s) Jeremy Lamb. He’s a lottery pick, and he essentially did the same thing I did this year — play the whole year in the D-League and just get better,” Ledo says. “So, therefore, it’s just a time to get better and get ready for next year.” I then ask him where he plans to be this time next year, and he adds without thinking: ”I don’t see myself being back down here.” Just because the D-League gives him a chance to improve his game does not mean it’s a long-term landing spot for the Mavericks project.

So it is. Essentially Ledo’s entire rookie season will be spent in relative obscurity, playing in front of small crowds and out of the sight of Rick Carlisle, his actual — sort of — head coach. But somehow, Ledo is as popular among obsessive Mavericks fans as he is unknown. No one really knows how good he is right now, or how good he’ll become. He’s just one big, attractive question mark. Despite the hype that surrounds Ledo on Twitter (an entire #FreeLedo campaign was around before the Summer League even started), the player himself says he’s unaware of it. In fact, he says most people don’t even notice him when he’s not wearing a uniform. “I like it that way, just so you can stay out of the spotlight a little,” he says.

It’s nothing like the year he spent at Providence, where, although he never took part in a real game, he was still followed intensely. He played one year at a Rhode Island High School before moving on to the prep circuit. At Providence, Ledo was the hometown hero that never was. Because he never suited up for the Friars, he missed out on the atmosphere that makes college basketball such a unique game, and the intensity that comes with fans rooting on players they grew up with. That environment doesn’t necessarily replace the quality of competition Ledo is currently facing, though, as it relates to his development as a professional athlete. That’s at the center of the current D-League vs. D-I debate, sparked by none other than Ledo’s ultimate boss, Mark Cuban.

“In college, it’s going to be very competitive, too,” Ledo says. “You think about it — kids are trying to reach their dreams, and they’re playing for the love of the game. The fans are very passionate for their school. But then again, you got people now doing this to feed their families. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. It’s a lot more physical.”

Is he bummed about missing out on that college experience, though?

“It bothers me sometimes that I didn’t get to experience that,” he admits. “I see a lot of guys having fun in college, and being told that they’re the top guy.” Just as Ledo completes the sentence, his 35-year-old teammate Melvin Ely strolls into the locker room and starts busting Ledo’s chops. Typical rookie treatment. “The top guy,” Ely mocks. Here, Ledo isn’t the guy. He’s just guy.

Photo by Sergio Hentschel/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Sergio Hentschel/NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, spending a year away from basketball can stunt a player’s growth in countless ways, perhaps the most dangerous of which is a diminished sense of self-awareness. Even for a player who knows himself well and understands the game at a pro-caliber level, missing out on a year of competition eliminates the opportunity for everyone — including the player himself — to assess strengths and weaknesses in someone’s game. That’s why Ledo slipped out of the first round of a weak NBA Draft in 2013, and that could also be why Najera has put Ledo at every position on the floor except for center. There’s only one way for a team to find out what its player can do, and that’s to watch him play. In that sense, his D-League term has been a positive, as everyone — including Ricky Ledo — now knows more about what Ricky Ledo can and cannot do. Speculative scouting reports have been replaced with real positives and concrete question marks.

For example, heading into last summer, Ledo says scouts told him he was one of the best shooters in the Draft. However, in Frisco he’s made just five of his last 28 three-pointers and is connecting on just 30.1 percent from beyond the arc on 103 attempts this season. He says the season’s length has played a part in his sinking shooting percentages. A benefit from those perimeter struggles has been uncovered, though. Due to the constant lineup shuffles in Frisco, Ledo has spent ample time running the point, where he’s said multiple times he prefers to play, anyway. Even when he isn’t playing the 1, because his shot hasn’t been falling, Ledo is looking to drive hard and often whenever the ball finds him. It’s working.

In what was probably his best game as a pro on March 6, Ledo was a cool 9-of-14 from the field, including 2-of-3 from behind the arc. However, it wasn’t his three-point shot that stood out. Take this first-quarter play, for example. Ledo catches the ball off a screen at the top of the arc, and instead for settling for a long two, he drives and finishes at the hole. He recognized his defender was sagging off a bit, and he attacked. Of course, he wasn’t mistake-free. He used the same tactic the next time down the floor, this time even using a tight spin move, but was rejected at the rim. Still, I’d rather him drive and be blocked than pull up for a contested 18-footer. He could have done something similar on this play, as well: the three-pointer was very briefly an option, but he instead drove through the middle of the lane (good) and dumped it off for an open Damion James underneath the rim (also good).

Every young player is prone to over-zealousness now and again, and Ledo is no exception. He’ll eventually need to learn that he can’t drive the ball against this coverage and attempt a jump pass, but that he can drive it and score. None of these highlights are particularly impressive, but they’re good measuring sticks for how far Ledo has come as a basketball player. Right now, were this his freshman season, he’d be getting ready for his conference tournament. Instead, he’s competing against other desperate professionals, and he’s holding his own. But for every efficient game Ledo enjoys, soon follows a stinker. He followed up his 9-of-14 game with a 1-of-4 performance, and he followed up a 10-of-17 game in February by going 14-of-46 during his next five games. He’s still growing.

Ledo might not be very experienced on the basketball court, but he’s smart enough to know that McDonald’s All-Americans aren’t supposed to spend two years in a developmental league. His place is down the Tollway at the American Airlines Center, where he’s heading immediately after practice ends to join his other teammates.

Four of those teammates (point guards Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel, forward Jae Crowder, and center Bernard James) have all spent a game here and there with the Legends this season, and they’ve all received inconsistent minutes in the NBA. Most recently, Mekel appeared in two games in Frisco on rehab from surgery to repair a torn meniscus. To those four, D-League assignments might be perceived as a relegation of sorts. But those four also played organized basketball last season, something Ledo did not do. And while playing time — including in Frisco — might precisely be what the Mavs’ deepest reserves need the most, Ledo is the only one getting it.

“Essentially I didn’t play last year, and if I was with the Mavs, I wouldn’t have a spot right now,” he says. “It would’ve been like not playing two years in a row, so this is great for me.”

Until he does finally join the Mavericks for good, be it this year, next year, or in two years, Ledo will still be just another prospect, one who no one knows about on the court, and who no one can recognize off of it. Ricky Ledo began as just a name, but now he’s slowly, methodically becoming a basketball player, finding his niche in a league full of prospects, has-beens, the NBA’s future, and its past. And while his team, Dallas, has 16 games to go, his season is coming to an end. The Legends play just eight more games, and after that, Ledo will be done playing basketball. His self-described “hectic, very back-and-forth” year will be over, and he can finally stay in one place for as long as he wants. As chaotic as Ledo’s rookie campaign has been, he’s learned a lot about himself and about the league he ultimately wishes to play in. And make no mistake: He considers himself a Dallas Maverick.

“I’m where I want to be,” he says, undressing in a small locker room in the small arena of a small team in a small league. “Every kid’s dream is to get drafted and get to the NBA. Everybody’s path is different, you know what I mean? You have guys who haven’t played until they’re 30 … You have guys who start off real good, like my best friend (Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams). It’s just different situations and the system that you’re put in.

“If I’m put on a team like the 76ers or Milwaukee, one of the worst teams in the NBA, you get a chance. They have young assets, so they’re gonna try to develop them, so you get a chance to see what you can do. Now, I’m on a team full of veterans and we’re looking for playoff contention. That’s totally on the opposite side of the stick.”