A former Husky from Northern Illinois University, Xavier Silas was one of the best players in the country in 2011, scoring more points than future NBA first-round draft picks MarShon Brooks and Jimmer Fredette. Seemingly at the top of the world, it seemed as if nothing could break his fall. Then, reality started to kick in.
Silas suffered a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for a few games prior to his season ending and the NBA Draft process beginning. After countless workouts, combines and the usual conundrums that plague a prospect, the day was upon him, the draft looming over his head like a thunderous cumulonimbus waiting to strike.
He went undrafted in that 2011 Draft, and his options shrunk and his dreams started to fade. He was one step from being an average citizen before getting a call from the Philadelphia 76ers. They invited him to training camp for the upcoming season.
After a strong training camp, Silas played during the preseason for the club and was slowly making a name within the franchise before he was suddenly waived prior to the regular season. He’d spend a few months in the NBA D-League playing for the Maine Red Claws.
Following an entire season down below, the 76ers called Silas back to the club for the remainder of the season. He played in a few games and even in the seven-game series in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics. He was at a pinnacle. A momentary all-time high that seemed impossible to stop, he had finally found his spot within a major team. Nothing could stop his progress.
Then reality stepped in… again.
During the 2012 Las Vegas Summer League, Silas was starting for the 76ers squad alongside newly acquired D-Leaguer, Justin Holiday. Things were going well, coaches were impressed with his skill-set and his play style, and then things took a sour turn.
Silas suffered a concussion after getting struck with an elbow from his teammate and a skull fracture that sidelined him from play. After a facial surgery and some rehabbing, he came back to the 76ers for preseason, but it took just a month before he was waived and reacquired again by the Red Claws.
To the average fan, a stint in the D-League prior to coming back to the NBA might seem like a vacation, some deserved time off. But that’s nowhere near life-changing experience of the D-League.
“It’s dark down there. It’s a grind,” Silas says. “Your character and persistence are really tested. Those who can make it out are those who can keep themselves warm when it’s cold.”
Players in the D-League are constantly tested, not just for their abilities but also a mental aspect that fluctuates with their play. It is a league that primarily focuses on the progression of a player so that they can reach a higher plane, a better league.
Although it supports player growth, the D-League brings players together that have different goals. When a team is composed of players that all have different agendas, it circumvents the chemistry in a club, whereas in the NBA, players are engaging in team play (outside of some superstars) and expect the team to compete for championships.
Another striking difference between leagues is the base salary, which comes in three tiers. Guys like Silas and Summers go from making a league minimum in the NBA of $473,604 to somewhere between $12,000-$24,000 in the minors.
There is also the glaring difference in transportation. Some NBA teams have private jets or isolated modes of transportation. For teams like the Red Claws, there are connecting flights to their games and long bus rides to certain destinations, almost worse than some Division I programs. The D-League is full of restless prospects hungry to make a difference on the court, but for some, like Silas, it’s the other stuff that ends up testing them.
“[It's] the mental aspect,” Silas says. “The long bus rides and connecting flights. [It's about] knowing that you are good enough but having patience throughout and understanding that it is about the right situation and not as much about your game.
“Playing the right way and being selfless in a selfish league is tough. Everyone is there to get somewhere else. It’s the guys who stay true to doing the right things that prosper. Selfishness never gets you far in life.”
But Silas’ story isn’t one that he shares alone.