ORLANDO, Fla. – With his slender build and 6-foot-5 frame, Nate Green blends in at a gym full of up-and-coming players looking to make their mark at Orlando’s NBA summer league.
But the people Green is trying to impress this week won’t be competing for the NBA Finals next season. They could, however, be the ones deciding if he gets to officiate it one day.
While each of the NBA’s three summer league stops in Orlando, Utah and Las Vegas are more focused on recent draft picks and other players scrabbling to make rosters, it has also become a proving ground for recently hired NBA referees and those auditioning for jobs.
As part its development program, the NBA uses refs like Green and others from the National Basketball Development League to serve as officials during summer league. Those that perform well go on to referee in the D-league and could eventually have a chance to be elevated to referee in either the WNBA or NBA.
The past 40 full-time officials that have been hired by the NBA since 2001 have come through the D-league training program. That list includes former player, turned referee Haywoode Workman – now a seven-year NBA veteran referee, and Lauren Holtcamp, who became just the league’s third woman to become a full-time ref this past season.
“When I came in, I came through the college ranks. Guys came to a camp, you tried out and they hired the ones they liked. Some of us made it and some of us didn’t,” said NBA director of officials Don Vaden. “It’s changed completely from what it was then.”
What was once just a handful of scouts searching out NBA refs is now a year-round operation that keeps tabs on about a 1,000 referees at all levels at any given time.
Once initially identified, potential NBA officials are cast into a three-tier system farm system: grassroots, mid-level and elite.
Each step along the way includes both on-court training, and off-court character evaluation. Those that excel then have a chance be hired as full-time NBA slots. Those that don’t head back to minors.
While Vaden said there’s no finite timeframe for how long a candidate must spend in the D-league before getting a shot to move up, what is clear is that it might be perfect time to enter the system.
With only so many positions to go around, league expansion used to be the thing that triggered hiring. Now necessity is starting to play a role with 20 of the NBA’s 63-man, full-time referee roster having now officiated for 20 or more years in the league.
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