ORLANDO — Stephen Zimmerman has intriguing skills. He’s a good mid-range shooter. He has a soft touch near the basket. He’s an underrated passer. He’s very mobile and agile. He can block shots and he’s a solid rebounder.
There’s also plenty he needs to improve. He needs to develop a more refined post-up game. He needs to extend his range and he needs to add more strength, which will allow him to effectively defend NBA-level big guys.
The D-League – specifically the Magic’s affiliate, the Erie BayHawks – helped him showcase his abilities and work on his weaknesses during his rookie season.
In 21 games with the BayHawks, Zimmerman averaged 13.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.3 blocks. Those are impressive numbers for a 20-year-old who played just one year in college (UNLV).
While still far away from having a significant impact at the NBA level, Zimmerman thinks his D-League experience will pave the way for a successful professional career.
“It was definitely huge for me to get the reps in and play against that competition,” Zimmerman said.
“I played against a lot of NBA players down there. It helped me get my wind as far as the NBA game. It definitely helped me a lot.”
Many before Zimmerman – like Hassan Whiteside, Jeremy Lin and Rudy Gobert – have used the D-League as a tool to grow as people and players. In an environment with far less pressure and expectations, players can learn how to adjust to the NBA spotlight and grind.
Zimmerman also noticed how similar the coaching was in Erie compared to Orlando. It made it easier for him to adapt whenever he was assigned to the BayHawks or called back up to the Magic.
“It was the same, we ran all the same plays and they expected the same stuff from us,” he said.
While he never grumbled about the tough commute from Central Florida to northern PA and vice versa, Zimmerman can see how having the D-League affiliate close by will benefit players.
Starting in the 2017-18 season, the Magic’s D-League team will relocate to Lakeland. That uncomplicated drive down I-4 to and from the Amway Center will allow developing players to go back and forth whenever necessary.
“That was my only problem with going down to the D-League,” Zimmerman said in reference to the extensive travel. “It was so far away and I was away from home. It will be really close now and that will help a lot (for all players with the Magic who are assigned to the D-League or called up).
C.J. Watson, a teammate of Zimmerman with the Magic who starred in the D-League when he was in the infantile stages of his pro career, agrees that a nearby location will help in many ways.
“It’s a lot less travel now,” Watson said. “I know Zimm and different guys from last year traveled pretty far. They won’t feel like they are away from the team anymore (with D-League team being in same state).”