With his slender build and 6-foot-5-inch 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, they are 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 who perform well go on to referee in the D-league and could eventually have a chance to be elevated to referees in either the WNBA or NBA.
The past 40 full-time officials who 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 1,000 referees at all levels at any given time.
Once initially identified, potential NBA officials are cast into a three-tier farm system: grassroots, mid-level and elite.
Each step along the way includes both on-court training and off-court character evaluation. Those who excel then have a chance to be hired as full-time NBA slots. Those who don’t head back to minors.
For Green, 37, that journey began after he ended a nine-year professional playing career that saw stops overseas and briefly in the D-league. He was looking to get back into basketball and had an opportunity to fill in as a ref at a men’s recreation league game.
“The light bulb kind of went off. I fell in love with it and thought, ‘This is it.’ This is what’s gonna bring me back around basketball,” Green said, who is entering his first year with the D-league. “I guess with anything, you’re at the right place at the right time.”
Five-year NBA veteran referee Brent Barnaky spent 16 years in the college and D-league ranks before becoming a full-time official in 2010. The University of Central Florida and Nova Southeastern law school graduate said the NBA’s referee evaluation was intricate.
“It’s an intense process,” Barnaky said. “I joke with folks at home that the sheer number of hours I put into becoming an NBA referee far outweighs the amount of hours I spent studying for law school and the bar exam to become a lawyer.”
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 the 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.
Because the league is experimenting with new technology like headsets and other devices to aid officials, Vaden said, younger officials have a comfort level some of the older vets might not.
“There was a time when I can remember them giving our computers for the first time. We didn’t know how to open them, much less turn it on. So we’ve been from that generation to now with the iPhones and iPads and tablets and things — everybody knows how to use the technology,” he said.
That has also aided in those candidates’ evaluation process, thanks to the availability of video.
“Now guys on any level can get video of his game. It’s online somewhere. Whereas when I came up and worked in the NBA, unless you got a VHS tape after the game, you didn’t get any recording of the game,” Vaden said. “Now you get to see all your stuff and really micromanage what you’re doing as an individual, and others can see it, too.”