(AP) -- There was a time when the NBA Development League was just hanging on, a fledgling operation viewed as an outpost to be avoided at all costs.
As the D-League prepares to open its 16th season of operation on Friday, it does so having grown dramatically in recent years, and with the handful of remaining NBA teams who have yet to start their own affiliates clamoring to get in the door.
"We've already grown very quickly in a short period of time," president Malcolm Turner told The Associated Press.
Three expansion teams -- in Charlotte, Chicago and Brooklyn -- begin play this season, bringing the league's total to a high of 22 clubs. Every one of them has a one-to-one affiliation with an NBA organization, with the big franchises growing more and more comfortable using the minor league to develop young players, cultivate coaches and allow veterans to rehab an injury.
What started as an eight-team league in 2001, dipped to six teams in 2003 and hovered at 16 teams for five seasons between 2008 and 2013 has gradually evolved to become a part of the NBA's ecosystem. The Atlanta Hawks announced on Thursday they will start a team in 2019, leaving just seven NBA franchises without a D-League affiliate of their own.
"We're in active conversations with all of them about joining the league," Turner said. "Knock on wood, we hope to have additional announcements sooner than later."
Being on the outside looking in suddenly is becoming a competitive disadvantage.
"From a basketball perspective, this is critical to our growth," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said at the unveiling of plans for a 3,500-seat arena in the Atlanta suburb of College Park.
And it's not just the teams that are growing. Fifteen coaches who worked in the D-League last season are on NBA benches this year, just under 50 percent of the players drafted in 2015 spent some time in the D-League and 40 percent of players on NBA rosters at season's end had some D-League experience, according to Turner.
Miami center Hassan Whiteside became the first former D-League player to sign a max contract this summer and there have been conversations between NBA owners and the players' union about including a clause in the new collective bargaining agreement that allows for two-way contracts that would only increase the usage of the minor league.
"The numbers are already there," Turner said. "Those are meaningful numbers in terms of D-League experience in the NBA, and that's just on the players' side. I think ecosystem and fabric are key terminology for us. It's not aspirational for us. It's actually happening."
Turner said the league is exploring possible international ventures, seizing on the NBA's global reach. Big league general managers have told D-League representatives they plan to use the league more going forward to help veterans play their way back into shape after long injury hiatuses.
Season No. 16 begins on Friday night with four games: Canton at Grand Rapids; Long Island at Windy City; Maine at Oklahoma City; and Iowa at Los Angeles.
"We don't disclose our financials publicly, but I would tell you, both at the league level and with our teams, we are trending in the right direction as it relates to not only revenue growth but more importantly profitability as well," Turner said.