The day you’ve been waiting for is finally here, basketball fans. The first day of the CEBL season, and the first official home game for the Ottawa BlackJacks as they welcome the Niagara River Lions to TD Place.
The BlackJacks will look to build upon their inaugural season, which saw them go all the way to the semifinals of the Summer Series before being bounced by the eventual champion Edmonton Stingers. They enter their second season with an entirely new front office and coaching staff, while only Johnny Berhanemeskel and Eric Kibi will return on the court.
The team is built around veteran leadership, as Kris Joseph, Junior Cadougan, Ryan Wright, Earl Campbell, Joel Friesen and Dominque Archie all join Kibi as players aged 30 or older. However, at the core of the team are two young, star big men in Nick Ward and Tahjai Teague. They were both recently stars at Michigan State and Ball State, respectively, and will be looked upon to help carry the team.
New head coach Charles Dube-Brais has held his cards close to his chest, so who gets the nod to start on Thursday is anyone’s guess. But he let it be known that players were still competing for spots in the rotation late into training camp.
“Oh, they’re definitely still battling,” he said on Monday. “I mean, we got a really good bunch of guys and I think the overall talent level is there, and we knew that from the start. I don’t think you can easily separate them after five days because these guys bring different things to the table. … It’s not only comparing who’s better, but also how different styles may fit together.”
The kids are alright
One thing to keep an eye on is whether any of the U SPORT players – or the recently graduated Kadre Gray – see any playing time early on in the season. While it would seem unlikely given the depth of the roster, both the team and coaching staff have been singing their praises all training camp long. Gray is a player who has drawn particular praise.
“I think Kadre’s reputation is there,” Dube-Brais said. “He’s been a two-time national player of the year in U SPORTS. He’s obviously got a lot of talent, and we want to get him on track with his professional career. I think it’s a great opportunity for him and there’s a lot of great things ahead for him. I think he’s proven to be able to translate the things he did well at the U SPORTS level to the professional game right now.”
The coach also spoke highly of Carleton Raven import Alain Louis. After being passed over in the CEBL draft, Louis has come into training camp and left quite the impression early on.
“I think Alain has been awesome,” Dube-Brais said. “He behaves like a vet. He’s definitely young in some parts of his game, he’s definitely learning, but I think overall from an intensity standpoint, he understands well how hard he has to play to find a niche at this level. He’s done really well; we’ve been impressed with him.”
Despite wanting to start the season off on the right foot, the coach said that he isn’t placing any extra emphasis on Thursday’s game. With a shortened season, he knows every game carries extra importance and he doesn’t want the team to have to dig themselves out of an early hole.
“Every game is 7-percent of your season. You can’t throw one away. You’re going after it every night, you’re trying to win everything because it’s not an 82-game season like in the NBA where you know you’re going to have your ups and downs. You may have yours in the CEBL, but if you lose 3 in a row, there goes 20 percent of your season. You really have to be ready on day one, then once that game is in the books you have to focus on game two and try to win them all because you don’t have a lot of jokers that you can throw out there.”
After finishing sixth in the standings last year and fifth in points per game, Niagara opted to keep their coaching staff and core, but rebuilt the team around them. Kassius Robertson, Daniel Mullings, Guillaume Boucard, and Trae Bell-Haynes will all don the River Lions jerseys once again as they look to improve upon last year’s showing.
Robertson was the team’s second leading scoring last year, and will look to keep his hot streak going after having a strong season in Spain. Mullings was right behind him in team scoring, and has carved out a nice career as a lockdown defender who can also contribute in the offensive game. Boucard will look to have a bounce back season after struggling last year. He was named the 2019 CEBL Canadian Player of the Year after posting 16.1 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, but struggled mightily in the bubble, averaging only 5.7 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting just 34.2%.
A big part of the narrative coming into this game will actually be who isn’t playing for the River Lions. Star point guard Trae Bell-Haynes is away from the team while representing the Canadian National program in the Olympic qualifying tournament, while former BlackJack Phil Scrubb is still playing out his season in France. And of course, the team will be playing this season with heavy hearts after the tragic passing of Dorian Pinson in April.
Still, the River Lions can’t be slept on. On top of their returning stars, they have another former BlackJack and reigning CEBL U SPORTS Player of the Year Lloyd Pandi joining the fray who will be looking to pick up a victory over his former team. Niagara also brought in Xavier Sneed and former Duke co-captain Javin DeLaurier, both from the Greensboro Swarm of the NBA G-League.
While short-handed to start the season, the River Lions still have a deep team with a number of players who can take over games if they get hot. If the BlackJacks hope to start their season off with a win, they’ll have to keep their stars in check and be ready to play a full four quarters.
Dube-Brais knows that he’ll be facing a dangerous team to start the season. However, he’s entering the game trying to focus more on what he and his staff can do to get his own team ready, as opposed to trying to gameplan for what the River Lions bring.
“You know who you’re playing, and it’s a team that’s returning a bunch of guys and returning the same coach,” Dube-Brais said. “You kind of have to see a little bit who you’re playing and try to start going in that direction a little bit, but like I said, it’s such a short training camp that to start focusing on your opponent too early would probably be a mistake because you still have a lot of things to correct on your own side. We try to be as good as we can be and see what happens on Thursday.”