After a loss to the Fraser Valley Bandits dropped them to 1-3 on the season, the Ottawa BlackJacks are in serious need off a win to prevent them from dropping to the bottom of the standings. It’s far from an easy task in front of them, as they enter The Hive to take on the defending champion Edmonton Stingers, who’ll have a full crowd to offer their support.
What should the BlackJacks worry about in Edmonton? As always, I’ll try to answer all your questions.
That’s it. That could be the whole article, really. Don’t believe me? Against the Niagara River Lions, he had 21-points on a perfect 7-for-7 shooting. Not impressed? Well, that was just his first quarter, which set a CEBL record, and he only played about 7-and-a-half minutes. He actually finished with 38-points – also a CEBL record – while hitting 5-of-7 from three. There’s a reason Xavier Moon is the two-time CEBL MVP. But he’s not the only player the BlackJacks should be wary of.
If Moon is the Steph Curry of the CEBL, then Jordan Baker is his Draymond Green. The Canadian forward is averaging 11 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists over the first two games of the season. He also does all the little things that don’t show up on the scoresheet, and is a big reason why Moon is afforded so much space on the court.
Edmonton lost Travis Daniels from their championship team to the Saskatchewan Rattlers, so they went out and signed Chicago native Marlon Johnson to their roster. To keep with the Golden State analogies, he is their Kevin Durant. A 6’10” wing who can score at all three levels, he might be the perfect compliment to round out the Stingers big three. He struggled in his last game, but he started out the season scoring 27 points with 5 rebounds and 7 assists, and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t do it again. Shooting guard Mathieu Kamba (10.5 points-per-game) and Brady Skeens (4.5 points, 6 rebounds) round out easily the best starting line-up in the league.
Pre-season favourites to win the championship, the Stingers have made good on their potential with a 2-0 start to the season. They enjoy a nice homestand before playing all 7 of their road-games in a row, and are looking to make the best of it while their legs are still fresh.
Which BlackJacks Will We See?
Through four games this season, we’ve seen two very different versions of this BlackJacks squad.
There’s the version we saw in the victory over Guelph and the close loss to Hamilton, who were able to dictate the pace and flow of the game and use their size down low to dominate in the paint and open up scoring from the outside.
Then there’s the version we’ve seen in blowout losses to Niagara and Fraser Valley, who let the opposing team get up and down the floor at will and never seemed to find a rhythm of their own.
I can write about coaching scheme and matchups and refereeing all day, but at the end of it all, the success of this team will fall on Nick Ward. Guys like Kadre Gray, Tyrell Green and Johnny Berhanemeskel can provide all the scoring the team needs from the outside, but it will be up to Ward to set the tone with his ability in the paint. The Michigan State product has all the talent to be one of – if not the – most dominate player in the league. But he hasn’t played at that level yet.
While Ward possesses all the physical tools to be a superstar, it’s the mental aspect that’s been bringing his game down. First things first, his constant attempts to milk foul calls. This has to stop. Too many Ottawa possessions end in turnovers or late shot attempts because Ward gets the ball down low, then holds it while looking at the refs to make a call that’s not going to come. When ward plays through the contact, you see how he was a star in college who set records matched only by Magic Johnson. Also, he has to play through contact because he’s just not a very good free throw shooter. What’s the point of trying to get calls when you’re just going to leave points on the line anyway? Arguing with refs never gets you what you want, and in the past two games we’ve seen it result in the BlackJacks getting T’d up (one for Ward, one for Coach Dube-Brais arguing on Ward’s behalf).
The second aspect of his game Ward needs to improve is his hustle in transition. Now, I’ll admit this one might be part physical as well. In his first 30 days in the city, 18 of them were spent in a hotel room during quarantine. There’s a chance Ward is still trying to get his legs under him after such a long rest – remember back to that high school physics lesson about object at rest and what not. That’s a big body to get moving again. But still, it seems like his effort running the floor is almost always related to whether or not he felt a call should have been made on him. If he’s upset with a call, expect a slow trot down the court.
I know it seems like I’ve called out Ward a lot, and you probably think that I’m just a hater at this point. But I’d like to point out that I predicted he’d be an MVP candidate when he first signed. I still think he has the potential, especially if he has a big performance against Baker. The team can’t afford to wait much longer for him to find his game, and I can’t think of a better opponent for Ward to show off against.
Looking at this game at a glance, the odds are not in Ottawa’s favour. This Edmonton team has a style of play that the BlackJacks have struggled against this season, with a number of players in the starting lineup that can make you pay for making the smallest mistake.
But a closer look at these two teams shows that this game might be closer than you think.
As good as the starting rotation is for the Stingers – and again, it is the best in the league – they’re bench is incredibly thin. Their second unit has only scored 13 points in both games this season, and they’ve only looked comfortable running 8-men deep. Because of this, both games have seen the stingers build a big lead early, then fade significantly as they’re forced to turn to their bench and their starters grow tired.
As I’ve been preaching since training camp, the true strength of this BlackJacks team lies in their depth. Outside of their starting unit, Berhanemeskel and Alain Louis have come in to provide a spark on offense, and Kris Joseph and Ryan Wright have been able to lock teams down while providing some baskets as well. Dube-Brais has shown he’s willing to roll with a 10-man rotation, which means Ottawa can push a pace that Edmonton won’t be able to keep up with.
The start to this game will be key. As long as Ottawa is able to even keep it close – if not lead – early in the game, they will be able to take advantage late, especially if Ward’s presence inside causes the Stinger foul trouble. The BlackJacks will have to keep their men in front of them and force the Stingers to play a physical game. If they do that, they have a real chance at pulling off an upset win in a game they desperately need.