The new year is upon us, and I hope all of you got to spend some long-overdue quality time with your family during the holidays. Here’s to hoping the new year brings the peace, prosperity and return to normalcy that we’ve all been searching for in the past 20 months.
But if you’re anything like me, the new year also has another important meaning: the unofficial countdown to the CEBL season has begun.
Yes, in the coming months we’ll see the 2022 schedule released, all 10 teams begin to sign players and staff, and everything else needed to whet your appetite until the summer’s greatest sports season begins.
The Ottawa BlackJacks have already made a few moves to prepare themselves for 2022, but there’s still a number of things needed to check off their list before the season tips off. With that said, let’s look at what I think the team will hope for this year, and how they should go about doing it.
A Full Season, Full of Fans
Okay, so this applies to the BlackJacks and literally the entire rest of the world, but it’s still worth noting.
When Mike Morreale and Richard Petko started the Canadian Elite Basketball League, they did so with a vision of every game being a party based around the sport. Unfortunately, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on those plans, turning the 2020 season into a tournament held inside a bubble, and shortening the 2021 season while preventing fans from attending games for parts of the year.
The 2022 season will see the league call home to ten cities, coast-to-coast across the country. Add in the fans from the three new teams plus the attention the CEBL has garnered from having several players appear in the NBA this season, and the league is bound to have more eyes on it than ever. The CEBL is poised to take a huge step up in notoriety, but it will need a full 20-game season with fans in the seats to reach its full potential.
The BlackJacks are set to host the CEBL Championship Weekend this year, which gives them the opportunity to present themselves as one of the showcase teams in the league. Landsdowne Park is essentially set up to turn games into exactly the kind of events the league is hopeful for. It is also situated in the heart of downtown with lots of hustle and bustle from the other sports teams that call the stadium home. The BlackJacks could see themselves becoming just as big a part of the community as the RedBlacks and Atletico Ottawa but indoors meaning they’ll need to see loosened regulations around the pandemic in order for that to happen.
Obviously, this is much bigger than sports, but for the BlackJacks sake, let’s hope we’re at least much closer to normal by the time the season starts.
Like most professional sports leagues, continuity tends to play a large part in the success of CEBL teams. It’s not a coincidence that the back-to-back champion Edmonton Stingers featured several of the same players on their roster, and even the 2021 runner-up Niagara River Lions saw key players return from the year prior.
Having a core that you can build around year-to-year is a big part of building a team’s identity, something that Ottawa is still looking to do. Upper management has already taken steps in the right direction by re-signing general manager Jevohn Shepherd and head coach Charles Dube-Brais, but now it’s up to them to replicate that on the floor.
Last year’s BlackJacks team saw only two players return from their inaugural season: Johnny Berhanemeskel and Eric Kibi. Berhanemeskel only appeared in three games for the team, while Kibi saw all of 40 seconds of floor time. It’s hard to build any consistency when you have a completely new roster year after year.
While it might seem strange to call for a team to bring back a roster that struggled to a 4-10 record, the 2021 BlackJacks always felt like a team that never lived up to the sum of their parts. Nick Ward and Kadre Gray (who also happen to currently be teammates in Spain) proved themselves to be two of the better players in the league. Alain Louis was among the most pleasant surprises in the CEBL, bringing intensity and spark that few others in the league could match. And while I would like to mention Tyrell Green’s lights-out three-point shooting, an injury he sustained while playing in the British Basketball League appears to have sidelined him for the foreseeable future.
Another nice thing about the players mentioned is their age. They are all under 25, and while their talent could see them eventually playing at a higher level, they present a core that can be depended on for years to come.
Youth & Diversity
With all that being said, it definitely won’t hurt to see the BlackJacks bring in some new players to round out the roster.
Ottawa had the oldest team in the CEBL this past season. Players like Junior Cadougan, Earl Calloway, Ryan Wright and Kris Joseph were asked to play key roles with lots of minutes and – while still being valuable contributors to the team – struggled to keep up with the pace of the league. The BlackJacks brought in some youth around the transaction deadline, and players like Antonio Williams, Mamadou Gueye and Jaden Coheen represent the direction the team should continue to move in.
Another key factor in Ottawa’s lack of success last year was the redundancies amongst their players. Cadougan, Williams and Louis were all guards who wanted to work their way inside without providing much in terms of outside shooting. Green, Calloway, and Negus Webster-Chan were the opposite, scoring from deep without offering much else. And Ward and Wright are both bigs who can punish on the inside but lack a reliable shooting stroke.
Having players who can come off the bench and offer different looks from the starting unit opens up a whole other section of the playbook for the coaching staff. In devising gameplans in key games against the Stingers and Hamilton Honey Badgers, Dube-Brais earned his keep and showed what he’s capable of. The thought of what he could do with a more complete roster should have BlackJacks fans salivating.
Will any of these items actually be checked off the list? That’s anybody’s guess. By virtue of hosting Championship Weekend, the BlackJacks are guaranteed to make it to the semi-finals for the third consecutive year. Still, it would be beneficial for the team to switch some things up in 2022. While Albert Einstein most definitely did not say that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and expecting different results, it still holds true in some aspects of life – sports being one of them.
Here’s to a Happy New Year, BlackJacks fans. Let’s hope this one ends in a championship parade.