The Erie BayHawks defeated the Springfield Armor earlier today 101-92 in a matinee tipoff, the lone game on Tuesday’s schedule in the D-League. Ivan Johnson was the game’s high scorer—as he has been many times this season for Erie—with 27 points. A few lines down on the box score, E. Daniels recorded 10 points (on 4-7 shooting), 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers, and a blocked shot. That would be Erik Daniels, the same player who led Erie to the franchise’s lone playoff berth during their inaugural campaign in 2008-09.
Johnson and Daniels, the two most productive front-court players in the franchise’s three-year history, suddenly are sharing the same locker room after Daniels returned to the team Monday. Johnson was co-Player of the Month in the D-League in February. Daniels was an All-Star and 1st-Team All-D-League in his first stint with Erie before opting to play overseas.
With 11 games left on the schedule, Erie currently sits fourth in the D-League standings and 3.5 games back of Iowa for first in the East Conference. With one starting guard in the NBA (Garrett Temple was called up to the Charlotte Bobcats) and the other (Blake Ahearn) having missed three straight games due to injury, Erie needs its front court to produce down the stretch as they jockey for playoff positioning.
Johnson has been the leading man for the BayHawks all season long. Taken in the first round of the 2010 D-League Draft, Johnson leads the team in points (21.1) and rebounds (7.6) per game. He’s shot 53.9 percent from the field and 77.2 percent from the line while starting 37 of the team’s 39 games. The two non-starts were the past two games. The benching didn’t have anything but a positive effect 0n his performance though. On Saturday, his first game coming off the bench, Johnson played 44 minutes, scored 39 points, and pulled down 14 rebounds in Erie’s overtime win over Tulsa. He followed that up with the aforementioned 27-point showing today off the bench.
It’s a highly unusual strategy for a team to bring its star player off the bench, and it likely won’t last. BayHawks coach Jay Larranaga told Duane Rankin of the Erie Times-News that there were several reasons Johnson did not start against Tulsa, but it’s easy to pinpoint one specific factor that led to the star’s temporary demotion: on-court behavior. Johnson has earned 18 technical fouls this season, nearly double the total of any other player in the league (Patrick Ewing Jr. is second with 10). The timing of his most recent technicals: a pair that saw him ejected last Tuesday and another in the final minute of what became Erie’s third loss in a row were enough to earn him a roll as the most talented sixth man in the D-League for at least the past two games.
Daniels also came off the bench today in his 2011 season debut. The former star said all the right things about fitting in with his new teammates, none of whom were with Erie when Daniels last donned a BayHawks uniform. Daniels is coming off of a hamstring injury. Prior to today, he hadn’t played competitively since last fall for KK Zagreb Croatia Osiguranje. Coincidentally, Daniels averaged 21.1 points per game with the BayHawks in 2008-09, the same figure Johnson had entering today’s game. But the veteran Daniels, who turns 29 April 1, said all the right things when talking to Rankin about returning to the BayHawks under different circumstances: “I don’t really see myself doing the same exact things,” Daniels said. “I will be coming in more of a defensive role. I see they got a good low-post scorer in Ivan Johnson. I’ll try to contribute and make my game fit in with his.”
Daniels’ shortened season will likely serve as a showcase for other overseas teams. Johnson, who turns 27 on April 10, knows this season may be his last best chance at the NBA. If the call-up doesn’t come, Johnson may follow Daniels’ path from 2009 and head overseas next season. But first things first. If Johnson and Daniels remain in Erie for the duration of the season, the two talented scorers could provide the BayHawks with a front court one-two punch that rivals what any other team in the D-League can put out on the floor. Throw in the additional veteran presence of Blake Ahearn at point guard, and the BayHawks are in position to make a serious postseason run.