2016-17 D-League Preview: Central Division

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Updated: November 9, 2016

With some necessary division realignment, the Iowa Energy and Sioux Falls Skyforce moved out west as part of the Southwest Division. In the central, newcomers Raptors 905 and Windy City Bulls join the Grand Rapids Drive, Canton Charge, and Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Which teams will be looking for immediate success moving forward? Let’s find out.

Grand Rapids Drive

Head Coach: Rex Walters (1st Season)

2015-2016 Record: 21-29

Key Returning Players: G – Jordan Crawford, G – Bruce Massey

Preview by Brian Rzeppa

Compared to last year’s lineup, this year’s incarnation of the Grand Rapids Drive is almost unrecognizable. Though Jordan Crawford and Bruce Massey are listed as returning players, it’s more of a technicality as Crawford didn’t appear with the team last year and Massey only did for the last seven games of the season.

Along with the complete overhaul on the court, there were some changes to the sideline as well. Former Head Coach Otis Smith now finds himself in a player development role with the Detroit Pistons, while longtime collegiate coach and former NBA guard Rex Walters has been brought in to push Grand Rapids into their first playoff appearance as an organization.

The goal of any athletics team is to win games, but Walters has goals beyond that. As he told D-League Digest at the Drive’s annual Media Day, there are some other objectives on the table beyond breaking the team’s playoff drought.

I think the number one goal here is to help our guys move on and have a chance to move to the NBA or play overseas, so it makes it very difficult as a coach. You have to be able to adjust and maybe get a little lucky with staying healthy, but you also have to be balance the focus between winning games and helping players get to the NBA,” Walters said.

With Crawford joining the team, as well as fellow ex-NBA guards in Ray McCallum and Shannon Brown, the team is built to have one of the strongest backcourts in the entire D-League. Beyond those three, Trey Freeman, who spent training camp with the Detroit Pistons, and Canadian point guard Alex Johnson should each have a chance to make their mark, along with the returning Massey.

Though they have an envious amount of depth in the backcourt, the front court will raise some questions. 7’6 Mamadou N’Diaye is an intriguing prospect, as is first round pick Chris Horton, but each have some holes in their game that will need to be shored up. In addition to those two, former USC big man Nikola Jovanovic should make a relatively smooth transition to the NBA and it is expected that Pistons first round pick Henry Ellenson will also see time with the team.

If Horton and Jovanovic can hold down the fort with the occasional appearance of Ellenson, this Drive team should be in a good position to make a good run. There are still some questions to be answered, but General Manager Jon Phelps thinks the team as a whole has the potential to be special.

“It’s a different group this year with only one returning player. Every year is different and this year it’s a group that is going to be allowed to build their own identity. At this point it’s too early to say where we stand in comparison to other years, but we’re really excited and I know Rex [Walters] is excited, so it’ll be fun to see,” Phelps said.

The Drive open their season at home against the Canton Charge on Friday, Nov. 11.

Fort Wayne Mad Ants

Head Coach: Steve Gansey (2nd Season)

2015-2016 Record: 20-30

Key Returning Players: F – Stephan Hicks, G – Trey McKinney-Jones, F – Marcus Simmons, C – Anthony Walker, F – Christian Watford

Preview by Brian Rzeppa

Coming off of an NBA D-League Championship appearance in the 2014-2015 season, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants weren’t able to jump back to that level of success last year, Head Coach Steve Gansey’s first with the team. With a starting lineup that saw Syracuse standouts CJ Fair and Rakeem Christmas as the only two constants, the team didn’t have the depth to get back to the top.

With five returning players this year and a healthy infusion of talent through both the draft, affiliate players and tryouts, the team should not have any problem surpassing the level of depth that last year’s squad suffered from.

Starting at the top of the roster with first round pick and former Los Angeles Clippers wing Travis Leslie, the talent level for Fort Wayne is unquestionably higher this year. Leslie, a hyper-athletic guard/forward that dropped in over 15 points per game in his time with the Santa Cruz Warriors three seasons ago, has been playing overseas for the last few years and has refined his game to the tune of hitting over 50% of his shots last year for Medi Bayreuth in Germany last season.

Along with Leslie, forward Christian Watford will return to the team after an injury-plagued season cut his time with the Reno Bighorns short. A standout at Indiana, the 6’9 Watford connected on 48% of his 125 three-point attempts as a senior and should help open up the floor for his teammates. Another notable college name, center Alex Poythress from Kentucky, will hope to live up to the highly-touted billing that he earned as a high school player.

Joining those two down low is Ben Bentil, who just barely missed out on a roster spot with the Boston Celtics this summer. Bentil blew up last year at Providence to the tune of 21.1 points per game to go along with 7.7 rebounds and he should be a force for as long as he’s in a Mad Ants uniform.

In the backcourt, there are a few interesting names that could shake things up in the Central Division. Chris Fowler out of Central Michigan and Ashton Gibbs out of Pittsburgh can both push the tempo and keep teams on their heels, while returning player Trey McKinney-Jones has averaged nearly 15 points per game over parts of two seasons with Fort Wayne.

With zero of the top ten leading scorers by points per game from last year’s team returning, the opportunity is there for players up and down the Fort Wayne roster. Leslie and Bentil is a very strong start in terms of building a core and if any of the other players on the roster can take a serious step forward in their development, this year’s Mad Ants should be in a much better place than last year.

The Mad Ants open their season on the road against the Greensboro Swarm on Saturday, Nov. 12.

Windy City Bulls

Head Coach: Nate Loenser (1st Season)

2015-16 Record: N/A

Key Returning Players: G – Wesley Saunders,

Preview by Adam Johnson

One of three expansion teams joining the D-League fold this season, the Windy City Bulls have built their roster from the ground up, and have done so primarily through their parent club in Chicago.

First and foremost, the team brings on Spencer Dinwiddie, who joins Windy City as an affiliate player after being waived by Chicago in training camp. He spent limited time on assignment last year for the Detroit Pistons, appearing in 13 games and averaging over 14 points per contest.

This team is relatively young and possesses little professional experience, meaning this team could experience some growing pains while the team develops chemistry together as many are making their pro debut.

One of those players is D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, out of Georgetown. His versatility allows the team to put him in at shooting guard, while also sliding him over to the point guard slot when needed to give Dinwiddie rest.

As a senior, Smith-Rivera averaged over 16 points a game to go with 4.5 assists per contest. He will be a tremendous partner  in the back court when paired alongside Dinwiddie.

The team will rely on Alec Brown (7-foot-1) and Coreontae DeBerry (6-foot-10) to anchor the paint. Brown last appeared in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam during the 2014-15 season. During that span, Brown averaged just over 18 minutes per contest, scoring 6.8 points and pulling down 3.4 rebounds per game.

The Windy City Bulls open their season on Nov. 12 on the road against the Erie BayHawks.

Canton Charge

Head Coach: Nate Reinking (1st Season)

2015-16 Record: 31-19

Lost in Eastern Conference Finals

Key Returning Players: G – Quinn Cook, C – Jon Horford, C – Michael Dunigan

Preview by Adam Johnson

The Canton Charge have made the playoffs each year of their existence, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do it again this season.

The reigning Rookie of the Year Quinn Cook returns to the Charge to lead the way on the court as the team looks to replace the leadership left behind by Jorge Gutierrez (who has signed to play in the Turkish Basketball Super League for Trabzonspor).

In 37 games last year, Cook averaged 19.6 points per game while shooting over 46% from the field, including 38% from 3-point range.

The Charge are unconventional in their process, having relied on the half-court isolation style basketball. The Charge were ranked the third lowest team in regards to assist percentage last season.

The team will also rely early on between Eric Moreland (who joins the team via affiliate player) and Jon Horford, the younger brother of Celtics forward Al Horford. A mid-season acquisition, Horford appeared in 32 games, averaging 4.3 points and 7.0 rebounds on approximately 18 minutes per contest.

While on rehab assignment with the Bighorns, Moreland averaged 9.6 rebounds and pulled down a ridiculous 14 rebounds in that span. He will be a welcome addition for a team that appears to be undersized on the surface.

Another name to watch is Roosevelt Jones. The Butler alum was selected 19th overall by the Charge in this year’s draft and is looking to make an immediate impact this coming season. A physical specimen, Jones stands at 6-foot-4, but given his athleticism and his physicality, he plays like a 6-foot-8 power forward or center.

While it’s apparent this team could use a bit more veteran leadership with its young roster, the Charge, like always, will contend to return to the playoffs for an unprecedented sixth, consecutive season.

The Charge open their season on the road against the Grand Rapids Drive on Friday, Nov. 11.

Raptors 905

Head Coach: Jerry Stackhouse (1st Season)

2015-2016 Record: 23-27

Key Returning Players: G – Axel Toupane, G – John Jordan

Preview by Ruskin Lee Howard

The Raptors 905 enter the 2016-2017 NBADL season in a fairly unique situation, as they have only two returning rights players whom finished the season with them – EJ Singler and John Jordan – in training camp. Axel Toupane also returns to Mississauga, after a stint in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets. Jerry Stackhouse was named as the new head coach of the 905, after last year’s head coach, Jesse Mermuys, was named to Luke Walton’s staff in Los Angeles. He’ll look to lead a new-look 905 club to a rebound season, after finishing sub-.500 last year.

Stack spent last season as an assistant coach with the Raptors 905’s parent team in Toronto. He brings the experience of an 18-year playing career, along with his one season on the Raptors’ bench, to the 905. Gale and Mitchell return for their second seasons on the bench. Tyndal spent 10 seasons as a college head coach, most recently with the Tennessee Volunteers in 2014-2015, accumulating a record of 186-118 in Division I. One other interesting note, Nicki Gross was named player development coach for the 905, making her the only female in a coaching capacity in the D-League.

Toupane figures to be a significant piece for the 905 this season, as he averaged 14.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game last season during his time with the team. He’ll look to capitalize on being a bigger-bodied guard again this season, as nearly 34% of his points came in the paint last season.

Singler returns to the team, bringing his outside-scoring threat back to Mississauga. Last season, he averaged 8.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists per game. He also shot a scorching 41.2% from behind the arc.

Jordan was an effective reserve player for the 905 last season, as he averaged 5.6 points, 2.3 assists, and 1.8 rebounds in only 15.2 minutes per game. Despite his diminutive size at only 5’10”, he won the 2016 NBADL Slam Dunk Title.

Two other players of interest figure to be CJ Leslie and Brady Heslip. Leslie went undrafted in the 2013 NBA Draft, then played in the NBADL for nearly two seasons before going overseas in 2014. His rights were acquired by the 905 in October. During his last NBADL season, he put up averages of 12.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game.

Heslip joins the 905 after being traded from the Reno Bighorns, in a swap for the rights to Ronald Roberts and draft pick exchange. This is a homecoming of sorts for him, as he hails from Burlington, Ontario. He played in 20 games for the Bighorns during the 2014-15 season, compiling averages of 24.5 points, two rebounds, and one assist per game. Another three-point sniper, he shot a blistering 44.3% from long-range.

Among the other players also in camp will be two Toronto Raptors affiliate players, Jarrod Uthoff and Yanick Moreira; another returning rights player, Will Sheehey; and two of their more notable acquisitions from this year’s NBADL Draft, Goodluck Okonoboh and Antwaine Wiggins.

The Raptors 905 open their regular season at home on Friday, November 18, against the expansion Greensboro Swarm.

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