The two teams -- one a franchise starting from the ground up, the other coming off an NBA D-League title -- are closer than you think.
Stanley Robinson, pictured here during the Iowa Energy's championship in April, is set to lead the Energy against the Charge on Friday.
Brian Ray/NBAE via Getty Images
Last year, Kevin Young got a pretty good idea of what it takes to win an NBA Development League championship. By getting beat by the guys who eventually did.
Seven months ago, Young’s Utah Flash team watched as the Iowa Energy came back from a loss in Game One to win the next two and knock the Flash out of the first round of NBA D-League Playoffs. The Energy would go on to sweep through the postseason, taking down the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the Finals to claim their first-ever league title.
So when Young – who took over as head coach in Iowa after title-winning coach Nick Nurse took the job at Rio Grande Valley – leads the Energy against the brand-new Canton Charge in a nationally televised, season-opening showdown on Friday night (7:30 p.m., NBA TV), he’ll be coaching the same team that ended his season last year.
When Young brings the Energy to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new NBA D-League affiliate on Friday, sure, he’ll be coaching the franchise that won the title last year. But not necessarily the team that did. After the usual offseason of players shuffling around the globe, only two cogs remain from the Energy team that clinched the title last April: forwards Moses Ehambe and Stanley Robinson. And that’s a very welcome challenge for a coach, Young said.
“That’s just how it is in this league,” Young said. “From the coaching side, it’s just fun to get here with new guys and mold them and get them going as a team, the way you want them to play.”
“The one thing about that challenge is that it’s something every team has to face,” he said. “It isn’t like just one team’s dealing with it. I keep trying to preach that we’re in this thing together, especially with the 10-man roster. In the NBA you may have 15 guys. In our league you’ve got 10 guys, and all 10 guys are gonna be called upon at some point to help us get a win.”
It’s just the nature of the D-League – the NBA’s official minor league, serving both as a springboard into The Show and a chance for the big-league clubs to develop young players – that dynasties are hard to come by. Only once in the 10-year history of the league has a champion repeated, when the then-Asheville Altitude (now Tulsa 66ers) won crowns in 2004 and 2005.
Player movement is a fact of life in the D-League, and a reason why every new season looks something like a fantasy league without keepers. Parity reigns over all. The Draft matters. Good GMs are rewarded. Every year features new players, new hopes, new dreams and a whole batch of new stars.
Every season, the title’s there for the taking, and strangleholds are virtually impossible. The Vipers finished fifth and fourth in their division two straight years, before winning it all in 2009-10. Last year, the Austin Toros finished eighth, after three straight years finishing second or better in their division.
So, in a peculiarly D-League twist, when the defending league champs take on a team that just decided on a nickname six weeks ago, both teams are in virtually the same position.
Their coach notwithstanding – head coach Alex Jensen came to Canton directly from Rick Majerus’ staff at Saint Louis University in October – the Charge aren’t short on experience.
Keith McLeod, a veteran of three NBA teams, leads the way at point guard, followed by 6-foot-6 forward Jamine Peterson, who scored 13 points per game for New Mexico last year. First-round Draft pick Tyrell Biggs graduated from a bruising career at Pitt in 2009, then learned the pro game in Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
On Friday, they’ll put on Canton Charge jerseys for the first time ever – and in front of a national audience.
“As the first game in Canton, there’s gonna be a lot of people there, so I don’t need to mention to them if it’s gonna be on TV or not – the only reason I’d let them know is if their families want to watch,” Jensen said with a laugh. “But it’s a great thing for the D-League, and it’s a great thing for Canton and the Charge to have the game on national TV – what a great way to open up.”
On the Iowa side, the Energy will look to their two veterans – Ehambe (who scored 24 ppg in the postseason) and Robinson (the former UConn star) – to show its crew of rooks the ropes right away.
“I really enjoy that,” Ehambe said of being a mentor. “That’s one of the main reasons I play this sport – to be an influence on the court and off the court, to be able to be a leader. I feel like this year’s gonna be a great year to be able to do that, so I’m trying with the best of my ability to put forth that and see what happens.”
For Ehambe and Robinson, the departures of Curtis Stinson and the others move the pair to the front of the line for Iowa, offering each of them an opportunity to stand out and boost their own NBA stocks.
“The goal isn’t to just go in there and score a lot of points,” he said. “My goal is to win games. But if winning entails scoring points, then that’s what my focus will be.”
The Two-Month Rule
All that player movement makes last year’s Energy team all the more remarkable, Ehambe said.
Moses Ehambe exploded in the postseason for Iowa last year. In 2011-12, he'll be looked to as a guiding force for the Energy.
Photo: Brian Ray/NBAE via Getty Images
Even during the final stretch of the season, the Energy were swapping players in and out of the club. Ehambe himself wasn’t even on the Iowa roster until the final 10 games of the regular season, after starting the season in Spain and cracking into the D-League with the Austin Toros (after previous stints with Tulsa).
But the minute he got there, he fit.
“That was just amazing,” he said. “Iowa had tons of roster changes, but one thing that really stood out was the camaraderie. Everybody got along. We all just clicked once we got on the basketball court. It was crazy. I’d never been on a team that clicked as well as Iowa last year.”
The secret? Everybody bought into their roles, Ehambe said. From the play-makers to the pick-setters.
And that’s the great task of any D-League coach: to take a group of guys running on ambition and playing for a look – for a chance at throwing on an NBA jersey – and turn them into a team. Again. Again. And again.
“Me and the coaching staff together, we emphasize that we’re all for one, one for all,” Young said. “If you have that attitude it gets contagious as guys come and go.”
And not only are they essentially strangers working toward individual and team goals at the same time, they’re also coming in on a variety of paths, from just-graduated college players to guys who played overseas to players that have spent time on NBA rosters.
“With a lot of different guys from different backgrounds, it’s tough bringing them together in a certain amount of time,” Jensen said. “It’s about getting on the same page. I hate to use the phrase, but it’s about having the same goal.”
And it takes some time to get there. For a team to jell and all the parts to align, it’ll take somewhere around two to two-and-a-half months, he said. These are, after all, men who want to get noticed, and it takes some time to realize that making the team better is the way to do so, he said.
But once it happens, Ehambe said, everybody’s better for it.
“We had a great group of good guys,” he said. “Everybody treated each other with respect, everybody was happy… Coach Nick Nurse let us go out there and play and have fun. We were all like brothers to each other.”
The Perks of Being an NBA D-Leaguer
Jensen’s been getting a little sentimental lately. Well, all the parts of Alex Jensen that aren’t his joints.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of memories of the [Continental Basketball League] come back that I haven’t thought of in years,” the Canton Charge coach said of the now-defunct independent pro league that ran until 2009. “I had a great CBA experience. We won the championship in 2003. I played for Billy Bano, which was phenomenal. It was great. But it was obviously cost-cutting.”
Jensen, who played for the Yakama Sun Kings, talked about overnight bus rides that rattled and lilted from Yakima, Wash. to Boise, Idaho until they finally came to a rest in the parking lot of a shanty hotel around 3 or 4 a.m. Later that night, the guys would go out and bang bodies against the same team they played the night before.
Then they’d go back.
“It was rough,” he said with a laugh. “You’re trying to sleep, so you get a blanket or sheet or something, and you try to lie down on the bus. Your muscles are so tight and you just want to stretch out. It’d all be in vain, but you’d still try. Then somebody would leave the bus video on too loud.”
Jensen’s only been in Canton for a month now, but already he’s noticed the differences, he said. For one, the travel’s a little better-planned. Well, pretty much, everything’s better-planned, from accommodations to locker rooms to simple court time.
“The Charge, they do a phenomenal job with off-court stuff, and our business people,” he said. “It makes my job and the players’ jobs easier, because that stuff’s not a worry.”
Especially because, in the case of a ‘hybrid’ team like Canton, whose basketball operations are run by its NBA owner (the Cleveland Cavaliers), there’s continuity and an added layer of support that some multiple-affiliate teams don’t have.
“The people that run it, they’ve done it before and they’re very experienced,” Jensen said. “They’re used to it.”
Friday Night Septuple-Feature
Friday night features a slate of seven games, all of them either on Futurecast or NBA TV.
The Maine Red Claws and Springfield Armor tip-off the D-League schedule at 7 p.m. (ET) in a battle of New England rivals. Don’t miss Springfield’s high-flying duo of 2011 Slam Dunk champ LD Williams and 17th overall Draft pick Johnny Thomas – a pair that’s known each other since they were growing up in North Carolina. Watch on Futurecast
The Sioux Falls Skyforce and Fort Wayne Mad Ants join the Charge and Energy at 7:30 p.m. In this one, pay attention to the skyscraping matchup of Sioux Fall’s Greg Stiemsma and Fort Wayne’s Chris Hunter, a rivalry of two gigantic people (they’re each 6-11) that dates back to Stiemsma’s time at Wisconsin and Hunter’s tenure at Michigan. Watch on Futurecast
The Dakota Wizards (and springy big man Edwin Ubiles) host No. 1 pick Jamaal Tinsley and the L.A. D-Fenders at 8 p.m., in the D-Fenders first game after a one-year hiatus. Watch on Futurecast
Also at 8 p.m., the Erie BayHawks, Donald Sloan and a host of Draftees responsible for their teams’ Cinderella runs over the past few years take on the defending runner-up Rio Grande Valley Vipers and new head coach Nick Nurse. Watch on Futurecast
Former NBA superstar Antoine Walker and his Idaho Stampede host the one-two punch of Curtis Sumpter and Jerome Dyson – both of them on this summer’s Pan American Games Team – when the Tulsa 66ers come to town for a 9 p.m. showdown. Watch on Futurecast
Finally, the Bakersfield Jam – which could be the surprise team of the season after dominating the Draft – will be tested from the very first tip, when Blake Ahearn and former NBA player Cedric Bozeman lead the Idaho Stampede into the Central Valley for a 10 p.m. game. Watch on Futurecast