While Hamilton Honey Badgers fans wait for the start of the sophomore season of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, the team has been hard at work trying to improve on a successful inaugural season. Raptors 905 assistant coach Ryan Schmidt takes over as head coach for Chantal Vallée, whose work at the University of Windsor has precluded her from serving the Honey Badgers in a full-time capacity in 2020. Former Canadian Men’s National Team captain Jermaine Anderson was named General Manager in December and has led player procurement for the team. Team president John Lashway is optimistic he found a winning combination when he hired the duo to execute basketball operations for the organization.
The Honey Badgers had plenty to be proud of following the first season in CEBL history. After finishing with a 10-10 record they knocked off the number one seed Niagara River Lions with a 104-103 victory in the semi-finals of Championship Weekend in Saskatoon. A hard-fought championship game loss to the hometown Saskatchewan Rattlers left the Honey Badgers hungry for more in their second season.
Enter 2020. Mix a new head coach, a new general manager and a roster of returning players, NBA G League talent and some of the Canadian Men’s National team’s best players, and you have a team poised to take that one final step to a championship. The challenge will be to do that in a 15-day tournament environment, without the luxury of a 20-game, 14-week season as had been scheduled prior to COVID-19 shutting down the sports world.
Anderson has put together a roster that features several players with NBA, NBA G League or high-level professional league experience. It was the international experience that was of special priority, especially when it became evident that COVID-19 would curtail the 14-week season and require a short season format.
“The focus was more so on the international experience,” Anderson said. “All of our G League guys have international experience, whether it’s been with the junior national team, Commonwealth games, or the Senior Men’s National team. That was the focus regardless of where they were playing. We wanted guys who had that FIBA experience, understand those rules, and have the intensity that comes with playing at the FIBA level.”
Past Raptors 905 standouts Duane Notice and Derek Cooke, Jr will be familiar to many Hamilton fans as both were 2019 Honey Badgers draft picks. Notice played for Raptors 905 the past two seasons and was wore the Hamilton pinstripes for a time last season. Cooke joins Hamilton after playing for Trieste in the top professional league in Italy. Former Raptors 905 teammate MiKyle McIntosh, who was the first player ever selected by Hamilton in the CEBL Draft, was set to join the Honey Badgers for a second season this summer but was signed to a pro contract in France and has had to leave the team to head overseas just prior to the opening of training camp.
Familiarity between players and staff was an important consideration when Hamilton’s roster was constructed. Players who have prior relationships from working with Schmidt, Anderson, or others on the Honey Badgers basketball staff offer an advantage when preparing a team for the two week CEBL Summer Series.
“I’m a big relationship person, and not only did I coach a lot of these guys, but I’ve stayed in touch with them over the course of the year,” said Schmidt. “I’ve been very involved with their development, whether it’s sending them game film, or whatever the case may be. They know a lot about my approach to the game, and I know their approach.”
“There’s a lot of open dialogue between myself and the players,” Schmidt added. “These guys are the ones that are going to be on the floor executing. I’ve got to do a good job of doing the work, using my experiences and knowledge, and the way I see the game to bring things to the table. However, at the end of the day if the players aren’t comfortable it doesn’t really matter. I think being comfortable and having a relationship with a lot of these guys going into it will be a big advantage for us.”
A veteran of more than 80 international games for Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team and serving as a player development coach with Canada Basketball, Anderson has worked with several players on the Honey Badgers roster, which provided a unique perspective when assembling the team.
“The fact I already have these relationships, it allows me to approach the conversation in a way that makes sense for the player,” Anderson said. “At the end of the day the environment that Ryan and I are trying to create is one where we want to have success here, but we also want to continue to help these guys develop long term and maximize their potential moving forward.”
The Honey Badgers made a splash by signing the CEBL’s first-ever NBA draft pick, Justin Jackson, to a contract for the 2020 season. Jackson was selected by the Denver Nuggets with the 43rd overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and has been with the Orlando Magic’s G League team the past two seasons. Unfortunately, Jackson, who has missed all of Lakeland’s games this past season and all but 10 the previous year because of injuries, did not feel ready to subject his body to the rigors of the compressed schedule of the CEBL Summer Series, and opted not to join the team in St. Catharines.
The team made headlines again by signing former NBA G League All-Star Brianté Weber, who boasts 42 games of NBA experience. Weber is a force at both ends of the court, finishing an outstanding college career at Virginia Commonwealth second on the NCAA’s career steals list. He’s hoping to parlay a strong performance this month into a future NBA contract.
Centre Owen Klassen, a veteran of the Canadian National Team program and a top professional in Germany and Belgium in recent years, leads an athletic corps of talented players in the frontcourt. Klassen’s experience will help in the development of Kalif Young and Jean-Victor Mukama who are expected to see major minutes for Schmidt during the CEBL Summer Series. Veteran forward Jermel Kennedy, who averaged 5.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 19 minutes in nine games with Guelph last summer before signing a contact to play in France, brings seven years and 236 games of professional experience to Hamilton this summer.
The Hamilton-born Mukama was a standout U Sports performer at Ryerson before being the last player cut by Raptors 905 a year ago. Young had his senior season at Providence and a probable appearance in the NCAA tournament cut short in March and is getting his first taste of professional basketball. So too is Six-foot-9 forward Lock Lam, who was named OUA Defensive Player of the Year after leading the nation in blocked shots this past season with 77 while playing at Lakehead University. Lam is the lone U Sports player on the Honey Badgers active roster this summer. The team’s first pick in the 2020 U Sports Draft, Kadre Gray, opted to not play this summer due to concerns over the coronavirus.
Teams generally played three guards at once during the CEBL’s inaugural season, and Hamilton’s talented 2020 backcourt of Weber and Notice is joined by veteran point guard Alex Johnson, who comes to Hamilton on loan from Niagara for the CEBL Summer Series. A veteran of the NBLC and the first-ever Canadian to be drafted into that league in 2013, Johnson played for the River Lions during the inaugural CEBL season where he averaged 9.1 points and 3.4 assists in 21 games. He brings more NBA G League experience to the Hamilton roster, having spent time with the Detroit Pistons affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan during the 2016-17 campaign. He played professionally this past winter in Chile.
A trio of scorers give the Honey Badgers plenty of firepower in the backcourt. Shooting Guard Ammanuel “Manny” Diressa, who helped lead Team Canada to the silver medal in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, starred at Ryerson before playing professionally in Serbia. Guard Jaylen Babb-Harrison, who played collegiately at Eastern Kentucky and with London in the NBLC this past winter, and rookie Cody John out of Weber State are explosive players off the bench for Hamilton this summer.
Honey Badgers players will benefit from the guidance of Joel Anthony serving as Player Consultant. A 10-year NBA veteran who earned two NBA Championship rings with the Miami Heat, Anthony played alongside Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Kawhi Leonard, and Alonzo Mourning. He learned the game under the guidance of coaches such as Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens, and Stan Van Gundy.
Anthony, Schmidt and Lashway, who was recruited to Canada as a senior executive with the Portland Trail Blazers to help create and launch the Toronto Raptors franchise before spending 13 seasons with the organization, give Hamilton 35 years of experience with NBA organizations in the front office, to complement the Honey Badgers’ NBA and NBA G League experience on the court.
“Being able to attract such high-level talent just shows that the league is serious about what it is trying to create,” Anderson said. “It’s a testament to what Commissioner Mike Morreale and everyone behind the scenes has done. I know as a former player that word of mouth is everything. When our players leave here and go to other teams or countries and say good things about the CEBL, then high level guys will continue to come back. That’s all we are trying to do here is create an environment where the players will actually feel that the league is helping them and their careers.”
High character players and staff is a core value of the Hamilton Honey Badgers organization. Anderson and Schmidt were hired in part because they embody that value. It’s also something they both keyed in on when attempting to build a championship caliber roster.
“There might be a game where maybe we just can’t hit shots, but you’ll never watch this team and say that they don’t play hard enough because it’s just not in their character,” Schmidt noted. “Jermaine and I put together a roster that has a lot of talent, but these guys are all really high character individuals, and all are looking at this opportunity as a time to grow and develop their game.”
What can Hamilton Honey Badgers fans expect from their team during the CEBL Summer Series?
“From a playing standpoint, it’s going to be fun because we’ll have a high tempo offense and an athletic and disruptive presence on defense,” Schmidt said. “The ball is going to move quite a bit. My job is to put guys in a position where they have the opportunity to play to their strengths. On the defensive end we’ve got a really athletic and disruptive group, so we’re going to pressure teams. All-in-all it’s going to be a group that plays together on both ends of the floor. I’m excited! It’s a great group, and these guys are all excited to get going. It’s going to be a fun group to coach and to watch.”
All the tools are in place to compete for a championship, but the landscape in which to do so is drastically different. The original 20-game regular season has made way for a two-week, 26-game competition that presents a different challenge for coaches and players. Each club will play the other once, and the team with the worst record will be eliminated and the remaining six will be seeded into a bracket. The third and sixth seeds, and the fourth and fifth seeds, will face each other for the right to advance to the semifinals against the first and second-seeded teams.
The CEBL Summer Series opens with Hamilton taking on the Niagara River Lions on Saturday, July 25 at 1:30 p.m. in a game that will be nationally televised by CBC Sports. The expansion Ottawa BlackJacks make their league debut against the Guelph Nighthawks in the second game of the doubleheader that will be shown to fans across Canada and internationally. Hamilton is the only CEBL team assured of appearing twice on CBC’s national telecasts, with the second time coming Saturday, August 1 at 1:30 p.m. versus Fraser Valley. The Honey Badgers could appear as many as four times on national television if they reach the championship game.
As the premier media partner of the CEBL, CBC Sports will offer live streams of all games to audiences across Canada via the free CBC Gem streaming service, cbcsports.ca and the CBC Sports app for iOS and Android devices. CBC will broadcast seven games on television starting with the CEBL Summer Series opening-day featuring the Honey Badgers versus Niagara. With the CEBL Championship game scheduled for Sunday, August 9 the Honey Badgers have their sights set on a return to the big game. However, this time they aim to be the ones walking away with the hardware.
Source: Hamilton Honey Badgers