Let’s say as an exercise, you’re designing the perfect backcourt to compete in modern pro basketball. At the point you’d surely want a dynamic talent capable of generating their own shots but also sucking defenders into the lane to provide teammates with plentiful three-point opportunities. While you’re at it, they should also be athletic enough to pluck rebounds off the rim and lead the break at warp speed. Or maybe you prefer a more traditional floor general efficiently running your offense and finding the open man. Getting their own shot is secondary, but if the team needs it, they’re more than capable of getting a bucket on all three levels, their uncommon length and strength enabling them to even take smaller guards into the post to punish them. At the shooting guard spot, you’d probably want your classic gunner raining in threes with their “in the gym” range and playing to the crowd with their personality. And if he’s a defensive stopper, all the better.
Backing all them up would be a brash, confident combo guard who can launch it from deep but also put a big man on a poster with a thunderous dunk. At the 3-spot, you’d want an unselfish “three and D” type that’s a necessity in today’s game. They’d be an athletic, rangy guard capable of picking their spots offensively and relishing the challenge of shutting down bigger wings on the other end of the floor. Their perfect partner would probably be a cagey veteran, clever moving without the ball and capable of meshing well with all the talent around him. They don’t need the ball in their hands a lot to be effective because they possess the innate ability to slide into the open spot and knock down the big shot when it’s needed.
Pipe dream huh? Not so fast.
Jahii Carson. Dynamic talent.
Doug Herring Jr. Floor general.
Corey Allmond. Gunner.
Gentrey Thomas. Confident combo guard.
Wayne McCullough. Three and D.
Isaiah Tate. Mr. Big Shot.
Moncton fans could be forgiven for walking out of last Sunday’s 118-110 victory over the Cape Breton Highlanders at the Avenir Centre with a bit of a strut. After suffering through the final playoff-less years of the Miracles franchise, last year’s division-finals appearance, and a summer assembling the best collection of talent the city has seen, created a buzz amongst the Magic faithful. It would have been easy for their first games in their new building to feel like a let down.
Instead, it’s a 3-0 start with a couple of big wins over their perennial rivals from Halifax and a 6-player guard rotation to be envied. Even the architect of the roster must pinch himself thinking of how quickly things have come together. When we went to training camp,” reflects Magic coach Joe Salerno, “we knew we couldn’t keep the exact twelve guys we wanted because of salary cap, and I never would have guessed in a million years that some of these guys would be headliners this early. But they just fit SO well together.”
Long before camp rosters were announced, fans and coaches alike knew who those headliners would be, and the trio of Doug Herring Jr., Jahii Carson and Corey Allmond haven’t disappointed. Allmond was averaging 22.5 points on 48% three-point shooting through 2 games before missing the Highlanders matchup with a sprained ankle suffered in the home opener. He finished that opener and looked great after the initial injury, but when the shoe came off at the end of that game, the ankle blew up like a balloon. It’s a long season and the fans can consider him questionable at best for this weekend’s doubleheader. When he returns, so will that familiar sharpshooting and underrated defense, but also an expanded off the dribble game. Allmond returned to Moncton in superb shape and much stronger and he feels like he’s improved his ball-handling, making him even more dangerous.
Herring meanwhile, leads the team through three with 6.3 assists to go along with over 16 ppg on 46% shooting from downtown himself. He’s been a prescient figure at the point, knowing when to share the rock, take the open three, or call for the ball down in the post, using his length and savvy to put fellow guards in the spin cycle down low.
Carson spent the Halifax games in concussion protocol, but was one of the two big difference makers down the stretch against the Highlanders in his Magic debut. He went off for 28 points and 7 dimes and was the fulcrum of the Magic attack during the decisive fourth quarter, showcasing his killer crossover, deadly step back jumper, and his ability to both finish in the lane and draw and kick.
The prime beneficiary of the attention flowing to Carson was that second difference-maker and the dual Player of the Game selection, Mr. Isaiah Tate. Every time you looked up and thought “the Magic need one here” against Cape Breton, Tate provided it, mostly in the form of a deep jumper. So far, the man from Upper Marlboro, Maryland is giving Moncton 20.3 ppg on 60% shooting overall, 69% from downtown and 85% from the line. I’ll allow his coach to sum it up best. “He’s got ice in his veins.”
Salerno also considers Tate’s early success a by-product of his work in practice. “The guy who’s been hitting the most clutch shots in scrimmages has been Ike,” he says. “There have been so many times in practice the last 3 weeks where it’s come down to a final possession and Tate’s hit the big shot. Honestly, he’s been even better than we expected. He’s not going to be a superstar but someone who just fits really well and will be a very good player for us.”
Isaiah was a guy having a successful career in Britain three years ago when an achilles injury set him back. Since then, he’s been trying to catch on somewhere with no success. Coach Salerno gave him a shot based on the recommendation of a couple of trusted voices, Rashad Whack and Devin Sweetney, and has it ever paid off. He’s the real deal.
Pleasant surprise number two has been Hockley, Texas native Wayne McCullough, a guy who’s played for coach Salerno before, but under different circumstances. “His first year with me on the island, (2 seasons ago) Wayne was really young, from a small school, and he just wasn’t ready. He’s bounced around a little, been cut a few times, but he kept working on his game, and now, he just fits what we need as a swingman. We knew this year coming in, we have a lot of star power at the 1, 2 and 4 spots, and we needed a really solid player who could fit our style, would be able to defend some of the bigger wings in the league, who would accept a role, understand he wouldn’t be the first or second option but could pick his spots when they come.”
McCullough’s defense and athleticism really pop off the floor in person. On opening night in Halifax, Joel Kindred had 20 points at the half and the Hurricanes were hanging around, within 3. With McCullough wearing him like his own uniform in the second half, Kindred’s first points came halfway through the fourth quarter, by which time the Magic had built a commanding lead. On the other end, he’s converting 60% of his attempts from three (see a pattern?) and 85% from the line. He’s also fourth on the team in rebounding at over 5 a night and, considering the ferocity with which he attacks the rim, it’s only a matter of time before some big man ends up on the wrong side of the highlight reel.
Speaking of highlight reels, it was Gentrey Thomas’ posterization of David Andoh that was the exclamation point of the Magic’s opening night win in Halifax. That was but one of many highlights of the Halifax native’s opening week as a pro, and his performance earned him the inaugural Canadian of the Week award from the NBLC. When I spoke with coach Salerno after Thomas signed back in the summer, he expressed his belief that the rookie would physically be ready to play. His only concern would be the young man’s pace of adjustment to the pro level. After three games, averages of 15 points and almost 3 assists on 50% shooting from the field and 40% from the line, we already have our answer.
“We always say this league is a different animal,” muses Salerno. “You can be a player at a high-level D-1 school, but then you get here, and you’re playing similar guys, but with 3 or 4 years of pro experience under their belt. It’s a big jump regardless of the college you come from. That’s why to me, it’s so impressive what Gentrey did this weekend. He rose to the occasion and it didn’t seem like the veteran guys on the Cape Breton roster bothered him. He’s as good as anybody on our roster at creating his own offense, it’s just not always the best decision yet. He’s got a lot of confidence in every shot he takes, which I love about him. But that’s something he knows we’re going to work on all year. What’s a good shot, what isn’t, his decision making, but he was really good this week.”
Salerno feels the China trip was great for Thomas developing that confidence and he also feels like it did wonders for another Canadian on the roster, Denzell Taylor. “Zell worked a lot this offseason mentally on being more aggressive offensively,” Salerno says. “He played against some really big bodies over in China and I really think it was the start of something for him. We had conversations a lot over the summer saying hey, you’re such an impact guy on one side of the floor already and if you want to do this for a long time, you have to start trying to make more of an impact offensively. I think he took it to heart and that’s what you’re seeing now.”
Denzell’s rookie season last year was FAR more impactful than anyone expected. He led the entire league in offensive rebounds and was one of it’s best defensive players as well. He’s picked up where he’s left off on both those fronts and looks far more comfortable finishing with both hands around the rim.
The franchise may just have a repeat of Taylor on their hands again this year, a Canadian rookie who finds a way to contribute on a veteran-laden squad. Eddie Asamoah was his coach’s choice for player of the game in the home opener last Saturday night against Halifax. David Andoh’s mobility and jump shooting was wreaking havoc on Moncton defensively and when Denzell Taylor went to the bench, Salerno felt he had no choice but to call upon the young forward. “When Denzell goes out, we don’t have any other big guys we’re comfortable switching guys out on and Eddie allowed us to do that. It was the sole reason he got into that game. Eddie knew he was only out there to switch on pick and pop situations and that’s why I was so proud of him. “It allowed us to do exactly what we wanted to do, and he answered the bell.”
Salerno feels like Asamoah has a pro comparison he can look to as a model. “We had player interviews after the first week of camp to let them know where they could fit with us and I told Eddie to watch some tape of Pascal Siakam’s rookie year. I said, ‘we want you to be a smaller version of him, and I think you have the athleticism to do that, and the mentality to accept that role. That’s how you can contribute to the team, make the roster and improve around a pretty good group of guys.’ You could see that next week he was really crashing the boards and getting after it defensively. He took my words to heart.” Asamoah and fellow Canadian Cordell Jeanty, back in Moncton after some time with the Miracles franchise a few years back, provide real stability and utility at the end of the Magic bench at completely different stages in their careers.
The Magic take their show on the road this weekend with games Friday evening and Sunday afternoon on the Rock against the Edge. With all the talk surrounding this guard group, you may be surprised to learn that it’s actually Taylor and his cohorts up front that give the Magic their biggest advantage over St. John’s. Much like their opposition in their home opener, the Edge’s scoring punch is primarily contained in their deep and varied backcourt. “I think they have great size,” Salerno observes. “They can put 4 or 5 shooters on the floor and for me, what was the most striking, was the pace they want to play at. Doug Plumb (Edge coach) has been quoted saying they want to be flying, they want to get up and down the floor, take the first good look they have from three.”
The numbers certainly bear that out through 2 Edge games. They’ve attempted an astronomical 84 three-pointers and are making them at a 44% clip, numbers they’ve reached without reigning league MVP and long-distance marksman Carl English, who is expected to be in the lineup this weekend. It’s a well-constructed roster that English (also the Edge GM) has assembled around himself. In Junior Cadougan and Maurice Jones Sr., St. John’s has two pass-first veteran point guards to run the show. Dez Lee returns to the Edge at the 2-spot, bringing his 38% three-point shooting and defensive toughness. Vancouver native Diego Kapelan has been a big-time scorer around the world for nearly a decade and provides more shooting. As do sharpshooters Todd Brown Jr., a 6’5” veteran from Ohio and 6’7” Jared Nickens, a rookie from the University of Maryland. Together, they have averaged 9.5 makes per game so far from long range. Guillaume Payen-Boucard comes to the Edge fresh of an All-Canadian first team season last year as a rookie. Long range shooting isn’t his specialty but his length, versatility and playmaking mesh well with the rest of the roster.
“They have a lot of athletes,” says Salerno, “a couple of playmakers and guys that can really fill it up. They also have the size to switch a lot of things defensively, which can cause problems for us. We focused on turnovers and transition defense a lot this week. If you catch the Edge on a hot night, you’re going to have your hands full, so we have to make sure we value possessions and we’re not just jacking shots up where we’re out of position to defend the transition. On the other end, they want to spread you out, let Jones get downhill, and find shooters where you’re helping from. I’m interested to see how much they differ with English on the floor, so Friday may be a crap shoot, but obviously Sunday we’ll see which teams can make adjustments.”
The only traditional big that has garnered any minutes for the Edge thus far is Keith Wright Jr., a veteran newcomer to the NBL who was an honorable mention All-American as a Junior at Harvard. He’s averaging 9.5 ppg, 7.5 rpb and 2.5 blocks through two games. He’s a smart, highly skilled player who knows how to use his 6’8”, 240-pound frame to his advantage, but lacks the quicks or explosiveness to contend with the majority of the Moncton front line…..and obviously that backcourt too. “Wright is a guy we’re going to put in a lot of ball screens with Ja and Doug,” says Salerno, “so it’s not just one on one, it’s how are they gonna defend on the perimeter. If we do have any kind of advantage, it’s definitely up front.”
The setter of a ton of those screens will be a man familiar to NBLC fans, but someone whose presence on the 2018-19 Magic was hardly a given. “Nice Evans was a last-minute addition to camp,” remembers Salerno, “as in literally the day before camp opened. And we even told him, we’re gonna look at you the first 3 days of camp and reassess. There were no promises. But throughout camp he was consistently our best 5 on both sides of the ball. Again, we have legit star power, but you can’t have that at all 5 spots on the floor. So, if you can fill a couple of roles with some quality players, that’s what makes for a really good team.”
Evans is a guy that home crowds love, and away crowds love to hate. He’s got those elbows sharpened, ready to do the dirty work, and that attracts attention, not always the good kind. It’s a reputation that Salerno thinks he takes to heart. “I think he feels that there are a lot of fans that don’t really love him and make assumptions about his personality, and we’re gonna work through that a little this year.” When I attended the Magic’s preseason game with the Highlanders a few weeks ago (a game in which Evans and Bruce Massey exchanged “pleasantries”), I spoke with a lot of members of the Island Storm and St. John Riptide who’d come to watch. The unanimous opinion on Evans was that he was a good guy everyone liked away from the court. He’s just that classic, polarizing tough guy in the middle of everything. After being around him a little opening weekend, I can predict Moncton fans will become similarly enamoured with the big American.
Coach Salerno wants everyone to know that there is more than just toughness to Nick’s game. “He’s a really skilled 6’10 guy with a high motor and he’s developed a pretty good jumper. Right now, he’s just in that stage of figuring out the right time to take it, and there will be some growing pains with that, but it’s a weapon we can use. Nick’s thing is, he just needs to be a little more confident. But if he just keeps working hard, listens, and does what we ask him to do, I think Nick can be a very solid 5 for us this year.”
Evans’ backup so far has been the man most expected to be starting ahead of him. Zeke Marshall came in with the reputation as a big finisher and a tremendous defensive presence, and he’s lived up to that, though just not consistently. “Zeke has been a little up and down,” observes Salerno. “In the home opener, he didn’t have a good first shift. He was floating a little bit, didn’t have much impact on either side of the ball, and then he wasn’t happy coming out. But we pushed his buttons a little bit, and he came out and played 20 minutes with 16 rebounds (and 3 blocks). So, for him, it’s all about him being more consistent and playing with a more level head.”
The upside with Marshall is tantalizing though, and Salerno thinks Ziggy Marsh will get better as the year goes on. “Every guy is a little different and we’re still learning what buttons to press with Zeke, but I don’t think people realize exactly how versatile and mobile he is. He was our best 5 in camp defending ball screens, he can really move for a 7-footer. People just look at how many blocks he has, but let’s start talking about how many shots that he alters. He’ll always do things like close out and contest jumpers, so he does intangible stuff that don’t show up on the scoresheet. We do want to get more out of Zeke and we think we will, it just might take a little longer than anticipated.”
Much like his compatriot at the 5-spot, Mr. Marshall is sure to become a fan favourite, just for entirely different reasons. Yes, you will come for the blocks and the dunks, but stay after the games and chat with a guy who’s one-of-a-kind to be sure. Thoughtful and intelligent and quick with a smile, Ziggy Marsh is just one of wonderful players and people the Magic have brought to the Hub City this year. Your next chance to see them in person is next weekend, Nov. 30th and Dec 1st when they play the Cape Breton Highlanders and then get a return matchup with this Edge squad. Get your tickets for those games ASAP! But in the meantime, visit the Magic website tonight at 6:30 pm and Sunday afternoon at 3 pm, and watch your Magic go into battle on the Rock. OR....come on out to a viewing party at St. Louis Bar and Grill, 1405 Mountain Road tonight! See you there!