The Canadian Elite Basketball League, which held its inaugural season last year, will become the country’s first league to resume play Saturday.
Here are 10 of the most intriguing storylines to keep tabs on heading into the competition:
The Niagara River Lions won more than half of the end-of-year awards in 2019 — Guillaume Payen-Boucard won Canadian player of the year; Vic Raso, coach of the year; Sam Muldrow, defensive player of the year. Niagara’s promising 15-5 season was spoiled with a 104-103 loss Hamilton Honey Badgers in the playoffs, when it combined to miss four free throws and two wide-open threes in the final two minutes.
“We just crumbled under pressure,” Payen-Boucard said.
Niagara is returning a similar roster from last year. Six players are back, including star Canadians Payen-Boucard and Trae Bell-Haynes.
“The returning guys feel like they have unfinished business,” Raso said.
Hamilton chose a different direction this season. None of the team’s 2019 starters have returned, yet high-level national team players fill the roster, including Justin Jackson, Owen Klassen, Duane Notice,and MiKyle McIntosh. American import Brianté Weber also boasts NBA experience.
The two teams face off in the CEBL’s season opener Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET (CBC TV, CBCSports.ca).
Raptors 905 invasion
Raptors 905 is the affiliate of the Toronto Raptors in the NBA’s G League. This year, the 905 will invade CEBL team rosters.
Hamilton added a handful of 905ers, including Notice, McIntosh and Derek Cooke Jr. Hamilton head coach Ryan Schmidt is also an assistant coach with the 905 squad. And the connections don’t stop there, as Notice and McIntosh are childhood best friends. Schmidt even coached McIntosh in high school. Those interconnecting histories could help Hamilton quickly reach its peak.
There are other 905ers throughout the CEBL, including Negus Webster-Chan of the defending champion Saskatchewan Rattlers. Guelph Nighthawks head coach Charles Kissi is another 905 assistant. The G League presence ensures NBA eyes will be fixed on CEBL games. It also means the intra-905 competition will be fierce.
Moon hungry for more in 2020
Xavier Moon dominated the CEBL last year. The Edmonton Stingers’ 25-year-old guard is one of the league’s smoothest shooters and was named league MVP in 2019.
“I came in with no expectations at all,” Moon admitted.
Moon attended the 905 training camp after the CEBL season, but was ultimately one of the team’s final cuts. The nephew of former Raptor Jamario Moon will surely have something to prove whenever he faces a former 905er.
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“I wouldn’t say that I’m personally going at [the 905 players], but it’s definitely a thought at the back of my mind,” Moon said.
Moon and his Stingers will face the Honey Badgers on July 29. Hamilton’s Weber and Notice are among the best defenders in the league, so this game will be one to watch.
Carleton Ravens enter the CEBL
Among the dozen players and coaches polled, virtually all of them chose the CEBL’s newest team — the Ottawa Blackjacks — as pre-season favourites. Former Carleton head coach and current Blackjacks general manager Dave Smart managed to sign five of his collegiate players.
The Ravens have won 15 university championships since 2003 and Ottawa will field several of the school’s best players from those championship squads.
Star players like Yasiin Joseph, Phil Scrubb and Thomas Scrubb will suit up for Ottawa. Carleton won every championship between 2011 and 2017, when most Blackjacks players were in university.
Ottawa will now attempt to repeat those winning ways at the pro level.
Phil and Thomas Scrubb
The heart of Ottawa’s team will be two of Canada’s most celebrated players, Phil and Thomas Scrubb, who make their CEBL debut during the Summer Series. According to Phil, the brothers joined in part so that they could play together.
Phil has played in dozens of games for Team Canada. He is one of three Carleton Ravens basketball players — Ottawa head coach Osvaldo Jeanty is another — to have won the CIS Male Athlete of the Year Award. Phil is an effortless scorer, while older brother Thomas is a hard-nosed defender. Like many Carleton players, they’re at their best when playing together.
“I think knowing guys on your team well is important,” Phil said of Ottawa’s advantages in signing so many Carleton players. “We don’t have to worry about team chemistry.”
This may be their first year, but the Blackjacks could steal the show. The Scrubb brothers are the team’s biggest reason for optimism.
Canadian player of the year award
Beyond potentially determining the eventual champion, the Scrubbs should also figure into the discussion for the Canadian player of the year award. Phil said he isn’t gunning for the honour, but he could be an early betting favourite. The Scrubb brothers already impacted last year’s race despite not yet playing in the league.
Reigning winner Payen-Boucard credits his explosive offensive rebounding — he led his team in that category last year despite being a guard – to his time spent as a teammate of the Scrubb brothers at Carleton.
“Honestly, I think I got [my rebounding] from Thomas Scrubb,” he said. “He was a guy that I was looking up to … He’s pretty much the guy that will do everything and anything to win.”
There will be others competing to take the award from Guillaume, including Bell-Haynes, Notice, McIntosh and Jackson. With the eruption of Canadian talent in the CEBL, it will require an even better season this year to take home the prize.
Defensive player of the year race
Weber has the most NBA experience of all CEBL players. He’s played in 42 NBA games and defence is his calling card. He ranks third all-time on the NCAA steals list following his impressive collegiate career with the VCU Rams.
“[Defence] is probably the biggest part of [my game], for sure,” Weber said.
As a result, he’ll be a front-runner for the defensive player of the year award.
“He’s got a track record of, everywhere he’s been, being known as the best defensive player,” Schmidt said. “From a reputation standpoint, going into the tournament, he’s definitely a guy that could potentially be in a position to win that award.”
Niagara’s Sam Muldrow won the award last year after averaging a league-best 2.1 blocks per game. But with Weber and Notice together in Hamilton, as well as Thomas Scrubb in Ottawa, the CEBL will be full of athletic defenders in contention for the honour.
Can Saskatchewan repeat?
On paper, Ottawa and Hamilton may sport the most accomplished rosters, but don’t count out the defending champions in Saskatchewan. Former Rattler Ryan Ejim will suit up for Niagara, but his younger brother Kenny is joining the reigning title holders. He’s a defensive presence who will further add to a Saskatchewan team that relied heavily on its defensive abilities en route to its championship.
“Last year’s team was very good defensively,” head coach Chad Jacobson said. “That group had a lot of willing defenders. A lot of real tough and physical guys who took a lot of pride in defending.”
Like last season, Saskatchewan may be flying under the radar heading into 2020 and could surprise again.
Best of the West
Saskatchewan and Edmonton were rivals in the West last season. The Stingers finished with a better regular-season record, but Saskatchewan had their number all year. After beating the Stingers in three of four regular season games, the Rattlers dominated again in the playoffs, winning 114-93.
Edmonton bet on continuity for the Summer Series. Canadian Jordan Baker, who is a talented rebounder and passer from the big position, will return. Moon and fellow all-star first team forward Travis Daniels are back, and their chemistry is Edmonton’s strongest weapon.
“I was just grateful to have him on my team,” Moon said of Daniels. “Once I got on the court with him, man, it made my job a lot easier.”
The Stingers have a true big three in Moon, Daniels and Baker. Edmonton, like Niagara in the East, is out to avenge its playoff exit.
What to expect from Fraser Valley
The Fraser Valley Bandits are perhaps the biggest wild card in the CEBL. They finished 2019 in last place at 4-16. With Marek Klassen as the team’s lone returnee — at player or coach — the roster is new and unfamiliar.
Incoming Tavarion Nix plays bigger than his six-foot-seven frame, and he’s won championships in leagues around the world. The American is one candidate to pace the team in scoring. Fraser Valley has potential stars, but no one yet knows who will lead the team.
Klassen is an assist maven, leading the league with 7.2 per game last year. His ability to set the table could help his teammates acclimate quickly.
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