That was a great Mad Ants season. Now there's something I've never written before.
It ended sooner than desired, of course. The Ants were swept 2-0 by a physical and powerful Santa Cruz Warriors team in the first round of the NBA Development League playoffs. Anything short of a championship in any sport means you've come up short.
But everything's relative, and this was a great Mad Ants season.
After five years of wrong moves, wrong turns and lots of losses, the Mad Ants were not only a first-time playoff team, but a team that made all the right moves. The Ants stacked the team with an ornery, savvy coach; physically and mentally tough veterans; and one incredible rookie scorer.
The thing I liked the most about coach Duane Ticknor was how he was always thinking one step ahead. The word complacent is not in his vocabulary. He didn't hesitate to push for moves that would improve his team. That's why they shipped veteran guard Walker Russell Jr. and former Purdue forward JaJuan Johnson. Ticknor saw the alternatives were better for building a winner, and he was right.
Ticknor doesn't mind players with confirmed mileage (Chris Porter has been on 17 teams) or perceived baggage (scoring machine Tony Mitchell left Alabama on bad terms with the coaching staff). In the case of Mitchell, Ticknor thought he would thrive with the right blend of coaching approach and mentoring players around him. Ticknor was right.
By the end of the season, Mitchell was most dynamic scorer in the D-League. Ticknor believes he'll be on the NBA radar next season. Mitchell can still be immature at times, but it's just raw youth, not a disruptive force. Watching him score when he's in a groove is one of those things that make pro basketball so much fun.
Ticknor found a way to push Ron Howard's game up a notch. He switched Howard to point guard and turned him loose. Howard's ability to score and dish and his unselfish style made for the right type of point guard. He had his second-highest scoring season (19.1 points per game) and his highest assists season by two per game (4.6 assists per game).
Fort Wayne's roster was full of players who went all-out every night, no matter the minutes. Anthony Harris and Sadiel Rojas would have big minutes one night, lesser minutes other nights. Their intensity remained the same. The veteran big men in Porter, Brandon Wallace, Tommy Smith and Anthony Richardson sometimes seemed interchangeable. They share this trait: reliability.
Luke Harangody was a bit of a shooting star for the Ants, joining the team and bringing energy and double doubles before his knee took him out. Yet as valuable as Harangody appeared, Ticknor altered his roster, his rotation and his approach, and the team played even better after Harangody was sidelined. Late-season pickups Terrance Thomas and Demetri McCamey fit right in.
The Ants started 3-10. I figured they were headed for another mediocre season with a few highs, more lows and an under-.500 record. That was the track record, to the point where it seemed as if that was simply the destiny of the Mad Ants.
Ticknor and the players changed that culture. They not only became a winning team, they became the type of team others did not enjoy playing. There was a reason none of the division winners chose to play Fort Wayne when given the option in the first round.
I would expect to see a good chunk of this team back next season. The veteran guys who have worked with Ticknor before like playing for him. They know what to expect and that they will have opportunities to contribute.
The window for Howard to get his NBA shot is closing as he ages, but there's no denying he improved this season. So the window isn't completely closed. Rojas will likely get an NBA camp call. Teams love his ability to play in-your-face defense and not back down. He's the type of player teams love to bring to camp to push their younger players. Rojas' offense is better now, too, and he's still young after two years as a pro.
Mitchell can score anytime, anywhere. That'll get him some looks. If he improves his defense and focus, the NBA sky's the limit.
Mad Ants basketball shed its loser image this season. Now that president Jeff Potter and staff found the formula for a playoff team, the standards will be raised.
Next year, a first-round playoff exit won't be a great season, and that's a huge step forward for the Mad Ants.