Season ends too soon for special group of Mad Ants Fort Wayne’s run cut short by slimmest of margins vs. Maine.

With one more shot, one more stop or one more steal, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants could still be playing today. If they’d caught a key break, they’d still be chasing the NBA Development League crown.

It’s a shame the season ended with a 124-119 loss to Maine on Wednesday in the deciding Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. That’s especially true considering how the Mad Ants were playing the final month of the season.

This was one of the best Mad Ants teams in the 10 years of the franchise, nearly the equal of the 2014 D-League champions when you factor in the improved strength of the league. After a 20-30 season in 2016, coach Steve Gansey and his staff were able to flip the record to 30-20 this season.

Returning to contention was even more impressive since the NBA is more involved than ever, sending more players down on a regular basis. More talented free-agent players are investing in the D-League, too. The Mad Ants had Exhibit A in Tyler Hansbrough.

Given the basketball landscape, and the realities of pro ball, the Mad Ants will look significantly different next season. It’s the nature of the game.

But before we move on, let’s take one last look back at the players who made a difference with my picks in various categories:

<center> Most Valuable Player: Trey McKinney-Jones </center>

You could build a legitimate argument for others, even for the short-term impact of Hansbrough, for example. But, from start to finish, from production to leadership to setting an example of professionalism, my choice is McKinney-Jones.

He is as unselfish a player as you’ll find in the D-League, even on a team full of unselfish guys. He can play three positions and proved to be the Mad Ants’ best perimeter defender. He averaged 16.6 points per game, logged by far the most minutes (35.7 per game) and helped plug the gap when point guard Julyan Stone left.

<center> Rookie of the Year: Alex Poythress </center>

This seems like an easy pick, with Poythress – now with the Philadelphia 76ers – often dominating. And it is easy. Poythress averaged 18.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game (top numbers among players who spent most of the season in Fort Wayne). He was a quick learner and a good teammate.

But it would be remiss not to credit the stunning debut of Jordan Loyd, who came out of the University of Indianapolis and proved he could thrive as a pro. Loyd averaged 15.1 points and four assists per game and will only get better from here. He could be a player the team builds around next season.

<center> Most Improved Player: Stephan Hicks </center>

Hicks spent twice as much time on the court this season than he did as a rookie, and he used that to double his production. Hicks’ numbers this year, compared to last year: 13.6 points per game (7.6 last year), 5.8 rebounds per game (2.8 last year) and 1.2 assists per game (0.6 last year). He started 48 games and had 21 games where he scored 17 or more points. He still has room for more improvement, too, with a willingness to work.

<center> Best in-season acquisition: Tyler Hansbrough </center>

It’s Hansbrough, hands down. He came in and not only dominated play with double-doubles night in and night out, he set a standard of how to go 100 percent on every play. If you haven’t watched Hansbrough’s career closely – and I had not until his 16 games in Fort Wayne – you wouldn’t appreciate his all-out style. In the three playoff games against Maine, Hansbrough averaged 25 points and 15.3 rebounds a night. He had 22 offensive rebounds in three games, which is an indicator of pure effort.

The deals to bring in Marquis Teague and Jarrod Uthoff (who ended up in the NBA) were terrific, too. All three made an impact.

<center> Sixth Man Award: Travis Leslie </center>

Leslie provides instant offence and seems to play even better under pressure. His playing time increased during the three-game Maine series. He scored 58 points with eight steals in the series and keyed the Game 2 win with steals and buckets. Leslie was on the court when it mattered most. In the regular season, he averaged 13.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game even as his playing time fluctuated. He approached his role, big or small, with professionalism all season.

In the D-League (which will be the Gatorade League or G-League next year), it’s tough to predict which players will return next season. Mad Ants players such as Loyd, Hicks, Ben Bentil, Nick Zeisloft and Adam Woodbury would be most likely to benefit from another season in the league. The others will have a variety of options, whether NBA or overseas.

Next season is miles away. The Mad Ants should savor this one. Yes, they came up short in the playoffs, but they reestablished a winning culture and raised expectations for the years ahead. <br>

<i> This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at </i>