FORT WAYNE – For the first time in their six-year history as a member of the NBA Development League, the Mad Ants not only had a winning regular season record (27-23), but also qualified for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. They would lose the best-of-three first-round series to Santa Cruz 2-0.
Guard Tony Mitchell was recently named the D-League’s rookie of the year, and veteran guard Ron Howard received the league’s sportsmanship award. By now, most of the team has disbanded and the players have gone their separate ways.
Team President Jeff Potter and first-year coach Duane Ticknor met with The Journal Gazette to reflect on the past season and look ahead to next year. Here’s a portion of the conversations:
Did you sleep better this year than any other year?
Potter: No. When you’re 3-10 and things are not looking good, man, it was pretty nerve-wracking. Then we win those eight games (in a row), and it was so close, I could taste it. It was hard. You want to break through and you want to do everything you can. Let’s put it this way: It was a lot more fun this year than other years.
How tough were the decisions to let Walker Russell Jr. and JaJuan Johnson go?
Potter: Walker was not as tough as you would think. I could see it wasn’t working with him and Duane and Steve (assistant coach Gansey). I asked Walker to do a couple different things, and for whatever reason, I don’t think he wanted to be back in the D-League or Fort Wayne, so it was best that he move. If I look back on the things I’ve done wrong, one of them was sticking with guys like Walker too long, because I want to be loyal. JaJuan just wasn’t working. You could see it. His body language wasn’t great, and the guy has played on three D-League teams in one year. He’s obviously gifted. He’s got talent. But obviously, there’s some disconnect going on there. I hope he finds it. It was an easy decision.
Tony Mitchell came up big as a rookie. Was he an anomaly this year?
Ticknor: He was something else – absolutely spectacular NBA player. If I go back to Sioux Falls, we had Reggie Williams, who was second in the league in scoring and has been in the NBA for four years now. Blake Ahearn was a fourth-round draft pick in the D-League. There are guys out there. You’ve just got to find them and keep plugging away. You make mistakes along the way and pull a rabbit out of your hat every once in a while. Tony was put in a situation where he could shine. When Luke (Harangody) went down and Ron (Howard) went down, we had to have somebody step up. There aren’t too many rookies that get 30, 32 shots a game. He was put in that situation. To his credit, he grabbed it and ran with it. A lot of guys would shy away from it. He wanted it. That was really fun to watch him grow, from the end of November, when he got here, to where he was at the end of the season.
Is there a template for success now?
Potter: I think the No. 1 template is get the right coach. The No. 1 key to the season was Duane, and also Steve. I don’t think that can be understated. Steve was given a lot of responsibility, and I think Duane is so good at empowering his assistant coaches. But Duane gets new guys and just incorporates them; found what they did well and focused on that and made them believe in themselves. That’s the No. 1 thing that worked well.
What will be the biggest advantage of coming back next year?
Ticknor: Last year the cupboard was bare; we kind of had to start from scratch. It took us awhile to get the right guys in here. Hopefully, we’ll have four, five, six of these guys back next year and have a good foundation to start with and not have to be behind the eight ball, from 3-10 to where we want to be.
That was the reason for the slow start?
Ticknor: Without a doubt. And JaJuan didn’t play up to expectations. We could have taken (Rio Grande Valley’s Andrew) Goudelock, but we chose to take JaJuan. If JaJuan would’ve panned out, we wouldn’t have had the 3-10 start. There wasn’t one organization in the whole league that wouldn’t have taken him with their first pick. Everybody we talked to, that’s who everyone thought was the best player.
Will the franchise ever be with one NBA team?
Potter: Who knows? If somebody gives us a great offer. There are two ways to go about it: One is (for an NBA team) just to outright own a franchise. I don’t foresee that happening with us. The other is a hybrid, where they pay to run the basketball operation. That’s something we’d really have to think about. When (primary owner) John (Zeglis) and I started this, part of the fun is the basketball and not just being a ticket broker. Could it happen? Maybe. I’ll listen to everything. And if it’s the best thing for our franchise and our fans, absolutely. We’ll figure it out. It certainly is the wave of our league. There are only five independent teams in our league.
After a year in Korea, you came back to coach in the D-League. Any change in talent between then and now?
Ticknor: The biggest difference, actually in the six years since I started in the D-League, has been the level of talent. It keeps getting stronger and stronger. As you see more and more NBA teams own teams, it’s going to continue to develop. I kind of like being an independent team because we can go out and get some of the players that the NBA teams have been there, done that with – the veteran guys that they’ve already known and seen. I think it helps organizations like us, and that’s the type of players I like, anyway.
Attendance was still low. Why is the community having so much difficulty embracing this team?
Potter: Isn’t that the $64,000 question? I don’t know. I thought this was as good of a year as we could have. I think we put on as exciting a product that can be offered here in town and as family-friendly as you could get. Hopefully, we’ve given people a taste of what we can be like, and we build on that. You make the playoffs and you hope you can get a nice crowd. Undoubtedly, I think we could have done better. But that’s our burden. We’ve got to continue to show that we are a great franchise, and we’re not going anywhere. We’ve got to continue to build and get in people’s collective consciousness, I guess.