The Mad Ants open their 11th season with a roster that is potentially more talented than any they've had before, as they look to improve upon their .500 record over the last two seasons. Here's a primer to get you ready for Saturday's season opener at Uniondale, New York, against the Long Island Nets.
5 keys to success
• With the NBA implementing two-way contracts for the first time this season, there is a greater likelihood that players will go to the G League and back. The Mad Ants' parent club, the Indiana Pacers, have Alex Poythress and rookie Edmond Sumner under such contracts. Teams that best navigate the new systems will have the greatest likelihood of success.
• The Mad Ants need to be more consistent than last season, when they squandered many big leads en route to their 30-20 regular season and two-game playoff loss to Maine. But the Mad Ants had a roster of almost all rookies last season. By bringing back players such as C.J. Fair, Walter Lemon Jr. and Stephan Hicks, there is a more experienced vibe that should lead to better preparation.
• Coach Steve Gansey really hit his stride last season, taking a rookie-laden team to the playoffs. He's ably juggled the mandate of trying to win while developing players – Poythress, Jarrod Uthoff and Ben Bentil signed NBA contracts last season – and the onus is on him to keep the team progressing because on paper it looks like a championship contender.
• A fact of life in the G League is that teams lose players to lucrative contracts overseas during the season. The Mad Ants have a history of enduring those surprises well, including last season when general manager Brian Levy brought in Tyler Hansbrough and Marquis Teague to compensate for the loss of Julyan Stone. Levy will have to be ready again because you never know what will happen.
• The Mad Ants are undersized – they have only six players taller than 6-foot-6 – and they say it won't be a problem because they have a lot of athleticism and players, such as Fair, who have proved they can rebound well. But they've said that before and wound up searching for a center via trade, so time will tell if this is a problem or not.
4 things you should know
• The Mad Ants adopted the blue-and-gold colors of the Pacers, who have owned and operated them since 2015. While it makes sense, many of the longtime fans liked the crimson-and-yellow color scheme with which the team won a championship.
• Also open for debate are changes to the mascot, the Mad Ant, who is now blue and with a more kid-friendly design. The Mad Ant had been a punch line nationally as one of the scariest mascots in sports, but it was one of the most identifiable parts of the team's history and some feel the Pacers should be embracing that history more.
• Last season, eight of the league's 24 teams made the playoffs. This season, the G League has 26 teams and 12 of them will make the postseason. However, even if the Mad Ants make the playoffs, they won't be guaranteed a game at Memorial Coliseum. The first three rounds will be single elimination.
• While the Mad Ants play a 50-game season, only 24 games will be at the Coliseum because of the annual G League Showcase, an event for scouts that again will be in Mississauga, Ontario. The Mad Ants will face Oklahoma City on Jan. 11 and Salt Lake City on Jan. 13.
3 most important players
• Jarrod Uthoff averaged 17.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals in 11 Fort Wayne games last season. To think, the Mad Ants got him from Raptors 905 for only Christian Watford and a draft pick.
• While Alex Poythress might be with the Pacers come Saturday, he should spend plenty of time with the Mad Ants and try to improve on a terrific rookie season in which he played 45 games and averaged 18.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.4 blocks. He can play forward or center.
• Walter Lemon Jr. is one of the fastest and most athletic players in the league. He averaged 13.5 points, 3.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 48 games in his last stint with Fort Wayne, 2015-16, and will have an even bigger role now.
2 newcomers to watch
• Ben Moore, a 6-8 rookie out of SMU, is coveted by the Pacers for his abilities at both ends of the floor. As a senior, the forward averaged 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 blocks. He's the kind of blue-collar player who should thrive in Gansey's systems.
• DeQuan Jones, a small forward, has 63 games of NBA experience with the Orlando Magic, averaging 3.7 points in 2012-13, when he started 17 times. He's 27, looking to make it back to the NBA and should be good for 15 points a night.
1 big issue
• The Pacers have invested large sums of money in the Mad Ants but have yet to prove just how committed they are to using the G League for developing players. Despite two years of owning the Ants, plus several more of using it as an affiliate, the Mad Ants have yet to sign a single player from Fort Wayne. Last season, they funded the development of Poythress, Uthoff and Bentil and let other teams reap the rewards by giving them NBA contracts. With Kevin Pritchard, who has a history of playing and coaching in the minor leagues, running the Pacers instead of Larry Bird, maybe that will change. Fort Wayne sports fans expect winners and, under the Pacers, the Mad Ants have been only a .500 team and not given local fans guys they can follow at the next level.
– Justin A. Cohn, The Journal Gazette