• Alize Johnson's big year
• Ants season highlights
Judging the Mad Ants' 2018-19 season, which came to a close Saturday with a 121-118 loss at Memorial Coliseum to the division-champion Grand Rapids Drive, is no easy thing.
Sports fans in Fort Wayne want winning teams above all else, and the Mad Ants fell short of a playoff berth for the second time in four seasons since the Indiana Pacers bought the team. However, this was the Mad Ants' finest season of developing NBA talent, as we saw an unprecedented amount of movement to and from the Pacers.
So it was a mixed bag.
As for understanding this market and promoting themselves, the Mad Ants made some strides but a disconnect remains.
“Our goal this year in the beginning was to get 1 percent better every day and then win the division,” said coach Steve Gansey, who led the Mad Ants to a 23-27 record. “I thought guys really did get better every day. If you look at some of these guys in training camp, I was worried. But that's the point of this league. ... These young guys really got better throughout the year, and that's the main thing.”
Expecting a playoff berth this season may have been unreasonable, considering the roster was made up of almost all first- and second-year players. Although Alize Johnson and Rob Gray were capable of taking over games, Johnson played only 31 G League games and Gray can be streaky.
“There were huge improvements from Day 1,” Stephan Hicks said. “A lot of the young guys made a lot of mistakes at the beginning of the year, but once they gained more exposure and experience, they cleaned those up. Toward the end of the season, you could really see that throughout those games.”
It's always difficult to tell who will be back, but the Mad Ants appear to have a solid nucleus with Gray (17.1 points, 3.4 rebounds), Hicks (15.4 points, 6.8 rebounds), Omari Johnson, Travin Thibodeaux, Jovan Mooring and Demetrius Denzel-Dyson.
That doesn't include Pacers prospects, led by Alize Johnson (19.1 points, 13.5 rebounds). Edmond Sumner showed he's an NBA backcourt talent. And Davon Reed was dependable. Hicks also earned his first 10-day NBA contract. Ben Moore was signed away by the San Antonio Spurs, and Ike Anigbogu was improving before the Pacers waived him.
If the Pacers' priority is grooming talent, the season was a success. But they still need a better understanding of what fans here want: championship contenders; players who become part of the community; to be well informed of what's going on with their team; and an appreciation of the city's sports history.
The Mad Ants had a chance to bring back Walt Lemon Jr., one of the best players in franchise history, but traded him to Windy City for little because he would have cut into Sumner's development time.
The Mad Ants didn't give any explanation Feb. 6 why they waived Tra-Deon Hollins, one of the G League's elite point guards, and the season plummeted soon after. The Journal Gazette uncovered it was for a failed drug test, the Mad Ants' silence making it a larger story than necessary, and then their decision to keep Je'lon Hornbeak the next week despite a failed drug test made the situation stranger.
The season finale drew an impressive announced attendance of 5,553 and had the best atmosphere at the Coliseum in years, but the number of people actually in the building per game was down by about 400, according to Coliseum officials.
The most electric game of the season was actually at Trine University in Angola – 40 minutes away.
While Gansey is a popular coach, the Mad Ants' decision to raise a banner for his 100th win showed a lack of understanding of what should be celebrated in such a way at the Coliseum, where Ron Howard had been the only Mad Ants name in the rafters. Even stranger than the banner was that the Mad Ants didn't forewarn anyone it was happening.
The Mad Ants should be commended for doing a better job alerting people when players were moving to the Pacers and back, for promotions like the bobblehead giveaway and for their many charitable endeavors. But specialty jerseys lose their luster when worn so frequently.