The Mad Ants will open their 10th anniversary season Saturday at Greensboro, North Carolina, and they will try to erase the memory of a disappointing 20-30 season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Here’s a primer of what you need to know about the Mad Ants this season.
5 players to watch
Ben Bentil: A rookie out of Providence, he averaged 21.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1 block last season. He could be the player most likely to get called up by the Indiana Pacers. He was taken in the second round of the NBA draft this year by the Boston Celtics. His athleticism and size (6-foot-9, 235 pounds) could make scouts drool.
Trey McKinney Jones: A popular player with the Mad Ants from 2013 to 2015, he helped them to a championship and another playoff final. While he’s always been a consistent shooter and tenacious defender, the Mad Ants are expecting more of him after a season in Hungary and Israel. Look for him to be more of an offensive standout this time around.
Nick Zeisloft: Fans around here love shooters. And they love former Indiana University players. With Zeisloft, they get both. And, he’s got ties to the area; his father went to DeKalb. The Mad Ants want him to play with fearlessness, and he’ll make an impact from long range, after making 42 percent of his shots (41.7 percent from 3-point range) last season with IU.
Stephan Hicks: While he averaged only 15.9 minutes per game as a rookie, he showed flashes of brilliance and averaged 7.6 points. He’ll have a much bigger role this season and will be relied upon to score – he’s capable as an outside shooter and by driving to the basket – and he’s good hitting the boards.
Julyan Stone: He’s the Mad Ant with the most NBA experience, having played 47 regular-season games with Denver and Toronto and four playoff games with the Nuggets. He won’t do anything flashy, but he’ll be a stalwart defender for the Ants.
4 must-see games
Nov. 20: Not only are the Mad Ants facing the Sioux Falls Skyforce, who pretty much dominated the D-League last season, but the team is giving out 1,000 anniversary rings and they are gaudy and pretty awesome.
Nov. 25: If you’re an IU fan, come check out Fort Wayne’s Zeisloft and Christian Watford take on the Long Island Nets’ Yogi Ferrell, assuming he’s back from the Brooklyn Nets.
Feb. 24: Rio Grande Valley always plays an up-tempo, fun type of basketball, and this year boasts a roster with former North Carolina star P.J. Hairston and former Oregon State star Gary Payton II.
April 1: The regular-season finale comes against the rival Canton Charge, a team with which Mad Ants coach Steve Gansey was an assistant in 2014-15. And it’s bobblehead night.
Athleticism: Mimicking what the parent Pacers are doing, the Ants have put together a roster of athletes who will be able to play an exciting brand of basketball. There will be speed, long passes and highlight-reel dunks.
Defensive prowess: The Mad Ants certainly have some lockdown defenders, including McKinney Jones and Stone, and some good shot blockers such as Adam Woodbury and Anthony Johnson. Opposing players should have a tough time scoring.
Coaching: Gansey’s record last season might not look like much, but he got huge improvements from rookie players and ably dealt with some players who didn’t want to make the best of being in the D-League.
Lack of size: Although there’s more size than they usually have, the Mad Ants are relatively small, putting pressure on 6-9 Watford and 6-9 Bentil, especially until 7-1 Woodbury returns from a back injury. Defensively, the lack of size will be a bigger issue than at the other end.
Inexperience: The biggest difference between the Mad Ants of last season and the teams that made the finals was the lack of veterans who could lead on and off the floor. The return of McKinney Jones, and the additions of Stone and Travis Leslie, will help. But the Mad Ants will certainly have some growing pains with all the youngsters.
1 major storyline
This is the second season of the Pacers owning and operating the Mad Ants. That puts the pressure on Gansey and second-year general manager Brian Levy to get better results. And new President Tim Bawmann, who has upped the promotions and game-night production, has the pressure of trying to increase attendance and interest in the team. The Pacers have to do their part, too, but they don’t have a single NBA-contracted player on the Mad Ants’ roster.
– Justin A. Cohn, The Journal Gazette