The Indiana Pacers took advantage of having a minor-league team more than ever before.
They had six players spend time with the Mad Ants this season – Ben Moore, Ike Anigbogu, Edmond Sumner, T.J. Leaf, Alex Poythress and Glenn Robinson III – totaling 92 games between them. And for the first time in their 11-year relationship, the Pacers signed players from Fort Wayne, giving Trey McKinney Jones a 10-day NBA contract and inking Moore to a two-way contract.
So in the wake of the Mad Ants' disappointing 119-116 loss to the Erie BayHawks in the single-elimination Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday at Memorial Coliseum, there is reason to believe the affiliation side of things is finally hitting its stride.
“We've always said this: 'We are one.' It's not just the business. It's not the basketball. It's not just the Mad Ants or the Pacers organizations,” said Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers' general manager and president of basketball operations, who commended, in particular, the work that has been done by Fort Wayne coach Steve Gansey and general manager Brian Levy.
“To work so closely with Brian and Steve, it's been such an honor, and they've had such a great season and they've gotten to compete in the playoffs.”
There is an air of uncertainty surrounding the Mad Ants right now, though, as they have yet to finalize a lease with the Coliseum for next season and Gansey's contract is expiring. Since becoming the head coach in 2015, Gansey has regular-season record of 79-71 and a 1-3 playoff mark.
Levy, who was runner-up in voting for G League Executive of the Year, is also on an expiring contract after a season that saw him bring in stars like Walt Lemon Jr. and DeQuan Jones in the offseason, draft promising player Tra-Deon Hollins and make a big in-season trade for Jamil Wilson.
Pritchard lauded the Mad Ants' development of rookies Moore (44 games with Fort Wayne), Anigbogu (21) and Sumner (15), and their ability to work in bigger names such as Leaf, a first-round pick out of UCLA, and Robinson, on short notice, and he sounded as if he wanted Gansey and Levy back in the Summit City.
“We put them through a bit of a tough situation all the time because we're always sending players back and forth,” Pritchard said. “(Brian) made the comment, 'That's what our job is,' and they do it to the best of their ability. They make guys come here and feel good about being here, and the players feel like it's synergistic with the Pacers and that's what we've always wanted.”
Since their inception in 2007, the Mad Ants have always had at least a partial affiliation with the Pacers, who bought the Mad Ants in 2015. But it wasn't until this season the movement of players to and from Indianapolis truly picked up.
“The biggest thing was, last (season), we needed to get Steve in all the basketball meetings with us and to get Brian in all the basketball meetings with us. We needed to start talking the same language first before we could start having similar thoughts and understand how we can understand each other,” Pritchard said.
While the Pacers have let other NBA teams sign Mad Ants in years past – think Tony Mitchell, Dahntay Jones or Jarrod Uthoff – and this year the New Orleans Pelicans signed Lemon, Pritchard said the Pacers' signing of veteran Mad Ants player McKinney Jones should signal that more players will go to Indianapolis in the future.
“I don't think there's any doubt,” he said. “For us, the Trey signing was about his talent – he's a tremendous basketball player – but we also knew what he did in the locker room (here) and what he's done in the community and for this team and for Steve and Brian. Because of that, we wanted to reward him, too, and it wasn't purely basketball. It was how he was holistically with this team.”
Pritchard had good feedback on Sumner, who missed half the season with a knee injury, and called Moore the Pacers' hardest working player, while saying of Anigbogu: “Ike, we know it's going to take some time. But there's nothing like game time to get better. Getting him in the games and letting him improve, feeling the speed and the strength of the games, he's just 19 and still young, he's got to keep improving.”
Like the Fort Wayne fans who went home disappointed Tuesday, Pritchard thought a single-elimination format didn't make much sense.
“We as evaluators, the more we get to see them in pressure situations over a longer series, that's better for us,” he said. “But there are logistical issues and all sorts of stuff way above my pay grade.
“From a competitive standpoint, though, the more we see them the better.”