C.J. Fair is one of only five players back from the Mad Ants team that reached the D-League finals last spring. And they want him to be more of a leader this season, even if he’s only 24 and in his second season out of Syracuse.
"That’s what the coaches want me to do – show my leadership. I’m normally a chill type of person, so they want me to be more assertive or verbal," said Fair, whose Mad Ants open the season Saturday and Sunday at Memorial Coliseum against Raptors 905, an expansion team.
Fair epitomized what the D-League is about last season. After not being selected in the 2014 NBA draft, he spent training camp with the Indiana Pacers but was too raw to make the jump to the big league. But he steadily improved throughout the Mad Ants’ season, averaging 13.9 points and 5.7 rebounds while playing in all 50 games.
After winning the 2014 championship, the Mad Ants lost to Santa Cruz in the finals in 2015. But Fair, 6-foot-8, 215 pounds, was magnificent in the postseason averaging 22.2 points – more than everyone on the team except Jordan Crawford (26.7) – with 7.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
"Over the course of the season and over this last summer, I think I’ve developed a lot," said Fair, who had averaged 16.5 points and 6.4 rebounds as a senior at Syracuse, for which he scored more than 1,000 points over four years. "I gained a lot of experience and I know what to expect now."
Fair played for the Boston Celtics in NBA Summer League and was in camp again with the Pacers, who bought the Mad Ants in September and will use them to develop prospects under new coach Steve Gansey and new general manager Brian Levy.
Already believing he might return to the Mad Ants, the sale made the decision that much easier because he’s familiar with the terminology of the Pacers’ and Mad Ants’ coaches and knows the tendencies of many of his teammates.
Shayne Whittington, Rakeem Christmas and Kadeem Jack were in Pacers camp with him. Whittingon, Ramon Harris, Marcus Simmons and Xavier Thames were D-League teammates last season. And Christmas, a rookie, played alongside Fair at Syracuse.
"It’s fun to be back in Fort Wayne. I’m familiar with the city. Everyone embraced me and it’s felt like home," Fair said, adding that it’s nice the Mad Ants are aligned with just the Pacers instead of the whopping 13 teams of last season. "That was a big thing for me to come back. I saw that the Pacers bought the team. I didn’t have to worry about a lot of different affiliates sending down players. It won’t take away from the players here. Everyone can keep their rhythm."
Fair was among the last cuts made by the Pacers; he averaged 1.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in five preseason games this year. The time was valuable for him because he got to watch and learn from players such as Paul George and Rodney Stuckey.
"I was just looking at them and soaking it all in, trying to be a sponge," Fair said. "It was good to see how they counter things and their approach to things, like how they go on defense, how they trail guys who can shoot. Little things like that, I was able to pick up on."
Improved defense may help get Fair a shot in the NBA – he wasn’t called up from the D-League last season – and he’ll be expected to carry more of the scoring load with Crawford gone, though the Mad Ants have a bevy of young players such as Terran Petteway, Stephan Hicks and Walter Lemon Jr. who can score.
Fair would like to help them improve, as he did in his first season with the Mad Ants.
"I’ll tell them, ‘Go hard. Do what got you here. Don’t try to do anything special or out of the ordinary from your game. That can hurt you,’ " Fair said. " ‘Everything happens for a reason, so if you’re here, take advantage of it.’ "