“We’re not backing down from anyone.” New talent brings a new attitude to this year’s edition of The Magic.

“We’re not backing down from anyone.” New talent brings a new attitude to this year’s edition of The Magic.
Those are ugly results.  Scores that, back in mid-November, had Moncton Magic fans crowing and Halifax Hurricanes fans in search of a group fainting couch.  It’s funny though, how the addition of Gabe Freeman and Rhamel Brown to a squad run by reigning NBLC Coach of the Year Mike Leslie can ease troubled minds. 
Those two tough losses to the Magic were immediately followed up by 4 Hurricane wins. And, even though they’re coming into Friday’s 7 PM matchup at the Avenir Centre at 4-4, fresh off 2 additional (and much closer) losses, Coach Leslie has some very recent experience to draw on when it comes to uneven starts to a season. 
“We’re in exactly the same position we were in this time last year with our record,” he observes, fresh as a daisy after the quick jaunt from Cape Breton, “and that’s something a lot of people forget. We started very, very slowly last year with 8 returning players that had gone to the finals the previous year. It just takes a little time because of the particular style of play that we have to mold players into.” 
That style of play offensively is, as always, more deliberate, less-reliant on threes and heavier on post-ups and mid-range jumpers than anyone else in the league.  A 55-25 record and two trips to the NBLC Finals in two seasons under Leslie speaks to its effectiveness. 
Instead of 8 returnees however, Leslie started camp for the ‘18-‘19 season with only 3, and each of those veterans has had to deal with a little adversity. Mike Poole ended last season on an absolute tear after a first 18 games that saw him shoot barely 33% from the field and hit double figures in scoring just 7 times.  This season has started in much the same way, as he enters Friday’s matchup averaging 9.5 ppg on 32.1% shooting, but you can bank on Poole’s game rounding into form for a second year in a row sooner or later. 
Tyrone Watson is currently logging about 27 minutes per night and contributing 10 ppg and 4 boards on 44% shooting, a far cry from his 13.5 and 6.5 on 55% shooting last year.  His coach thinks the best is yet to come from The Flex Man. “Tyrone is coming off of surgery on his knee,” says Leslie, “and then a month or so before the start of camp, he had a bit of an injury on his other knee.”
“It didn’t look like it would be bothersome, but then he took a tough fall in a Saint John game that caused some swelling and pain, and it’s a nagging thing right now. We’ve tried to back his minutes off a little and see how his knee would react to mitigate the problem. We want to get to a point where we’ve got it settled down and then run through the rest of the season, and we hope that’s where we’re at with it.”
As for the veteran of all veterans, Cliff Clinkscales, his mantle of floor general and team leader is nothing new, so these early-season inconsistencies are something he’s encountered before.  But every new season brings new challenges.  “Cliff is a great point guard with guys who have a high basketball IQ,” observes Leslie.  “He’s a read and react guy that likes to let the play develop, and the problem we had early on was that the young guys didn’t know how to play with him.  Cliff didn’t what they were going to do, and they didn’t react well to certain situations.  The first few games we could hold our own defensively, but we just couldn’t score enough and had to rely completely on the other end of the floor to stay competitive.”
It didn’t help that the Hurricanes came into game one versus the Magic cold, with no competitive games under their belts at all.  The Magic had a preseason trip to China and a full training camp with much of their present roster to build chemistry. “We were hoping we were going to have a preseason game against London and one against Moncton,” says Leslie, “to at least have a measuring stick of where we were, but they both fell through.  We’d have had a better idea earlier on of where we were, because when you’re just going against each other in practice, it’s hard to judge bad offense versus good defense, which things are working, and which ones need a lot more work.”
The Hurricanes two early-season adds bring plenty of good on both ends of the floor.  “Gabe’s obviously put up good numbers in the league for years,” Leslie points out. “Of course, Rhamel last year was such a stalwart for us on the defensive end of the floor, and then became an effective offensive player by the end of the year and the playoffs as well.” Inserting two players like that into their starting lineup seems to have better balanced the skill and experience between the opening 5 and the bench, sliding guys into roles where they’re more comfortable early in their careers.  
“Basically, Gabe and Rhamel replaced first-year pro players,” Leslie remarks, “and changed the dynamic right away.  We were putting those guys up against the Billy Whites of the world that had considerable experience in the battles and those two just changed our outlook.  Rhamel is very familiar with Cliff, which is key, and Gabe has a high IQ and just reads the game well, so they all gelled really easily.” It remains to be seen whether or not Mr. Freeman will be in the lineup for the Magic game tonight, but Leslie can assure Hurricane fans he’ll be back against the Sudbury Five on Sunday at the latest.
Those vets are going to have the biggest say in how far this year’s version of the Hurricanes goes, but the guys who were pushed down the roster pecking order to accommodate for their minutes are going to be key contributors to whatever success Halifax has.  Even in those two early losses, the talent level of guys like Joel Kindred, Jordan Washington, Kedar Edwards and Malcolm Duvivier was obvious.
Every coach has that type of player that just fits their eye, the kind that matches their philosophy of play and suits their temperament and style.  Finding those players is even more important in a league that regularly rolls over 75% of its rosters from one season to the next.  For Coach Leslie, his young guys check a lot of his boxes, but it all starts in one simple area. 
“You’re always looking for guys that defend because if you can’t defend you really can’t play,” asserts Leslie. “We’re proud of our defensive-minded approach with a tough, hard-nosed style of play and rebounding, and a relentless attack on offense.  I’m happy where the new players are right now because of the ceiling they all have is quite high.  They have a toolbox full of things from an athleticism standpoint and so, skill-wise, it’s just them getting used to defending a certain way and getting used to playing against veteran players that have played for 4 or 5 years.”
“That was our advantage last year. We felt that if we were in the lead late, we’d be able to close it out because we just sensed we’d be able to do it.  The last 2 games we’ve lost against Moncton (95-91 last Sunday) and today against Cape Breton (a 94-90 result), it was our inability to finish things off. We were either tied or ahead late and we should close those out, but we’re just not there yet.”
Last Sunday’s game in Halifax may have been low-scoring, but it was a delight to watch.  The competitiveness jumped off the screen and guys like Kindred, Edwards and Washington seem to delight already in the Magic/Hurricanes rivalry.  There was a lot of trash being spoken and physical play abounded, but never crossed a line. Washington is particularly excitable and was assessed a technical at one point, but Coach Leslie thinks that’s part of the education for the youngsters.  “They’ll learn to manage the emotional and physical piece, what is it the officials will allow, and how do you play against certain players.  They’ll get smarter and wiser, and also bigger and stronger as the season progresses.”
“They’ve also got that personality piece that I love,” continued Leslie.  “They hate to lose, and they’ll compete to the bitter end.  You also need to be a really good practice players and bring the effort you’re going to bring to games to the gym every day.  These guys all are, and so for me, it’s just about patience and putting the right pieces together. It’s on me to make practice meaningful so I can build on a step-by-step basis.  In my mind, I’m 5 steps ahead of where I want to be, and that’s ok, but I always have to take those steps backward to where we actually are and make the smaller steps in between to get us where we want to go.”
Duvivier is a guy who’s sandwiched 5 solid games around 2 in which he shot a combined 1-11 from the floor and didn’t collectively make it to 30 minutes played.  Pretty standard fare for a rookie learning the ropes and Leslie is pleased with his development as well.  Malcolm came in advertised as a shooting guard,” said Leslie, “and he does shoot the ball really well, but fans probably haven’t seen as much of it as they will later on.” 
“Malcolm wants to be better every day and he’s not satisfied, he wants to correct the problem right away. He’s always the guy asking for the extra rep or extra set to get it right. And that’s invaluable.  It means he wants to learn and grow and Cliff’s been a great mentor, we’re fortunate to have that luxury. Malcolm is a guy who’s just going to get more comfortable playing and his own game is going to soar in the second half as he gets settled.”
Moncton coach Joe Salerno has a couple of new guys of his own he’ll be looking to incorporate into the fold and both are faces familiar to Hub City basketball fans.  Jason Calliste played 34 games with the Magic last season and was one of the most effective bench players in the entire league.   Coach Salerno is expecting him to have a similar role on this year’s squad. “Jay had an immediate impact on our team last year and I think he will again.  He’s is one of the higher IQ guys I’ve coached, he’s selfless, he can knock down shots left and right, he’s a really good defender and a really good rebounder too.  Obviously, I’m a big Jay Calliste fan.” 
Calliste, a 28-year old shooting guard, and native of Scarborough, Ontario, was one of the players the Magic protected this offseason.  Salerno was hoping to have him in the lineup from the jump, but, for reasons both basketball-related and not, that proved difficult. “We wanted him this offseason, he just wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He was contemplating retirement, and we just couldn’t come to terms.” 
“We hoped maybe he’d come around or sign with another team so we could match it and that’s what happened.  He was actually really excited and happy when I called him to say I’d match. He arrived here in Moncton a couple of days ago and he’s getting right into the lineup this weekend. He’s the type of guy who’s never out of shape.  He’s a phenomenal athlete as far as taking care of his body and it’s a big deal for a pro player when you can call a guy and he’s in shape ready to go.”
New guy #2 was NOT someone Salerno thought he’d be getting into the fold this season, but the sudden departure late this week of his starting point guard made an additional move a necessity.  Jahii Carson was shifted to the inactive roster on Wednesday upon informing the team he had accepted a contract with a team in Romania, a move that startled Salerno. 
“It obviously came as a surprise to me and I’m certainly disappointed at the decision to leave after such a successful start to the season. Especially after our conversations in the offseason.  I was pretty confident he was going to come in here and stay for the season.  It was disappointing and surprising but I’m moving on, our team has moved on and we wish him the best of luck.”
Moving on came in the form of the addition of Korie Lucious, a 29-year old point guard out of Gary, Indiana who played at both Michigan State and Iowa State in college and who’s taken his game all over the world as a pro, including to Moncton two seasons ago.  As a member of the Miracles, he led the team in assists despite only playing in 25 games and his average of 7.0 a game was good enough for fifth in the league.  As far as emergency replacements go, you’d be hard pressed to do much better.
“With the addition of another shooter in Calliste,” says Salerno, “I wanted a guy who was going to create shots for others and be a pass-first point guard and I was always impressed with Korie’s skill set . I don’t think he was in the best position the last time he was here in Canada and in a different system and in a different environment, I think he’ll be a real asset.”  Lucious’ shooting efficiency hasn’t been at the level of a Corey Allmond or Calliste during his pro career, but he can definitely stick it from deep and he’ll have a lot more space to operate in than during his first go-around in the Hub City.
He’ll also benefit from a deeper, more skilled set of forwards than he had two season ago as well.  “We have a couple of bigs to play off him perfectly in the screen and roll game,” asserts Salerno. “I think Nick (Evans) will do well playing with him and of course Billy will compliment any good point guard.  I had interest in Korie last year and I’m really looking forward to working with him.”  It’s a chance his new coach almost didn’t get.
“Korie had a couple of offers that he wasn’t happy enough with,” Salerno continues. “but he was about to sign and play in Brazil when we called .  He’s a real fan of the style of play in the NBL, and what’s also great about Korie is that he’s a gym rat, he’s just always in there working.  It may take him a week or so to get into game shape, but we’re excited to have him and we’re going to have him in the lineup by Sunday.”     
For those of us who have observed the league for awhile, Halifax/Moncton matchups have become must-see TV. The players may change, but the physicality and intensity don’t, elements that were naturally missing from those early season blowouts.  Even Coach Salerno sounds excited about the prospect of a much-improved Hurricanes squad.  
“It was really fun down there, I’ll be honest,” he says with a smile.  “Fans sometimes miss a high-scoring game, but that was great.  Both teams were making the other guys earn everything and there were turnovers, but not a ton of unforced turnovers. It was the aggressive style of play defensively that created mistakes.  Every time we play Halifax, we feel they’re the team to beat in our division and treat them that way.  Whether it’s now or playoff time, all of our games are going to be intense.”
That intensity is a by-product of the teams that Coach Leslie prefers to assemble.  “Over the years of working with Mike, and as he helped us put teams together,” remembers Salerno, “it was always about getting bigger and more physical.  He’s certainly a ground and pound type guy. They want to play from inside out and I don’t know if he was intentionally trying to build a team this way or that’s how it came together.  But myself, and most coaches, we’re the same way.  We fall in love with a certain type of player that fits our style.  Mike’s is a hard style to play and it sure is a hard style to play against, but he’s been really successful and won a whole lot of games playing that way.  I’m just glad we’re able to match that physicality this year.”
When you’re undefeated and chasing the league record for hottest start to a season, you’re going to get every team’s best shot and Coach Salerno biggest source of pride from the team’s win in Halifax comes from the fortitude shown to gut out a big win.  Still not at 100% physically and facing a home team on a win streak, it was the Magic that made the dagger threes and the key defensive stops in the final  minutes.
“The Hurricanes were playing with a lot of confidence after 4 wins and so I applaud our guys,” says Salerno. “It’s hard to go into someone else’s building and win and our guys knew they had a target on their back and didn’t flinch.  Last year playing Halifax they were the more physical team and we would back down at times or lose our cool and focus. Both teams were playing with a focused edge this time and no one was going to give in.  The thing I love about our guys this year is, we’re not backing down from anyone.”