“This will be the best team we’ve ever had.”
With this statement, the London Lightning kicked off their 2014-15 season, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. After two championships in their first two years, the Lightning had viewed the 2013-14 season as a disappointment, after losing in the conference finals to the eventual champs, the Windsor Express. London was determined to make it back to the finals, led by new coach Carlos Knox. This new direction resulted in a season that can only be looked at as a step back. While their 18-14 record wasn’t bad, but it was only good enough for 3rd in the conference, with the team exiting the playoffs in the first round. The bad luck didn’t end there though, with allegations that coach Knox allegedly hid a positive drug test taken by one of his players. With Knox sent packing, London will start the new season with a new identity, brought in by new coach Kyle Julius, as they look to reclaim their spot as an elite team in NBL Canada.
It was a busy offseason for London, as they overhauled their entire roster, electing to not bring along a single returnee. Gone are mainstays like Marvin Phillips and Elvin Mims, and in comes one of the youngest rosters the league has seen. Youth doesn’t necessarily mean inexperience though, as seven of the players have previous NBLC experience. The most notable add is former Lightning player Garrett Williamson, who returns after a year overseas. Williamson, along with other Canadians Chad Posthumus, Londoner Warren Ward, Taylor Black, and former rival Kevin Loiselle, form the one of the best groups of Canadian talent the league has seen. Nick Okorie was acquired from the Island Storm to handle the point guard duties, and joins two former members of the now-defunct Mississauga Power, Marcus Capers and Jordan Weidner. Players uncovered at the NBLC’s various combines round out the roster.
GUARDS: Garrett Williamson, Warren Ward, Nick Okorie, Jordan Weidner, Jeremy Wise, Marcus Capers, Tyshawn Patterson, Mustafaa Jones
The big add to the backcourt is Garrett Williamson. The 2013-14 Canadian player of the year averaged 18 points per game to lead a Lightning team that came one game away from making the NBLC Finals. He doesn’t shoot from long range very often, but he is one of the most gifted players the NBL has seen at getting to the basket. Williamson also draws a ton of fouls, which causes fits for other teams.
Combo guard Nick Okorie was acquired in a trade, with Brent Jennings and Renaldo Dixon going the other way. The NBL veteran is a gifted scorer capable of both slashing and draining the three, and has averaged 18 points in 101 career games, spread over three seasons.
As Okorie is more of a scorer, the team will need Jeremy Wise to play the role of distributor, a role he has handled at the D-League level in the past. He can score too; averaging 14 points per game in the four years he spent with the Bakersfield Jam.
Jordan Weidner is a favourite of coach Kyle Julius. The former #1 overall pick is a good shooter, and while his regular season numbers weren’t terrific, he was dominant in the playoffs, shooting 57% from behind the arc, and averaging 21 points. He’s joined by former teammates Warren Ward and Marcus Capers. Ward averaged 19 points and seven rebounds before an Achilles injury cost him the rest of his season. Capers is a versatile talent; so versatile in fact that the 6’5” guard played the PF spot at times for Julius in Mississauga.
Also joining the group is Tyshawn Patterson and Mustafaa Jones. Patterson is a combo guard in the same vein as Okorie, who broke out as a 20 point per game scorer during his senior year. Jones is a young point guard just breaking into the professional ranks.
Centers/Forwards: Chad Posthumus, Kevin Loiselle, Curtis Washington, Stephen Maxwell, Taylor Black
If Williamson is a frontrunner for Canadian player of the year, his teammate Chad Posthumus might be his biggest competition. The 6’11 Manitoba native only played three games in the NBLC as a member of the Power last year, his averages of 22 points and 15 rebounds speaks to the kind of work Posthumus can do in the paint.
The biggest surprise of the offseason came when London added Kevin Loiselle. One of league’s best villain characters, Loiselle plays with an edge and grit that was sorely lacking from last season’s team. He also has a wealth of experience, having won two championships in Windsor, and sits fifth on the league’s all time games played list.
Curtis Washington is a long, athletic big. At only 24, he’s still developing his game, and learning from a guy like Posthumus should do wonders for him. London had problems with size in the past, but with Posthumus and Washington, both over 6’10, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Stephen Maxwell and Taylor Black are both young players getting their first pro experience. Maxwell is a gym rat, and at 22, is one of the youngest players in the league. Black is a Canadian big, one who the team kept even though that gives London five Canadians, more than the league requires.
Coach: Kyle Julius
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, Julius was the coach for the Mississauga Power team that went 7-25, one of the worst records in league history. What a lot of people don’t think about is Julius himself. He’s a coach that demands players play hard, the type of coach the Lightning could have used last season. Julius also grew as a coach during that trying season, often losing his cool in games at the start of the season, but by the end of the year, had Mississauga playing competitive basketball, giving the eventual champs, the Windsor Express, a much tougher fight than anticipated. Julius will get the best out of this team and build a blue-collar identity along the way.
Championship or bust. That’s the way it’s always been in London. And while that is still the main objective, there seems to be a different feel around the Lightning lately. While this year’s team is expected to compete, the young roster points to a secondary goal of player development, and trying to acquire players who can stay in London for a while. With the best collection of Canadians that the league has ever seen, and humbleness brought on by past disappointments, the Lightning look ready to strike once again.