The Journal Gazette
Friday, November 08, 2019 1:00 am

Ex-Cadet looks to help re-energize Ants

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

D.J. McCall made the Mad Ants' regular-season roster, an important move for a team that has a history of ably finding, grooming and making successes of players from smaller schools. It's also important because the team needs to do everything it can to get fans in the seats.

McCall, who played for Concordia High School and then IUPUI, is the first Fort Wayne native to play for the Mad Ants. Having a local player on the roster could generate a bit more local interest in the Mad Ants, a team that historically has not brought in many players from places such as Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame or PFW.

This isn't to say McCall is just here for marketing, not even close.

He was the Horizon League's Defensive Player of the Year as a senior and fits the mold of other players the Mad Ants have found, such as Tra-Deon Hollins and Jordan Loyd.

McCall's unique ability to defend players of any position will be valuable for a team that wants to get back to winning.

Here are some other key storylines heading into the season, which gets underway at 7 p.m. today at Memorial Coliseum against the Lakeland Magic:

1. Attendance watch: The Mad Ants averaged 1,605 fans last season, according to data obtained from the Coliseum. (That represents actual bodies, not the number of tickets distributed. It also doesn't include a game at MTI Center in Angola with an announced attendance of 2,651.) What's alarming is the decline in average attendance from 1,869 in 2015-16; 1,949 in 2016-17; and 2,000 in 2017-18. This is the last season of the Mad Ants' current lease with the Coliseum, so expect rumors to ramp up again about a possible move if things don't get turned around at the gates.

2. Back to winning: It should be noted that the Mad Ants were 23-27 and missed the playoffs last season. It was their worst showing since they went 20-30 in 2015-16. Ironically, it was perhaps their best season in terms of developing talent for the Indiana Pacers. Edmond Sumner and Alize Johnson, in particular, improved. But Fort Wayne fans care about winning more than development, always have, so the Mad Ants need to get back to winning to draw more fans.

3. Lemon's return: Walt Lemon Jr. is one of the best players in the history of the franchise and bringing him back is huge for what the team is trying to do on the court. Last season, the Mad Ants couldn't bring Lemon in because they needed the minutes for players such as Sumner. Now, the Mad Ants want to win and having a player who was pretty good with the Chicago Bulls late last season, and is sure to be one of the G League's most exciting players, should help.

4. Center of attention: The Mad Ants bringing in Hasheem Thabeet got some chuckles since he was the No. 2 pick from the 2009 NBA draft and the 18th pick in this year's G League draft. The reality is, it was a savvy move. The Mad Ants annually lack a legitimate center, and having Thabeet from the start gives them a 7-foot-3 defensive player who has showed he can score at this level, too.

5. Experience helps: Last season, the Mad Ants had at least five rookies at any given time. As you'd expect, there was a lot of inconsistency and the team sagged toward the end. This season, there's much more veteran savvy. It's not just the older nucleus of Lemon, Thabeet, Stephan Hicks and C.J. Wilcox; the Mad Ants brought back some of those rookies – Demetrius-Denzel Dyson, Travin Thibodeaux and Jovan Mooring – and those players should be much better this season with experience under their belts.

6. Role models: There still are rookies – McCall and JaKeenan Gant – and they'll need to lean on the older players for how to manage the pro game, on and off the court. Also, keep an eye on Thabeet's leadership; Gant and Thibodeaux could learn a lot from him as young big men.

7. Pacers in waiting: Even though development hasn't been talked about as much this fall as last, the Mad Ants still have legitimate NBA prospects they are educating. The Pacers like Nax Mitrou-Long and Brian Bowen II enough to have given them two-way contracts, and Gant and Wilcox are certainly on their radar. Lemon could be called to an NBA team at any point.

8. Great coaching/management: While the Mad Ants haven't had the success of the previous ownership group when it comes to wins and losses, coach Steve Gansey and general manager Brian Levy have shown they are among the best in the league. Consider some of the players they've found, such as Lemon, Loyd and Hollins; players they have helped reignite careers, such as DeQuan Jones; and players who have gotten elevated to NBA contracts, such as Jarrod Uthoff, Alex Poythress and Trey McKinney Jones.

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