You Can't Just Conjure up a Roster: the Hard Work That Goes into Putting Together the 2018/19 Magic
For much of this off-season, the principal topic of discussion amongst Moncton Magic fans has been, curiously, a decision made at a city council meeting. For the franchise head coach however, the building housing his team for the 2018/19 season is far less important than the caliber of players that will be in uniform. "It's something that we'll know soon," says Joe Salerno of the team's potential new digs given the city's decision to shutter the Moncton Coliseum for sporting events. "The organization will do all it can to make sure it's a great atmosphere, and I'm confident in the management staff that wherever we end up, it's going to be great."
While team management finalizes a floor for the Magic to play on, coach Salerno has been focused on the final roster, and that attention has yielded quick results. Two of his top priorities from Moncton's 7-player protected list and a newcomer he's had his eye on for over a year are players already in the fold for fall camp. Reigning NBLC three-point king Corey Allmond will return for a second season and for Salerno, he was a no-brainer. "It's not a secret to anyone that Corey is the type of guy we love here. We love his work ethic and his commitment to the organization, and how he handles himself with fans and at the public relations events. We want more guys like him and I think coming in for his second year, he's going to be more of a vocal leader."
Allmond had a tough start to his NBLC career in Moncton. As the midway point of last season approached, his 3-point percentage had dropped to the low 30's and his minutes were fluctuating game to game. Salerno though, saw how hard Allmond was working both in practice and on his own time, recognized that his defensive effort remained high, and made him the shooting guard in a revamped Magic starting lineup. From his promotion through the end of the season, Corey drained over 53% of his shots from long range, and he finished with more made threes than anyone in the league. He closed with averages of 14.4 points and over a steal a game, establishing himself as one of the best 2-way guards in the league in the second half. More than that, he became one of the clear emotional leaders on and off the floor, with the fans embracing his post-three long distance call celebration. Coach Salerno sees both his role as scorer and leader expanding in his sophomore campaign.
"Guys get that sense in year two that they're going to be looked to by new players to see how things are within an organization, and he's going to be a great example for the other guys. Plus, with how he shoots the ball, how can you not want him? I've reviewed almost all our games from last year again and there are multiple games where he kept us in it or pushed us ahead with his shooting. He's just such a dangerous guy to have, and I think he's going to be even better for us this year."
You can bet the five games of the Atlantic Division Final loss to the Halifax Hurricanes are among the games Salerno has studied so far. In fact, the information he's gleaned from those viewings has largely dictated his strategy on roster-building this off-season. "How well Halifax shot the three was a little shocking," Salerno observes, "but with their style of play, they just got higher percentage shots. It was really more of a twin post lineup with a very big small forward in (Tyrone) Watson, and we definitely took note of that. We're not necessarily going to change our style of play, but we at least need to have the bodies that are going to match what Halifax can do and add our own twist. Halifax is our benchmark, we're working from that and it's how we'll be going after players this summer."
I discussed the signing of Gentrey Thomas in this space on Tuesday and indicated how well he fits Salerno's vision for the roster going forward. The 6'4" combo guard is long in both limbs and explosiveness, befitting the physical characteristics Coach Salerno was looking for in new recruits to the franchise. Thomas should bring an element of shot-creation and backcourt athleticism that was missing at times last season and will balance out the sharpshooting and off-the-ball shrewdness of Allmond.
The third man in the door was a Canada Day present to all Magic fans. Denzell Taylor was easily the best story of the franchise's first season, a player not guaranteed to make the team out of training camp who became an invaluable member of the rotation deep into the playoffs. "We all know what a pleasant surprise Denzell was," says Salerno. "He improved so much during the season, but he's also got things he really needs to improve on. Given the minutes he was getting, he knows he has to be more of an offensive threat. Defensively, Denzell made himself such a valuable asset, we always wanted him out there. But at times in the Halifax series where we went bigger with him and (Juan) Pattillo, Halifax could sag off him in the paint because he wasn't a threat from the perimeter."
I caught up with Denzell in his home town of Toronto after the signing and, by the sound of things, he's been concentrating on two things so far this off-season; enjoying his friends and family, and working on exactly the areas of his game that his coach pinpointed. "After the season," says Taylor, "I went down to Virginia, to ODU (his alma mater, Old Dominion University) and spent time working out and seeing old friends before coming back to Toronto. I've been working on ways to get better chances in the post area and finishing better and more often. I know too that I have to stretch my jumper out to the 15-foot range."
I asked Denzell if the decision to come back to Moncton to continue his pro career was a difficult one. "It wasn't that hard for me at all. I wanted to come back and it was a matter of sitting down and getting it done. I really liked Moncton last year, and they treated me so well, so I had no problems with coming back. We'll see about where things take me after this season, but right now my focus is in the NBL and Moncton." In Toronto, Taylor has been playing in local tournaments and leagues, none more competitive than the Nike Crown, a prestigious semi-pro league in its 4th season that boasts talent from the G-League, overseas and the NBLC, even the occasional NBA performer, such as the Raptors own Pascal Siakam last year.
Luckily for local fans and attendees of the Magic Elite Clinic on July 21st and 22nd, Denzell will take a short break from the Crown League to travel to the Hub City and assist Coach Salerno with the camp. He'll head right back to complete his league schedule, but he's looking forward to being back for good in the fall, and the team's other two signings are a huge reason why. "Corey is such a big-time scorer for us and an even better guy. I just love him and love playing with him." Denzell's willingness to do the dirty work setting solid screens to free up Allmond was an underrated factor in unlocking the sharpshooter's game as last season wore on.
Taylor's connection with Gentrey Thomas goes back even further to a time with CIA Bounce, a youth team where they were joined by current NBA player Tyler Ennis and other elite Canadian talent. "We were teammates back in AAU and he's tough. He gets to the rim, gets to the bucket, really looks to score, but he's unselfish too. Mostly, he's just tough man, on both ends."
When Denzell does find time to tear himself away from the basketball floor, it's tough to get him away from another beautiful game, soccer. "I love relaxing and just watching TV and playing video games with friends, but I'm in on the World Cup, I love watching soccer." He goes for NBA2K, but he's more of a futbol guy with his video games too, touting himself as a heck of a FIFA player. And for all you fellow World Cup fans out there, you might want to find a way to place a few dollars on Belgium. They seem to have a good-luck charm in Mr. Taylor. Just after our interview, during which he declared them his favorite squad, they orchestrated a miracle second half comeback to set up a quarterfinal date with Brazil. When his mind drifts back to the Hub City, though, Taylor thinks fondly of his times at Dooly's post-game with the fellas, relaxing and playing pool, and of the fans as well. For them, he has the following, quiet, Denzell-esque statement. "I'm just excited for the season and I can't wait to get back up there and do my thing. Thanks for the support."
To some, bringing back a smallish power forward like Taylor may run counter to Salerno's stated intention to find longer and bigger players, but the coach doesn't see it that way. "We do want to get bigger in the frontcourt," he agrees, "but Denzell plays bigger than 6'7". I thought he was one of the best interior and ball screen defenders in the league and that's a great asset to have. Even though we're trying to get bigger, Denzell would certainly be an exception, we're not too concerned with Denzell and his size since he proved he can play with anybody this year."
A third member of the team's protected list was flipped for another, potentially tremendous addition to the Magic fold. Marvell Waithe was not going to be back in a Moncton uniform, but protecting him given his value around the league, particularly to Ontario teams closer to his home, was a no-brainer. "When you do so much to bring him in here and he doesn't pan out," Salerno said of Waithe, "you certainly still want to get something for that player. That was the mentality and it worked out well."
So, it did. The Magic sent his rights to the London Lightning (who have since signed him) for Doug Herring, a prototypical NBL point guard and a guy with championship credentials. He comes off a season where he averaged nearly 15 points and 7 assists a game while shooting almost 50% from the floor and 40% from deep, while finishing near the league lead in assist/turnover ratio. Herring hasn't been locked up as of yet, but Salerno has been in touch with both the player and his agent, and given his success in previous similar circumstances, he's got reason to be optimistic. "We've been fortunate in those situations when you look back to the Russ Byrd trade for Jason Calliste and Chad Frazier for Juan Pattillo, so hopefully this will pan out too."
This season, the NBL decided to go with a 7-man protected list instead of six. It wasn't something that the Magic as an organization, or that Salerno in particular, had requested, but some teams lobbied hard for the change. While it likely didn't make much difference in deciding to protect Taylor, Allmond or Waithe, it certainly made the rest of Salerno's decisions slightly easier. A 6-man list may have made protecting a player like Al Stewart more problematic for instance. Not for reasons that have anything to do with on-court performance of course. Salerno just isn't sure that Stewart will be on court at all this fall.
"In our exit interview, I truly found he was thinking the right way with life and moving forward and I was actually for him retiring. But if he decides not to, we're definitely going to have a place for Al Stewart. We think he's that valuable, that he's exactly what we're trying to be about. Al fits that mold and he still has a few good years left in him yet." That may sound a little bleak for all you Magic fans out there, but while sidelined with an injury during the Hurricane series, I talked to Al extensively during the pre-game warmups and he expressed how his Moncton experience had changed his outlook. Last summer Stewart was almost certain this would be his last year, but to me he expressed that perhaps he'd be willing to play "3 or 4 more years." Now, that may have been an exaggeration, but given Salerno's next words, at least one more year may not be out of the question.
"I know Al pretty well and I think, come September, he's going to have that itch pretty bad and I think there is a chance he decides to come back. Last summer, we were joking about his age and he sent me a clip of himself dunking in a semipro game in Chicago, which is probably the second time I've ever seen him dunk a basketball. It was him saying, 'how you like me now coach?' Well, last night, he sent me a clip again. This time he was picking a guy's pocket and going the distance for a layup. I texted him back saying, hey, last summer you were dunking that ball. So, we have a great relationship and right now it's a coin toss, but we'd love to have him back."
Anthony Anderson is another beloved vet thinking of hanging them up, thus his absence from the protected list. "At the end of the season," recalls Salerno, "he was definitely 50/50 with retirement. I spoke with him before the protected deadline and asked him where he was at with coming back. He told me Moncton had been one of his best experiences in this league, and he point blank told me that there was no need to protect him. If he decides to play again, Moncton will be his top priority, and I was very comfortable taking him at his word."
I asked coach whether these experiences in Moncton were as big a factor in extended guys careers as they made it seem. "I think even among the players that aren't close to retirement, there wasn't a single guy who wasn't open to coming back next season," he emphasized. "The organization did such a great job in its first year providing the guys with a great place to play and giving everyone a great experience. That was such an important goal of ours, not only for returning players but also potential free agents. We want to have that word get around that Moncton is a premiere place to play in the NBL and I think we were successful in that respect. The vision that Jon (team owner, Manship) has is of a true professional setting for these guys. Numerous NBL players have reached out to me with interest in playing here and I don't know how often that was the case in previous off-seasons in Moncton."
Another fan favorite on everyone's mind is the Ant-Man himself, Anthony Cox. Coach Salerno observes that the situation there is a little more complicated. "Ant loves Moncton, loves playing here, living here, and loves the fans. We have interest in him, but we also want to see what develops out there this summer." In leagues like the NBL, where there is so much roster turnover and so many new players available to franchises each off-season, coaches and management have to evaluate each and every position to ensure each and every roster spot is occupied by the best possible option. Sometimes that means jettisoning players, and people, you love to have around. Sometimes it means keeping them in limbo and asking them to wait. That's the situation Cox finds himself in and he's been nothing but a pro about it.
"I've had that conversation with AC and he knows how all this works. When it comes to players, there are guys you absolutely want to have back, guys you don't, and also guys you'd LIKE to see back, but you have to play things out and see where you are later in the summer. AC falls into that latter category. He handled the conversation like a pro and he was clear that his priority is Moncton. So, he's going to wait and see what happens and see if we offer him again. He handled it really well, still wants to play here again and the interest is mutual, so we're going to see where we are with him in a couple of months."
A big man that was included on the protected list was late season addition Juan Pattillo. "Juan has a good agent with good players all over the world," observes Salerno, "and Juan has the talent to get offers all over the place. He did express interest in coming back though, and made it clear he enjoyed his experience with the team. In fact, he was confident he would have had an even better experience and better output if he'd been with the team from day one. We were such a close-knit unit group and were so perimeter-oriented when he arrived, that it was tough for him to find his rhythm, which he really didn't find until the playoffs." Pattillo broke the 20-point barrier only once in 8 regular season games to wrap up the year, but hit that mark 7 times in the playoffs on well over 60% shooting. "We're certainly interested to see what it would be like from day one with him and I wouldn't rule him out, but he's certain to have other opportunities."
The man who may someday be known more as Gentrey Thomas' third-cousin was another no-brainer for the list, but fans should brace for the possibility that the All-Canadian, All-Defense, All-NBL performer could be plying his wares elsewhere next season. "Terry has put in 3 really good years in the NBL and gotten better every year," gushes Salerno. "He's coming into his prime and may be looking for opportunities overseas, which I think is smart. He's coming into his own and this is a time when he should look to advance his career, but he also loves how competitive the league is and being close to home." If T-Time does return, he may be the biggest beneficiary of any roster changes. "If we were to get Terry back," says coach, "I'd love to play him more at the two, sometimes with Corey Allmond out there, but also splitting time between those two. It's a goal of our team in general to get bigger all the way around and Terry was matched against bigger guys a little too much last season."
The final name on the protected list was Jason Calliste, another mid-season roster addition who paid off handsomely. "Jason also really enjoyed his Moncton experience," says Salerno, "and he told me it was the best playing experience he's had in Canada. He certainly has interest in coming back, but he's also exploring other professional interests. Has had some opportunities to coach at the collegiate level, and also has aspirations to open up a gym. We've talked a little, and he's such a good Canadian, it would be hard to pass on him even though he and Corey are such similar players. Jay is one of the smartest players I've ever been around, and he's also a guy who accepted a lesser role when he easily could have gotten more minutes on other teams. I'm not sure what's going to happen, but we'll wait and see what he wants to do with his career."
As you read this, Coach Salerno is possibly marching up and down the Las Vegas strip, on his way to another gym teeming with a portion of the 1500 or so free agents participating in the huge annual Vegas combines and trying to find jobs in leagues such as the NBL. It is from this trip and similar 2-day excursions to Florida and Atlanta where Salerno will get needed exposure to the players who will more than likely be filling large numbers of spots on league rosters next season. In advance of these trips, Salerno has put in a tremendous amount of work so he can best prepare himself to effectively execute his vision for the Magic. Viewing 1500 players even in a week-long combine is impossible, so Salerno has to know what he's looking for and where to find it well in advance of his flight touching down. For the Magic head coach, that starts with an off-season tradition.
"For me, it's important that I understand the overall flow of our season. When were we at our highest points, playing our best basketball and how did we get there? What did the progression look like from game to game? What changes did we make? What worked and what didn't? I set up a flow chart of what our season looked like and what we were doing at specific times. That's something I do every off-season, and make sure I get it done before July hits, before main recruiting time, so you have a great idea what you're looking for. Even at your highest points during the season, what could have made you that much better? That's the exercise I do in the off-season just by myself, pretty much locked away in my office alone, or at my home office after the kids go to bed."
The team is constantly receiving emails from players and agents looking to break into the pro-game and those are messages the team isn't going to ignore, so Salerno trusts his assistants to help him in this area. "I put Matt (Robertson) and Mitch (Rowley) on the reviewing of new prospects. We get a ton of emails all the time and I just send all that off to them to look at. I trust them and if they say 'coach, you have to look at this guy', I know it's worth my while to check them out. Then I have them follow up with certain guys that I like."
Ideally, Salerno likes to have as many roster spots locked down before his Las Vegas trip. "You have to know what you're looking for when you go in. And that's why having a firm grasp on where you are with protected players is important. Signing Corey means we have our starting 2 guard, so I can cross that off the list. So, now you can look at a guy that would be a good backup, a guy that would bring something different than Corey would, guys that would be in the price range you could afford at the backup 2 position. The separate camps run 2-3 days so you try to ID certain players that you're going to see play a second time on the second day of that camp. It's a long week, it's not easy and it's just a part of the huge jigsaw puzzle of assembling your roster."
Thankfully, Salerno has been at this awhile and has a lot of contacts he can use to point him in the right direction, somewhat lessening his workload. "I've got a network of agents and scouts that I can talk to. This is my 6th summer in Vegas, and all the same guys are there every year. I'll email agents the week before and say this is what I'm looking for, so who among your players is at what camps, and who should I look at? You'll also be able to break down some video before you go and know who it is that you want to look at before you get there. There are just too many players to not have other eyes out there helping you out. At the same time, they have to be agents you trust and have relationships with or else you'll be sent on wild goose chases around Vegas. It can be counterproductive and a waste of time."
"The games are broadcast online, and you can get the games on USB drives, but the whole goal is to see these guys live, to meet them and talk with them to get a feel for their character. That's the whole reason we're out there. We can watch on video from Canada, but to get the 1-on-1 time with them is the most important thing and the reason you do the travel."
The NBL draft takes place later in the summer, but it's this time of the year before the month of August where Salerno does the work that matters most. "(Compared to free agency) the work I put in for the draft isn't nearly as intense. We don't draft until late August and you know you're going to have one or two picks that are automatically going to get an invite to camp, so what you're really looking for are the one or two pieces you didn't get over the rest of summer. Or, maybe you need another Canadian in camp, or you got two centers over the summer, but you need a third in training camp battling for a job. You're using the draft to fill in the last few holes. Still, you can't treat the draft as an afterthought because there have been a lot of good players that have come out of it. Duke Mondy was the number 3 pick and one of the best players in the league just last year. So, you can really find some diamonds in the rough, you just can't put too much time and effort in there until it gets closer."
I asked Salerno about the small 10000$ increase in league salary cap recently and he mostly shrugged off its significance, but did offer some insight into how NBL teams tend to group players together for purposes of working with the cap. "We have A-level, B-level and C-level for salaries at this level," he says. Some teams will go heavy on the A-level players, but maybe not have any B-level and be heavy on the C-level guys. Some teams will go for a couple of A-level players but focus on a deeper bench of B-levels. The cap going up slightly this year isn't going to have a big impact on how you're going to structure your team, but it might give you just that little bit more to offer to high-level guys on that A-list."
Salerno will be filling some of the time between the combine work and the draft with a new venture. The Magic Advanced Skill Level Clinic Series is a set of camps offered to boys, girls and coaches the weekends of July 21st and 22nd and August 18th and 19th at Crandall University and the coach is enthusiastic about the product he's putting out there. "I'm excited about a cool program that I don't see offered in the Moncton area. The high school kids have a lot going on in their lives and maybe can't attend week long summer camps. So, we'd like to offer them more advanced stuff that they aren't getting at the high school level. But for me, the even cooler piece is the coaching clinics. When I was a junior high and high school coach, if I'd have had to opportunity once a month to go and get new ideas and pick the brains of other coaches, I'd have been all over it, and we just want to provide new experience, insight and new ideas to coaches at all levels. We think it's a really cool concept and we hope it takes off. Coaches are the best thieves in the world you know? You steal ideas and concepts from other coaches and then make it your own and put your own twist on things. This is an opportunity for local coaches to learn a new offense or new thoughts and ideas or even just take a new out of bounds play back with them."
And who does coach steal from? Why only the best of course. "I try to watch a lot of (Villanova head coach and 2-time NCAA champion) Jay Wright and I really like what (Houston Rockets head coach) Mike D'Antoni does. People say, 'Wright's an easy guy to pick, he's won 2 national championships'. Well yeah, that's the point. And D'Antoni had the most potent offense in the NBA last year, why would I not take a look at what they're doing? We actually ran a bit of a pistol offense which D'Antoni made famous a few years back and this year, I borrowed a lot from (Virginia head coach) Tony Bennett's offense. I thought his mover/blocker system was way different from what a lot of people were using and now It's being put to use by us and even in the NBA. Good coaches steal and adapt and I'm trying to offer that on a much smaller scale to local coaches in person."
We'll be talking a lot more to coach Salerno as the summer goes on to hear about the Vegas trip, the camps and the draft, and I'll be catching up with some more of the players as well. So, keep your eyes peeled Magic fans and I hope everyone's having a great summer so far.
Story by David Tingley
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National Basketball League of Canada Stories from July 11, 2018
- You Can't Just Conjure up a Roster: the Hard Work That Goes into Putting Together the 2018/19 Magic - Moncton Magic
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