London Lightning Player Royce White
How do you follow up a dominant regular season? A season that composed of your Canadian Head Coach winning Coach of the Year, and oh yes, your squad winning the 2016 NBL Canada Championship? Well, for the 2017 edition of the London Lightning, they replaced their Head Coach with Keith Vassell (the fourth head coach of the club). Vassell has a long standing history in Canada basketball, he played five years at Brandon University in Winnipeg, Manitoba where he was named Player of the Year after his Bobcats won the CIS Championship. He would be named to the CIS all-star team each year he participated in and would go on to be a member of Canada's Men's National team for 11 years, while also playing overseas for 11 years in places such as; Iceland, Portugal and Switzerland. Coach Vassell has NBL Canada coaching experience, and OCAA coaching experience as well. His most recent coaching jobs saw him at Niagara College of the Ontario College Athletic Association (OCAA) and as the interim head coach for the Niagara River Lions (NBL) in the second half of the 2016-17 season. The first exhibition game of the season for the Lightning's new Head Coach was against NBA talent level, in the Raptors 905, a G-League team. Saturday night at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario it was Champion vs Champion. The Lightning entering the defending NBL Canada champions and the 905 the 2016 G-League, formerly D-League Champions. A much hyped and anticipated matchup between teams from different leagues, there is a misconception or false perception about the difference in talent level between the leagues, as the G-League has NBA level talent, so they must obviously have more talented players, right? While that may be true across the two leagues as a whole, on a team to team comparison, the Lightning were looking to show that they have just as many tools at their disposal. The players, such as London’s Centre, Royce White, are aware of the talk about the G-League being the superior league in terms of talent level. The 2012 Houston Rocket's 1st round draft pick and the rest of the team, were not just out to prove they were just as talented, the Lightning were out to send a message about the NBL Canada talent pool. The hype was over. and it was time to play some hoops.
London started well behind the shooting of Ryan Anderson, but the size and length of the 905, began to bother the Lightning early in this game. Other than Centre Royce White, size wise, London had no answer for the long arms and height of the majority of the Raptors 905 roster. White even struggled against the differential in size finishing the game shooting 4-16 from the field. The 905 punished the Lightning inside, their only reason to miss their chances was the an unfortunate bounce or violation of some sort. On defense, it appeared as though every shot was contested. Excellent close out defense and a long arm in the faces of London shooters, made it a difficult opening quarter to the game and after 1 quarter of play at Budweiser Gardens, the home side trailed 25-17.
In the 2nd quarter, the Lightning used their speed advantage to climb back into the game. In fact, London took their first lead of the game since the first basket of the evening, mostly behind the smoking hot shooting of guard Ryan Anderson. Anderson shot the ball well, and according to Centre Royce White in post-game comments, Anderson played like he had a chip on his shoulder. Both sides chirped and dished out some lumber on fouls, as it was definitely turning into an event that was not anticipated, but should lead to future games between the NBL Canada and the G-League. This game had it’s moments of excitement, although White struggled from the field he did manage to rise up and poster-ize a 905 Raptor or two with some dunks. As White struggled to shoot the ball, he still managed a solid contribution in the battle, finishing with 14 points and 10 assists and at halftime it was 50-48 for the Lightning.
The teams traded baskets like an old wild west shootout where bullets are exchanged to start the second half, no lead lasted more than a few possessions for either organization. One thing that remained a constant was the blazing shooting performance by London’s Ryan Anderson. The 6’4, Seattle, Washington native, shot an incredibly efficient 50% from behind the 3-point line. The Lightning began to find their Championship groove in the 4th, however, it was unclear what the motivation was behind the decision making in the final quarter for the 905. Head Coach of the Raptors 905, Jerry Stackhouse elected to remove his starters and played much of the 4th quarter with his bench. Was this an attempt to rest his starters for the regular season? Only Stackhouse knows the answer as to why he pulled his starters in favour of his 2nd string players, but whatever the reasoning was, it mattered not to London. The Lightning slowly seized control of the game, dictating both pace and tempo on both ends of the court. Maybe not as dramatic as the proclamation by the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, where he says that he shook up the world in what was a perceived upset in the ring, but London did turn quite a few heads around the basketball world. There is talent in the NBL Canada and outside the G-League, that is comparable to NBA talent, and with the 99-92 victory over the Raptors 905, the Lightning proudly sent that message. Ryan Anderson led all scorers in the game with 28 points and finished the game shooting 50% from downtown.
London can enjoy this win for a little while, but the Lightning have one more exhibition game on Sunday November 12th at Budweiser Gardens against the Windsor Express. The regular season for London starts on the road in St. Catherine's, Ontario vs the Niagara River Lions on November 18th. If the combination of returning talent, infusion of new players, and leadership of a new Head Coach leads to victories like the one Saturday night against the Raptors 905, then the NBL Canada might be crowning a back to back champion in the Spring 2018 Postseason.