Ottawa, ON – Does it matter if you had the clear best player on the court if you lose?
That’s a pretty fair question that unfortunately hangs over the masterful Ottawa BlackJacks debut of Deng Adel on Wednesday night. From the moment he stepped onto the court in front of just over 2000 at The Arena at TD Place, the 25-year-old took the Fraser Valley Bandits to task, dropping 37 points on 14 of 16 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists. Despite the eye-popping performance, Fraser Valley’s Alex Campbell hit a fade-away three in the Elam Ending to give the Bandits the 90-87 win.
Even in the loss, though, the diversification the former NBAer brought to the BlackJacks’ offence was something to behold and to watch for as the season moves forward.
One of the calling cards for Deng Adel has always been his transition work. From his time at Louisville and beyond, he’s always been more assertive on the break than in the half-court.
Early on, he showed that when he goes up to contest the three from Kadre Gray (#5 White) and within three seconds off the rebound, he’s down the court for the open transition three. The play will not run that quickly every time but to have that level of end-to-end speed allows for those quick fastbreak opportunities from deep, especially against a team like the Bandits, who struggled all night defending the perimeter.
One of the clearest examples of Adel’s strength on the break, and maybe an advantage of confidence that having played in the NBA gives him, came later in the first. He essentially executes a tic-tac-toe with Walt Lemon Jr. (#1 Black) before blowing right by Rowell (#10 White) and laying it with the left hand.
It wasn’t the most spectacular play, but it had that certain “been here before” unspoken confidence of a player who could pull off a play like that in his sleep. That’s a big win for the BlackJacks to have a player who can drive to the basket effortlessly.
The biggest reason for having a drive threat is that it opens up kick-out opportunities for your three-point shooters, not the least of which came from Adel himself on Wednesday. At 7 of 8 from deep, Adel was lights out from shooting on the night. After going 21.5% from deep with Maine in the G-League, one of the biggest things that Adel and the BlackJacks managed to take advantage of – and that Fraser Valley will look to work on – was miscommunications on defence.
Early in the third quarter, the BlackJacks came up court but despite him already having 18 points on the night, seemingly no one on the Bandits had Adel covered. Kadre Gray shifts over to cover Lemon Jr, but Murphy Burnatowski (#13 White) seems to forget that Adel was behind him despite being the closest man. This forces Rowell (#18) to make a desperate move, only to give up a clean three to open the third quarter.
He won’t shoot 87.5% every night, but if Adel has unlocked something from three this season, the ability to be both a drive threat and a threat from deep opens up so many opportunities for the BlackJacks offence.
Here Adel stops and pumps fakes for the three forcing Gray (#5 White) to race over. Adel finds the open space between him and Rowell (#10 White), and when Rowell comes off Cody John (#23 Black) to help, it leaves him wide open for Adel to kick out for a three.
At 6-5 and 195 lbs, Adel will never be the most prominent defender. The scouting reports from even back when he was in Louisville painted him as a swingman with that mysterious “defensive potential.” rather than ability. In 35 minutes, his first game with the BlackJacks had some good defensive moments, including an early fourth-quarter steal but a couple of lapses.
Here he looks to be initially covering Gray in the corner but after Thomas Kennedy (#30 White) drops a gorgeous cut pass to Alex Campbell (#6 White), Adel gets trapped in essentially no man’s land after Cody John gets stuck going around the screen. Contesting the shot would risk an open three but leaving it would give a clean look. He doesn’t decide until it’s too late and lets Campbell have an easy layup.
Although not overly common, Plays like that were a bit of an issue for Adel on the night. Moments where the (albeit split-second) decision came a little late. It has been about two months, though, since Adel last took the floor for the Maine Celtics in the G-League, and it’s easy to think that decision-making may come back strong with more reps.
The other issue from Adel on the defensive end was foul trouble. He took a charge right at the start of the ELAM ending that had him foul out for the night and forced him to watch the BlackJacks lose on the bench.
“It’s tough, it’s competitive, in wanting to be on the floor, but also it’s trusting your teammates, you can always be in the game even if you’re not on the floor, so just trying to support them from the side,” Adel told media post-game.
The 2021 Ottawa BlackJacks were a middle of the pack offensive team, finishing tied for 4th in the CEBL at 84.6 points-per-game. The Edmonton Stingers led the way at 92.1 points per game and the lion-share of that came from another league MVP season from Xavier Moon, who turned his success into a two-way deal with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Even despite the loss, if opening night is a precursor of what is to come, the BlackJacks might just have a similar season in the works from Deng Adel as he looks to find his way back into the NBA.