Russ Smith hadn't played a game since April, when he was in China. And the former Louisville star guard, who has appeared in 27 NBA games for New Orleans and Memphis, hadn't balled in North America since 2017.
So Smith, 30, was eager early this week to acclimate, get to know his new Mad Ants teammates, learn the systems and show he could still be a productive player in the G League. But the very problems that necessitated the Mad Ants signing Smith – namely a shortage of players created by the COVID-19 pandemic – made it so he was watching as much as practicing.
“Everybody has been doing well, promoting positivity within the practice facility. We've all been working hard,” Smith said. “But there have been days where I've just had to watch (other) guys go two-on-two because we only had (five) guys. Or, some of the coaches might have to jump in. It was tough.”
The lack of ample preparation made Smith's performance Thursday that much more impressive: He had 43 points – six short of Tony Mitchell's franchise record – in a 103-94 loss to Raptors 905 at Memorial Coliseum. All but eight of Smith's points came after the Mad Ants fell behind 69-45 in the third quarter, and he helped get Fort Wayne within three points late.
“Just to come out here and fight, you don't want to lay down,” said Smith, who signed Dec. 30, returning to the team he'd played for briefly in 2014-15. “You don't want to come out here and lay down, lose by 30 or 40 points, and that's where it was going. But to make it a ballgame, first game back out, we can go to war with each other all day, so I'm just very happy.”
General manager Chris Taylor had told his team, when training camp opened in October, it would have two mantras: “Be adaptable” and “Embrace the grind.” But he couldn't have envisioned just how malleable the team would have to be.
The Mad Ants were one of the G League's top squads during the Showcase Cup season – they went 8-4 and were one of eight to qualify for the tournament in Las Vegas, losing to eventual-champion Delaware on Dec. 19 – but Fort Wayne looked almost like a whole new team Thursday for the regular-season opener. Gone were Keifer Sykes, Justin Anderson, Duane Washington Jr. and DeJon Jarreau. In were Walt Lemon Jr., Stephan Hicks, D.J. McCall and Jaylen Fisher.
Terry Taylor and Nate Hinton rolled in from the Indiana Pacers just for the game. Gabe York had been quarantining in Orlando, Florida, instead of joining the Magic, so he hadn't practiced much. Daxter Miles Jr. was in COVID-19 protocols.
“Things are changing minute by minute, it feels like, and we just never know when we're going to get a call and a guy's going to get called up, or it will be a call for medical and a guy has tested positive (for COVID-19). Then you have to maneuver that and figure it out,” Chris Taylor said.
All the G League teams have been facing similar challenges as NBA clubs pick them apart, so it's not surprising that Chris Taylor has turned to people he trusts, such as franchise greats Lemon and Hicks.
“We've tried to find players who fit in our system, but the available player pool is pretty picked over because there are so many NBA players who are out in protocols,” said Taylor, whose Mad Ants play host to the Raptors at 1 p.m. today at the Coliseum. “The coaching staff just kind of has to deal with the players we find. We try our best to find guys who fit into what we do, but it's learning on the fly for sure.”
The Mad Ants shot 43.5% from the field Thursday, but only after they shot 28% in a woeful first half. The biggest challenge was adjusting to a new ball-handler: Lemon, who had two points and five assists, is much more about speed and improvisation than Sykes, who is averaging 10.4 points and 3.6 assists in five games for the Pacers.
“I kept telling them, 'You haven't played together before. We're going to make a lot of mistakes. Let's just keep pushing, keep pushing and keep pushing. And keep fighting.' And we did,” Mad Ants coach Tom Hankins said. “We just couldn't get shots to fall. I'm actually encouraged, we just need time. We need practice time.”
And the Mad Ants need to forge a new identity because it feels like the one they'd built in November and December is history.
“There's just a lot of variables and a lot of things that we're all going to have to learn,” Hankins said. “I mean, anytime you change point guards, Keifer's obviously doing great for the Pacers and was real valuable for us. So we've got to figure out who we are.”
Mad Ants vs. Raptors 905
When: 1 p.m. today
Where: Memorial Coliseum