Before the start of the G League season, I previewed the Southeast Division by taking a pretty in depth look at every team. Within that piece, I was complimentary to every team as I examined their rosters and listed ways that they could still challenge for that top spot. However, I ended the article by predicting that the Delaware 87ers would come out as the winner of the division.
That prediction came from how deep Delaware’s opening day rotation actually looked. Just beginning with their starting 5, they had a slew of intriguing rookies (James Blackmon, Mike Young and Devin Robinson), NBA champions (James McAdoo), G League vets (James Webb III) and the 2005 NBA Rookie of the Year in Emeka Okafor. Add in top notch scorers like Andrew Andrews and Jacob Pullen and that core seemed almost unbeatable.
With that prediction, I learned its not always the best to judge a team on paper as the 87ers never really pushed themselves into acceleration. In fact, it might be best to say their gas tank was on empty as they went 4-11 in their first 15 games which placed them as one of the worst teams in the entire G League. Those struggles were due to how nobody really was able to meet their expectations. Their two-way players McAdoo and Pullen struggled in the G League which seemed weird given how they both entered the league as veterans.
In addition to that, they had to deal with the everchanging landscape of the G League as Blackmon was traded the Herd, Young was sent to Northern Arizona, Okafor was called up by New Orleans and Webb was signed to a 2-way by Brooklyn.
With Delaware struggling, there had to be some team to take to that top spot in the Southeast Division. At the start of the season, the Lakeland Magic grabbed that top spot as they entered Christmas Day with a solid 13-5 record, which placed them 6.5 games ahead of the Erie Bayhawks who stood at 7-13. Although there were still around 32 games left to go in the season, at that point it seemed like the Lakeland Magic were on their way to winning the Southeast Division.
However, the Bayhawks’ luck changed as the calendar turned to 2018. After going to 7-13 with a loss to Long Island, they started to heat up. In the following sixteen games, they won ten of those matchups to see their record improve to 18-17. Although that barely put them above .500, it turned them into a competitive force in the Eastern Conference.
As is always the case, there were several factors behind that huge run from the Bayhawks. According to their head coach Josh Longstaff, team culture played the biggest role behind that success. “The culture of the players that Malik Rose (former NBA forward and current Bayhawks GM) brought in that fit in with the Atlanta Hawks culture which is just taking it one day at a day at a time,” Longstaff told Ridiculous Upside.
“The players and staff have created a culture that promotes growth. To do that, the guys have to give their maximum effort every single day because the players in this league are very talented. I think it’s just been gradual. We take it day-by-day to get better and look up and see that these players have improved and get better which led to us winning some games.”
Although Longstaff named the Hawks culture of hard work and improving on a night-by-basis as the biggest factor, I think that the experienced players is also a key component behind their success. With Jeremy Evans, Josh Magette and Raphaiel Putney, they have a trio of players that have played numerous seasons either in the NBA, G League or overseas.
Evans came to the Bayhawks after six years in the NBA with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks, which included him winning the 2012 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Meanwhile, both Putney and Magette have shuffling between the G League and differing European teams. Sure, those three players have played a crucial role in regards to their on-court product but the impact is also evident away from the court.
In regards to Evans, he’s used his past NBA experience to be a mentor to the young Bayhawks players that have dreams of making the Association. “He’ll tell these guys about what its like in the NBA and let them know the kind of things they need to do to make an impact when they land on a team, whether its in Summer League or on a 10-day contract,” Longstaff described to Ridiculous Upside.
“I think the message that he’s really brought to these guys is that you’re not going to go to the NBA and score 20 points per game because they already have those guys. You need to carve out a role for yourself that will allow you to stick whether that’s being a lockdown defender, rebounder or being able to hit the open 3. That’s what teams are looking for,” described Longstaff about the wisdom that Evans has imparted.
Although Evans has been a big help to Erie’s younger players, he’s also taught a few things to 27-year-old big Raphiael Putney. “He’s actually helped Raphiael Putney a lot because now he’s really taken to the defensive end as he’s blocking shots and making an impact using his length.”
Over the process of writing this piece, Putney’s defense was probably the most common topic of discussion with multiple members of the Bayhawks organization.Alongside Longstaff, Bayhawks GM Malik Rose also raved over his improvement on the defensive end. “I saw him play at a high level in the past but what’s really been great this year is that how he’s developed, which is a huge feather in the cap of all our guys from player development to our coaches,” Rose explained to Ridiculous Upside.
“Raph isn’t the strongest guy as he’s 6’11 and 195 pounds but he doesn’t really get pushed around because he’s worked hard at fighting in the post and is probably the best guy in the G League at what we call versatility. That’s where you go and challenge a shot where your body is straight up with your your hands are at 12 o’clock,“ Rose continued.
“And with his length you can make an elite shot blocker because you’re challenging vertically without fouling. He doesn’t have to get the block because he’s so long that 9 times out of 10 that player is going to miss the shot. Moreso than the scoring, that’s what I’m proud about with Raph as he’s improved his defense which will end up improving his chance of making it to the NBA,” Rose states as he raved about Putney’s defense.
As of this piece, Putney is averaging 2.6 blocks per game, which places him 2nd in the NBA on the blocks leader board behind Austin Spurs big Amida Brimah. More important than that singular stat is the impact that he’s made on Erie’s defense. Since the start of 2018, opponents are five points per game worse (101.2 points per game) compared to when he’s on the sidelines (106.1 points per game). SO while his blocks average looks good on paper, that power of verticality has given him the power to be a major rim protector.
That veteran leadership and Erie’s focus on improving on a night-by-night basis makes sense when you look at more than just an improving win/loss record. For example, the team improved a lot on the offensive end between the initial two months of the season and since the calendar turned to 2018. Since the calendar change to 2018, Erie has put up 109 points per game compared to 105.8 points per game during the first two months of the season. Although it might not seem like much, that four points meant the difference between the 17th and 10th best offense in the G League.
Their improvement on the offensive end is mostly due to how the squad has become more efficient from beyond the arc, as their 3-point percentage has improved from 32% to 35% during that aforementioned stretch. Erie’s improvement from beyond the arc was largely due to the Hawks bringing in Andrew White on a two-way deal. Since joining the team, he’s been a fantastic offensive weapon as he’s put up 15.1 points on 46% from the field and 39% from beyond the arc in only 6.1 perimeter attempts per game.
In addition to White, the Bayhawks have seven players that are shooting better than 36% from beyond the arc since the calendar turned to 2018 which include: Hawks prospects Tyler Cavanaugh and Isaiah Taylor, guard Derrick Marks and forwards Jeremy Evans, Raphiael Putney and Beau Beech.
Two players that are not included on that list but are still key factors behind that offensive success are Josh Magette and Jaylen Morris. For fans of the G League, Hawks two-way player Magette should be a familiar name as he had a great three-year run with the Los Angeles D-Fenders (now South Bay Lakers). During that stint, he shined as a fantastic facilitator as he averaged 8.5 assists per game with an outstanding 3.6 Ast/TO ratio.
Although he was an inconsistent shooter and slightly above-average defender, his great play as a facilitator actually put him on Malik Rose’s radar before he even became the Bayhawks GM.
“Josh went to camp with us in the year before last and he almost made the team since he was the last guy cut,” Rose explained to Ridiculous Upside. “During those five weeks he was with us, man he was unreal. He’s very unassuming because you never think he can play by looking how big he is, and for a lack of better words, nonathletic he is. But he was abusing players on the court by just playing the right way and competing at a high level which almost led him to make our team.”
Magette’s first impression in Hawks training camp plus his continued excellence in the G League kept him on Rose’s radar as he made that transition to the Bayhawks. “Fast forward to a year after we cut him, it was imperative for us to get him because for the job in hand, not only in the NBA or G League but just basketball in general, you have to have that ball-handling point guard that can run the offense and be the quarterback on the court, “ Rose continued. “So just as important as having that guy that can shoot 40% from 3 or have a 40 inch vertical is having that floor general. Josh was that as he’s your quintessential floor general out there as he just makes everyone better.”
Although his great on-court facilitating was appealing to Rose and the Hawks organization, Magette’s veteran leadership might’ve been a bigger factor behind that move. “You know,there’s one thing to be an old vet on the team that tries to preach the right thing and try to be an example to them but you’re not on the court, Guys will hear you but there’s only so much that they’d listen to because you’re not one of the players on the court,” explained Rose.
“Josh is like a vet in that he’ll preach the right thing and in our case lead the young guys that we hope to hit on when it comes to development. He’s there on the court playing at an All-Star level as he’s currently leading the league in assists. So its imperative to me because his words resonate more to the team as one of the leading scorers and best assist guy on the team. His ability to still play and facilitate the Hawks offense, culture, environment and just be a key leader was important to me. So much so that he was the first person that we identified and signed to one of our two-ways to get him out of South Bay,” Rose explained regarding the importance of bringing him in.
The compliments regarding Magette’s game as came from on-court talent as current Haws forward and frequent Bayhawks assignee Tyler Cavanaugh said the following. “He is a great guy to play with and someone who makes the game easier for all of his teammates,” Cavanaugh told Ridiculous Upside.”He always makes the right play and pass which helps guys get into a rhythm offensively. A great teammate on and off the court.”
One of the young players that might’ve learned a thing or two from Magette was rookie guard Jaylen Morris. As a former DII player that shined with Molloy College, he was added to the Bayhawks as the 2nd pick in the 2017 NBA G League Draft. Although he was initially overlooked due to his status as a DII alum, he’s honestly been one of the bigger contributors behind this recent Bayhawks success.
Over his last 15 games, Morris has averaged 21.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game on 59% from the field. Although he’d probably want to improve that 29% perimeter shooting percentage, there’s no denying that he’s made a positive impact on both ends of the court.
In a similar way to Magette, Malik Rose was in love with Morris’ game before he even put on a Bayhawks jersey. “Now he was one guy that I wanted from the first time that I saw him,” Rose explained about Jaylen Morris. “We first saw him at the G League Player Invitational this summer and the first thing that jumped out to us about him was his height and length.”
“He’s what the G League is all about because you want one of these long and athletic 6’7 guys to hit because you can get the value from him,” Rose explained about his interest about Morris. “Aside from his height and length, what stood out to me was that he played the point in college so he’s very skilled as a ball-handler and play-maker. He’s very good on defense and not afraid to mix it up inside for rebounds and boxing out bigger guys.
Morris is of those guys that can do a bit of everything,” Rose further said about Morris. “Not afraid to shoot but he needs to work on his form because his mechanics are OK but he needs some improvement there but it feels like something that we can work on. But his natural feel for the game and his basketball IQ was huge for us.
So to get him and develop him to what he is right now makes you really credit our development guys and our coaches especially,” explained Rose as he talked about how the coaching staff has helped Morris. “Alongside Josh Longstaff, you have Cam Black, Chase Buford, Courtney Alexander and Thomas Jackson who work with him everyday. You see him do everything for us, you can put him at any one of four positions and he never makes mistakes because he knows the offense and defense so well.”
With 12 games left in the regular season, the Bayhawks sit with a 20-18 record and are positioned one game ahead of the Lakeland Magic for the top spot in the Southeast Division. While they’ve been an impressive team since the calendar turned to 2018, their work is nowhere close to done during this regular season.
To clinch that division and be a dangerous team when the playoffs come, they’ll have to maintain their recent offensive success while still being that top-10 defense they’ve been for the entire year. Although its going to be a challenge for the Erie Bayhawks, I personally think they have both the on-court rotation and off-court culture that give them some success as we make our way into the postseason.