The Canadian Elite Basketball League isn’t afraid to try new things.
The league itself — a domestic professional league partnered with Canada Basketball — is a first.
On a smaller level, the CEBL introduced the Elam Ending in 2020. (Quick reminder how that works: add nine to the leading team’s point total with four minutes remaining, and whoever reaches that score first wins). The concept will return for all 49 regular-season games, plus playoffs, in 2021.
And in an extremely 2021 decision, the league recently announced it would become the first in North America offering to pay its players a portion of their salaries in Bitcoin.
The league has already succeeded in matching Bitcoin’s volatility. Of 114 players in training camps across the country, just 20 have been with the league from the start. Another 31 are entering their second season.
That means 63 new players will step on Canadian courts this summer.
And it means that what happened last season, when the Edmonton Stingers were crowned champions after a two-week tournament in St. Catharines, Ont., might not matter much in 2021.
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The Stingers return their most important player, two-time MVP Xavier Moon, to the fold. Reigning Canadian player of the year Jordan Baker also returns to Edmonton.
Baker, who was born in Edmonton, combines with Moon to form a dynamic backcourt. The six-foot-seven guard averages more than nine rebounds per game in his career.
The Stingers’ guard stability could prove key amid a league of change. The Niagara River Lions might not be so lucky.
Star guard Trae Bell-Haynes is currently in training camp with Team Canada in Tampa, Fla., as he tries out for the Olympic qualifying roster.
If he winds up as one of the 12 — and his chances seemingly increased last week with more reported NBA dropouts — then he likely won’t be available for the entire CEBL season.
Bell-Haynes is the engine that makes the River Lions go, the clear top player on a team that struggled to a 2-4 record in 2020 before losing in the quarter-finals.
The Toronto native helped propel Niagara to a 15-5 finish and first place in 2019 before the team’s one-point semifinal defeat to the Hamilton Honey Badgers.
Honey Badgers to rely on imports
The Honey Badgers will try to use turnover to their advantage, as they return just five players from 2020, including All-CEBL first-teamer Jean-Victor Mukama.
Canadian Duane Notice, who suffered an Achilles injury last season, will miss the entire 2021 campaign, while starting guard Briante Weber also won’t return.
To replace Notice and Weber, the Honey Badgers brought in a trio of American imports: Trevon Duval, Charles Cooke III and Malcolm Rhett, along with Canadian Lindell Wigginton.
The quartet all have experience either in the NBA G League or top European leagues. Weber was a similar success story; the Honey Badgers will try to unearth a few more now.
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Hamilton lost to the Saskatchewan Rattlers in th 2019 final, but the Rattlers slumped to a 1-5 record in 2020.
One step to reclaiming that 2019 glory could come in the form of ex-Stinger Travis Daniels, a two-time all-star import who averaged more than 15 points per game last season but moved to Saskatchewan in the off-season.
Canadian Negus Webster-Chan, who spent two previous seasons with Raptors 905, also returns as a holdover from the 2019 title team.
However, 2019 Finals MVP Alex Campbell, a guard who CEBL commentator Sean Woodley says plays like Kyle Lowry, won’t be back with the Rattlers after also taking 2020 off, instead signing with the Fraser Valley Bandits.
Fraser Valley reached the 2020 Finals after edging the Honey Badgers by a single point in the semis. Guard Malcolm Duvivier, the team-leading scorer in that game, will return to the Bandits, as will key big man Marek Klassen.
But the team lost power forward Olu Ashaolu, the Elam Ending hero against Hamilton, to Niagara while Canadian floor general Junior Cadougan is off to the Ottawa BlackJacks.
BlackJacks’ new philosophy
The BlackJacks may have been the story of the 2020 Summer Series. In their inaugural season and boasting a roster full of Ottawa natives, the BlackJacks surprised everyone with a run to the semifinals.
Soon after the season, Canadian basketball coaching legend Dave Smart quit the team as general manager. He was replaced by former national team player Jevohn Shepherd, who also works as a basketball analyst for CBC Sports.
Shepherd took a different approach to roster-building from his predecessor, focusing less on local talent. Explosive Ottawa-born guard Johnny Berhanemeskel remains, but Shepherd overhauled his supporting cast. Besides Cadougan, Abbotsford, B.C., native Joel Friesen will play for his third different team in three years with the BlackJacks.
Ottawa also brought in Kris Joseph, one of two NBA draftees in the league along with Guelph Nighthawks forward Justin Jackson.
The Nighthawks are led by Raptors 905 assistant Charles Kissi, the team’s head coach and GM. Kissi says the team wants to play big this season, which should help the six-foot-seven Jackson.
Kissi also returns top guards Myles Charvis and Kimbal Mackenzie to go with new imports Isaiah Reese and Ahmed Hill of the G League.
It all sets up for what should be a fascinating, wide-open race to the 2021 CEBL championship.
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