The Guelph Nighthawks are to begin their Canadian Elite Basketball League season Thursday with a home match against the expansion Scarborough Shooting Stars, but with three returning players among the 12 at their training camp, the Nighthawks might look a bit like an expansion squad themselves.
“In a sense, but we've got continuity,” Nighthawks coach Charles Kissi said. “I think in this league where you don't have massive rosters, 33 per cent (returning) for us is pretty good.”
Point guard Cat Barber, shooting guard and team MVP Ahmed Hill and forward T.J. Lall were the players with previous Nighthawks experience at the week-long training camp at the University of Guelph’s Mitchell Athletics Centre.
“I feel this team's a bit bigger and longer so I feel we can get more rebounds and stuff this year,” Barber said. “But you never know until you go into the game with the players so I'm not going talk right now. I feel we have a good group going into the game and we'll see what happens.”
Barber played in 13 games with the Nighthawks last season and averaged 17.6 points per game while Hill played in 14 and had a 16.8 points-per-game average. Lall averaged 5.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 15 games last season.
During the CEBL’s off-season, Barber was a COVID call-up for the Atlanta Hawks. He signed a 10-day contract with the NBA squad when it was experiencing pandemic problems and he suited up for three games. Despite getting a taste of the NBA, Barber didn’t find it tough to return to Guelph.
“I wouldn't say it was tough because I played here last year and I pretty much know what it's like,” he said. “It's not my first time in the league and this is where I want to be at. Everywhere is different.”
Barber also played 15 games with the College Park Skyhawks of the NBA G-League in the 2021-22 season and averaged 23 points per game.
Last summer with the Nighthawks, Barber drew a lot of extra attention from the opposition and also got frustrated by a perceived lack of calls by the referees for some of that attention.
“That's something I have to black out,” he said. “I know how they're going to call the game and for me, I just have to stay the course and play well.”
Three other players who have previously worn Nighthawks colours could join the team once their seasons with their winter teams are complete. Guard Michael Bryson and forward Matt Neufeld played last season with the local squad while centre Jabari Craig played the quick and shortened 2020 season with the Nighthawks. He played with the Hamilton Honey Badgers last year.
The Nighthawks’ players and coaching staff are looking forward to having fans courtside again as well as having as many fans as they can attract to the Sleeman Centre Thursday.
“Especially this home opener, it sounds like it's going to be a sellout,” Kissi said. “This was the vision for years where we could get to a place where we're able to sell out our own arenas and play in front of our home fans with Canadian players and international players, but it's really got to be special for the Canadian players to play at home in a professional league. This was part of the vision and we still have a ways to go, but I think it's going to be fun to be back in the Sleeman Centre.”
Last year when the Nighthawks finished fifth in what was then a seven-team league with a 5-9 record, they started the season with no fans allowed in the Sleeman Centre and finished it with attendance capped at 1,000. They haven’t had fans courtside since the 2019 campaign.
All teams in the league have had little time to get ready for the regular season as training camps were limited to basically a week.
“It's definitely not easy to get ready in a week,” Kissi said. “I've learned to prioritize – what do we need to get done now versus what can we sort of gradually build in. That's sort of the approach, just prioritizing and building in a fundamental base of who you are as a team on both sides of the ball. That's been the focus. I wouldn't say it's easy, but you become accustomed to prioritizing what's important for you and the team.”
This year the Nighthawks will be looking to get out of their fifth-place rut, a position they’ve finished in at the completion of each of their previous three seasons. They were fifth of six teams in the league’s inaugural season in 2019 with a 6-14 record and fifth of seven teams at 3-3 in 2020 when the entire season was played in a three-week period in a spectator-free bubble in St. Catharines.
This year the league has increased its membership to 10 teams with the addition of three squads – Scarborough, Montreal Alliance and Newfoundland Growlers. However, the Nighthawks aren’t looking at those teams as potential pushovers.
“They're pro basketball teams and they have high-level basketball players so our preparation will be the same as it would for any other team,” Kissi said. “Expansion doesn't mean they're not good, it just means they're new to the league. I expect them to be talented and a tough opponent like everybody else. The level of the competition in this league has grown every year. Obviously this year is no different.”
Game time Thursday is 7 p.m.