Three-time Canadian Elite Basketball League MVP Xavier Moon will be at the Edmonton Expo Centre Friday night for the Stingers’ home opener.
This season, however, it won’t be in his usual starting guard role on the floor, but as that of an honourary guest.
The now Los Angeles Clipper wound his way through numerous stops on the globe on his road to the NBA, but none were more important than his three-year stint in Edmonton with the Stingers in the CEBL.
“We’re going to bring [Moon] in for our first game, our home-opener,” said Reed Clarke, president of the Stingers. “We’re going to do a banner ceremony. He’s still a big part of this team and this organization.
“We’re still in contact and checking in all the time because we’re proud of the success that he’s had. And he always remembers that it came from the Stingers and what [head coach and general manager Jermaine] Small and everyone else has done to get him there. He recognizes that very well.”
The 27-year-old is quick to pay respect to his roots, as referenced by his appearance at the London Lightning’s final home game of the 2022 National Basketball League of Canada season, a team he had two stints with from 2018 to 2020, earning First Team All-NBL Canada honours in 2019-20.
We’re not crying, you are 😢. Time flies!<br><br>ICYMI: Xavier Moon returned to London for their historic final home game of the season, defeating the Sudbury Five 125-115 on May 12. The London Lightning have gone a perfect 12-0 at home this season, setting the NBL Canada record. <a href=”https://t.co/D8ni92PGyG”>pic.twitter.com/D8ni92PGyG</a>
Perhaps most important to his development was Small, who took the leap along with Moon to join the CEBL in its inaugural season in 2019.
The back-to-back champion coach was well aware of Moon’s lofty aspirations and encouraged him at every step, saying that Moon’s ascent wasn’t born out of hope, but by design.
“It’s a development league,” said Small of the CEBL. “To me, that’s the core of it. And it’s not just for the players, it’s for the coaches such as myself. It’s helped me develop quite a bit.”
Small was an assistant coach at both Toronto Metropolitan University and Queen’s University before joining the CEBL, and is still head coach at the University of Lethbridge.
Maybe the most dramatic shift from U Sports to the CEBL is the ability to recruit from abroad, an increasingly useful tool at the disposal of a general manager in the CEBL considering two-time Final MVP Moon is a native of Goodwater, Ala., and attended school at Northwest Florida State and Morehead State in Kentucky.
In his nine years in U Sports, Small’s international repertoire consisted of a guard from Long Island, New York in Russell Winters at Queen’s, and an Australian duo at Lethbridge in centre Zachary Coleman-Bock and forward Alec Hillman.
This year alone in Edmonton, the Stingers boast a roster that includes England’s Rowell Graham-Bell, two players from Africa (Somto Dimanochie of Nigeria, and Cameroon’s Roger Moute a Bidias), and three Americans (Georgia’s Freddie McSwain Jr., Marlon Johnson of Illinois, and Alaska’s Devon Bookert).
“We have a player coming in this year that went to Florida State, but he was born and raised in Alaska,” said Small of Bookert, who most recently played point guard for CS Rapid București in the Liga Nationala in Romania. “We have an Alaskan. Who’s saying that right now besides us? Talent is everywhere but opportunity is not.”
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Jahmal Jones was the only player on the Stingers’ 2021 roster that was able to participate in each leg of the tournament for Edmonton, meaning the Stingers needed to get creative with roster-building, drawing from various sources including from rival CEBL teams.
“[The Stingers performance] showed that the CEBL can play with any of these pro leagues down South, and are at the same level,” said Clarke about the team’s 3-3 record in group play against Puerto Rico’s Cangrejeros and Nicaragua’s Real Estelí, the 2021 BCLA runner-up who lost in the 2022 quarters to the eventual champion São Paulo. “If we had [our regular roster], we’re playing in the next leg of that, playing against the best teams from Brazil and Argentina. I really believe that.”
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While the Stingers didn’t qualify for the quarter-finals, their 2-0 performance in Calgary with a roster that most closely resembled their regular iteration — led by the 2019 and 2020 CEBL-leading rebounder and Edmonton native Jordan Baker — did a lot to legitimize both the Stingers and the CEBL at large.
“I said to them in the locker room in Nicaragua, ‘We’re pioneers,'” Small said. “We’re the first group to ever do this for Canada and the CEBL. I think that opportunity got soaked up and relished and we made the most of it. It was for a bigger purpose.”
Interplay between CEBL, NBA
One player that made an appearance for the Stingers in Nicaragua was Josh Selby, who played for the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks in 2010-11, making a run to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament before falling to Virginia Commonwealth University. He was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft and played two seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies.
This type of experience can be invaluable to sprinkle in on a roster like the Stingers, acting as an intersect with players who haven’t had the chance to play at that level.
“When a guy has G League or high-level Europe on his resume, you know the moment won’t be too big for them because they’ve played in high-level games,” Small said. “That’s highly valued when I recruit.
“But also, I look at diamonds in the rough, and I think that’s what Moon is. I think [Mathieu] Kamba is the same where they went to small Division I schools. They didn’t go to Kansas or Duke or play in the tournament. Those guys I find are a little bit hungrier.”
If there’s a player on the 2022 Stingers roster that is bound to follow in Moon’s footsteps to secure an NBA contract, Small and Clarke are both in agreement that Calgary native Kamba is at the top of the list.
SIGNED 📝<br>Devon Bookert joins the Stingers after experience in the NCAA, G League, and overseas. <br>The two-way playmaker is one of FSU’s all time best three-point shooters ☄️ <br><br>Read more: <a href=”https://t.co/I1JjU4mxH9″>https://t.co/I1JjU4mxH9</a><a href=”https://twitter.com/plopagus?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@plopagus</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/FeelTheBuzz?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#FeelTheBuzz</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsBall?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LetsBall</a> <a href=”https://t.co/1IEoBsjjV3″>pic.twitter.com/1IEoBsjjV3</a>
“We’ve been talking about Kamba for a while,” said Clarke of the 26-year-old guard, also throwing in the name of 28-year-old wing Johnson as a name to watch. “I think he’s going to take it to the next level. He has that chance to get picked up in the G League and go from there. He fits that mold, 100 per cent.”
Kamba brings a well-rounded game to the table, ranking fourth in points, third in three-pointers, fifth in steals and third in blocks for the 2021 Stingers in per game averages.
The former Central Arkansas Bear also has a penchant for performing in big games, with his most notable performance to date being a career-high 26 points in the 2020 semis against the Ottawa BlackJacks. Small notes that the one year he didn’t play in the final four was the year the Stingers didn’t win the championship.
“Look at the NBA with a player like Damien Lillard,” said Small on players making an impact in the NBA from more humble beginnings. “He went to Weber State. C.J. McCollum. Max Strus. You’re seeing it more and more now.
“Those kinds of guys, Division II guys or whatever you want to call them, they are helping NBA teams win. I think you need a couple of those guys all the time.”
Should the Stingers see another player from their roster go the same way, Edmonton’s brass will only view it as a success, regardless of it impacting the likelihood of another championship.
“In a city like Edmonton to have somebody who has gone on to the NBA just gives our team and the league so much more legitimacy,” said Clarke. “And that’s what our fans want to see.”