First off, apologies to all the readers out there. This week’s Lobster Roll is a little tardy, there were some logistic and scheduling errors that were impossible to avoid. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Red Claws went 2-0 over the weekend, and this week we’ve got a really special edition of the Lobster Roll, with the first piece of a (hopefully) multi-part interview series, ‘Better Know a Red Claw’. To sum up, ladies and gentlemen, We’ve got a great show tonight.To begin let’s deal with the past. The Red Claws played a double header against their arch-nemesis Springfield Armor over the weekend and it went smashingly for the team, with two easy wins. Friday night (boxscore) Mario West was stellar off the bench as he picked up the mantle as the hot hand when Claws’ captain Billy Thomas finally had his first off night of the season. It really seems like the Springfield Armor are currently a one man team, because while the Red Claws had 8 players at 8 points or more and 9 players that played 20 minutes or more, the Armor just had JamesOn Curry. Curry managed 26 points on 38 and-a- half minutes and 19 shots (pretty good).
The real story on Friday though was free throws, which the Red Claws dominated with 41 attempts on the night to just 15 for the Armor. This is why a player with raw athleticism and a hunger to get to the hoop and not settle for the three can really succeed in the D-League. The Red Claws were far more aggressive tonight, and that paid off. High flyer Bill Walker managed to go 6 for 6 from the line, which helped considering he went 4 for 11 from the field. Newcomer Mario West was also perfect from the line at 7 for 7, which supplanted a pretty decent 6 for 9 from the field. For a full recap on Friday's game, click here for JFoss's Fanpost.
Saturday night (boxscore) was another uneven win, but this time it was a product of some hot shooting and decent defense. Bill Walker and Darnell Lazare both had nice nights, summed up well by friend of ‘Da Roll’ and fellow D-League devotee Steve Weinman on his blog, D-League Digest:
Take Saturday night in Springfield, for example, when he did whatever he wanted offensively for most of the night. Walker sliced through the lane to the rim like defenders weren’t there, finishing with contact and earning two three-point plays the hard way. Armor defenders could not stop him from getting to the spots he wanted. This led to a 17-point performance on 6-for-10 shooting from the field to go with a perfect 4-for-4 from the charity stripe before Walker called it an early night in the Maine Red Claws’ 117-89 blowout victory.
There is little reason to doubt that this sort of performance will be the norm for Walker as long as he remains in the D-League. He has NBA strength at his position. He has NBA speed, and he is explosive around the rim.
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Darnell Lazare looked terrific for the Claws on Saturday. He heated up in the second quarter by spraying in several face-up mid-range jumpers, then knocked down a tough turnaround and followed that by getting to the rim for a bucket and drawing a foul. Terrific 19-point night on 9-for-12 shooting.
JamesOn Curry once again tried to put the Armor on his back logging all 48 minutes getting 20 points and 8 rebounds but once again his effort proved that of the two new teams in New England, the Red Claws are far and away the superior squad.
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Better Know A Red Claw: Billy Thomas
Billy Thomas is a 6’5 shooting guard known for having a solid all around game, and for being a solid 3pt shooter. He’s also earned a reputation of being a really good locker room guy and a good mentor to younger players. He’s played in the Philippines, in Greece, and everywhere in between (assuming you travel east) .
Last Thursday before Friday’s home opener I got a chance to sit down with Claws’ captain Billy Thomas (by sit down I mean I was sitting down while on the phone with him, and I am assuming he was sitting down too..go ahead, prove me wrong) and pick his brain a little bit about his career, the Red Claws, and the current state of the D-League.
Lobster Roll: So if my math is right, you’ve played for 14 different teams in 10 different leagues on four different continents. If you can’t choose any of your stints with the Nets, Wizards, and Cavs, what team was your favorite, and why?
Billy Thomas: Ha, I have no idea (if the math is right). If you say I played for 14 teams than I played for 14 teams. My favorite besides my stops in the NBA was probably the Philippines. It was pretty neat there. People really appreciated basketball, and I still talk to coaches from those teams. I ended up making some real friends. There are some really good flashy athletes over there and I didn't think the experience was that different than the NBA.
LR: That was one of the first teams you played for, right?
BT: Yeah. I had never really traveled outside the country that much and it was one of my first times. I actually flew out there like ten days after 9-11. One of the calmest plane rides of my life.
LR: You played under Roy Williams at Kansas, what affect did he have?
BT: Roy Williams taught me how to play basketball. I showed up at Kansas, I could shoot, but the first day I realized I really didn't know how to play basketball the right way. Coach Williams taught me how to play basketball the right way, on both ends. I took that with me everywhere after school ended. Since then I've always been complemented on how well rounded a player I was.
LR: You also went to college with current Celtics Captain Paul Pierce. Anything about him you'd like to share that even the most die hard Celtics fans might not know?
BT: Ha-ha! Umm...No good stories I can share really, considering your website is a family site, right? No, no...Paul was always a funny guy, always telling those California jokes. I will tell you one thing about Paul from school. When he was in school every summer he would come back better. He was always a worker, always trying to improve his game. He was always a worker and that's why he's one of the best players in the league right now. That's why he's been with the same team for ten years. It's because he's a worker.
LR: How are you finding Maine? If you could compare it to one place you've already played, where would that be?
BT: Well it's still the D-League, so it's kind of all the same. But people in Maine are excited. Their excitement is giving me that old thrill, its getting the players focused on the home opener. It's the first D-League game ever in Portland so that's really setting the experience apart. In some ways it kind of reminds of my time in Greeneville (with the Greeneville Groove, one of the inaugural D-League teams which Billy was a player on).
LR: How does this compare to your season last year in Colorado?
BT: Well I can see the fans in Maine getting really excited. It's different from Colorado (the Colorado 14ers, where Billy was last season). Colorado didn't really do a good job letting people know about the games right away. Eventually they started to come, but not at first.
Really I'm just trying to show other players that this is special. It's a great opportunity they have here, so really, don't screw it up, and avoid any off court issues.
LR: Has it been tougher for the Red Claws to gel as a team than it was with Colorado last season?
BT: They (the management) have done a wonderful job getting things going. They know what's going on. It's pretty much business as usual, the team is really coming along like every other D-League team.
LR: So you're saying it's a good thing that there isn't much of a difference between the brand new Red Claws or an established D-League team?
BT: Absolutely. It's a credit to the franchise to make the transition so seamless. The staff is very knowledgeable
LR: You're shooting the lights out (note: before Friday and Saturday’s games). 63% from the field, 77% from beyond the arc. Did the basket just get bigger or are you approaching this season trying to really send a message to the NBA clubs?
BT: Mainly I'm just trying to show people that I'm still around. Showing I can still fill roles on a good team and do thing that I've always been able to do in teh past.
LR: Some of the guys that have come out of the D-League to the NBA have done so by specializing in a role. Ime Udoka for instance, was a tenacious defender and could hit a 3pt shot. When you're playing do you ever try to show that you could fill a role like that?
BT: No question. The NBA now is about guys that can fill a role. You've got to find your niche and fill it. That's what I tell guys, find something and be really good at it. Whether it's defending, rebounding, fill a role. I try to tell the young guys that NBA clubs aren’t necessarily looking for guys that can score 20 points a night. They have guys they're paying hundreds of millions of dollars to do that. I know who I am as a player and I'll just say it, I feel like I can be a very good complementary player. Just hit my shots and play real solid defense.
LR: Last week I put together a roster overview. In your section I stated that you should be the locker room leader from day one. Has that been the case, and if so, was it something that you tried to accomplish or did it just happen naturally?
BT: It happened naturally. I felt it was really expected of me by the staff, by management, even by myself. I pride myself on being a great teammate and leader. If I had not been given the responsibility officially (of captain) I probably would've assumed the role anyways.
It's funny because all the guys call me 'cap' now. Not to date myself, but I remember being a kid watching TV and seeing that all the Lakers called Kareem 'cap', and I thought to myself 'that's an old man right there'. Now they're calling me 'cap'.
LR: Correct me if I’m wrong, it was kind of hard to find a lot of coverage of it, but in 2008/2009 you were suspended by FIBA because of a dispute over payment with a Serbian team. Is that all cleared up or is Europe still not an option for you?
BT: Ha. Yeah. That was a couple of years ago. What happened was that…things didn't work out there, so I came back over here. I played in the D-League then got called up to play for the Cavaliers. (in 2008, which he was signed to 2 10 day contracted, then brought on for the remainder of the year). See that's why I have faith. If that whole thing…had never gone down, then I would have never come back here, and I would never have played for the Cavaliers.
LR: So than here is my question. If you chose the D-League, is it because you feel you're so close to getting a call up? In Europe you'd make much more money, but because of the D-League's relationship with the NBA, do you feel it is the best chance for you to get into the league? Is that your number one priority?
BT: No question. Some of the work I put in this summer, some of the nagging injuries that have gone away, I feel like it's all ready. If sometime playing in Europe is what happens, then fine, but right now my focus is on the Red Claws and the NBA.
LR: The D-League began as a platform for NBA teams to develop some of their younger talent, but since then with the success stories of guys like Ime Udoka or Kelenna Azubuike, it’s become much more than just a place you can assign your rookies to. As of opening day 2009, there were 63 former D-Leaguers on NBA rosters. You’ve seen the D-League from the start with the Greenville Groove. How has the league changed since your first season?
BT: It has become more closely tied with the NBA. When I started there was no affiliation at all. What happened was you would tryout for a (NBA) team in the summer and if that didn't work you'd go to the D-League and only the scouts from that team would follow you. Now all the teams follow the entire league. More guys getting called up from the D-League and closer NBA affiliation has really increased the credibility of the league too. Players believe there is a real chance they can get noticed here, so we're getting better and better players each season.
LR: Randy Livingston retired 2 years ago at age 33 after arguably his best season in the D-League. I believe he transitioned immediately into assistant coaching with his former team, the Idaho Stampede. He’s now a coach for the Red Claws. You’re 33 soon to be 34, is that a direction you could ever see yourself going? Transitioning directly from player to coach?
BT: Absolutely. I feel like I enjoy the teaching aspect of coaching, but (as a player, with your own goals) there is not enough time to spend on it. You'd be surprised at the number of guys that do know how to play basketball, like really play. They can dunk and jump and stuff but they don't know how to play.
LR: The NBA CBA currently has it so that if a team wants to retain a young players’ rights and the player is not going to play overseas in some capacity, then they have to keep the player on their roster. A lot of these players simply aren’t ready for NBA level play, so they spend time in the D-League honing their skills, all while occupying a roster spot. In other leagues like the MLB, this is not the case. Is this something you think is holding back players like yourself or other veterans who could really contribute to a NBA squad, but can’t stick on a roster because there is simply no room?
BT: No question, sometimes that is the case. The thing is, if a guy can help a team, but the team can't have him because they have to keep another guy on the team, who can't help right now, that's wrong. There is something wrong there. If you send a kid down, why can't you bring someone up?
LR: Like a switch?
BT: No, like from any D-League team. Why do they need to keep that roster spot closed? They're already investing money in the kid, why do they need to keep him on the roster too, when there are guys out there that can help, that can contribute on a team, but they're struggling just to get by? It's not right.
LR: The D-League is different from a lot of leagues in that at any time the affiliate team might assign a player down from their parent club to a D-league team. From the moment they are sent down, these guys usually start, getting at least 20-25 minutes a night. Do you think that with the league so centered on certain players’ development that it makes the regular players learn bad habits, or makes teams lose sight how to play winning basketball?
BT: Honestly it is a team to team situation. Sometimes, there are teams that will put in a kid who was drafted and play him, even when it is obviously at the cost of winning a game. That's not the case here. Bill Walker is a good enough player so he's going to give us a real shot to win games. Ajinca too. It's not an issue here at all.
But for other teams it has cost them wins, it will cost guys who have worked hard opportunities. It can get out of hand. At some point in some of these situations it makes you ask 'What's the point of the league? Where is the emphasis?'
Really it has to be a give and take. The league wants to develop certain players, but at the same time competitive nature has a place too. Guys don't want to lose. You have to find the happy medium.
That's it for this week's Lobster Roll! Be sure to tune into the streaking Red Claws (3-1) versus the Erie BayHawks (2-2) on Saturday via NBA.com's awesome FutureCast!. Til next week, good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow!