GR Drive fills roster ahead of season opener


At the onset to his new career, Steve Jbara admits he had no idea how to start a small business or run a basketball team. Photo by Michael Buck

The Grand Rapids Drive is fielding a tall team in its inaugural season.

The team will open its season Saturday, Nov. 15, in California against the Bakersfield Jam, following a training camp with a roster of 11 players who are 6-foot-5 or taller.

That height is considered an advantage at the D-League level, said Steve Jbara, Drive president, as the team has several athletes who are seen as potential National Basketball Association players and might not be with the club very long.

“We definitely have a lot of size, which is a commodity in the D-League,” he said. “When guys get called up, you want to make sure you can seamlessly backfill the roster, which is what we tried to do with our draft picks.”

Seventeen players are in training camp and that number must be trimmed to 12 by Thursday. Jbara said the team has shaped up nicely, led by center Hasheem Thabeet, forward Robert Covington and guard Ben Hansbrough.

Any player assigned to Grand Rapids from parent club Detroit Pistons will complement those “stars,” Jbara said.

“We have a great roster and an excellent coaching staff,” Jbara said. “They’re all excited to start the season, and I know (head coach Otis Smith) is pleased so far with the work ethic and tenacity in training camp.”

Thabeet, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, was cut by the Pistons two weeks ago and subsequently signed with the Drive. The 7-foot-3 center reportedly turned down offers to play overseas to sign an NBA D-League contract that will keep him available to NBA teams.

He’s played 224 games in the NBA with Memphis, Oklahoma City, Portland and Houston, averaging 2.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.8 blocks per game. At the University of Connecticut, he was a second team All-American and national defensive Player of the Year as a junior.

The Drive signed five other players on Halloween — the day before the D-League draft — including another Piston cut: guard Josh Bostic. The 2008-09 NCAA Division II Player of the Year at Findlay University averaged 7.5 points and 3.4 rebounds last season while playing in France.

The other four players were holdovers from the Springfield Armor, which was purchased by Jbara and a group of investors and moved to Grand Rapids. Forwards Lorenzo Brown and Adonis Thomas and guards Bruce Massey and L.D. Williams are now vying for time here.

Thomas played two seasons at the University of Memphis, averaging 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game his final season.

Massey played two seasons at Middle Tennessee State University before averaging 5 points per game and playing strong defense last season with the Springfield club.

Williams started 118 games at Wake Forest University before spending the past three seasons with the Armor, averaging 6.5 points per game last season.

On Nov. 1, the Drive had 10 picks in the NBA Development Draft, including the No. 1 overall pick. With the first pick, the Drive selected last year’s league Rookie of the Year, Covington.

Last year, with Rio Grande Valley, Covington averaged 22 points, nine rebounds, 2.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.

Four picks later, at No. 5, the Drive selected former Notre Dame stand-out Hansbrough. Hansbrough scored 11 points a game last year in Europe and is the younger brother of former University of North Carolina star Tyler Hansbrough, currently playing with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.

The rest of the draft selections include former University of Illinois center Shaun Pruitt, forward Kammeon Holsey, guard Dominic Waters, forward Renaldo Woolridge, guard Moses Sundufu, guard Kelsey Barlow, forward Omondi Amoke and forward Jerrell Sanders.

Barlow spent three seasons with Purdue University before transferring to University of Chicago for his final season following a dismissal from the Boilermakers.

Sanders played basketball at Creston High School before moving on to Ferris State University. After college he played professionally in Germany.

There’s also an open tryout player, Brandon Fields, who played college basketball for the University of Nevada before heading overseas.

Jbara said he will travel to Bakersfield to watch the franchise’s first game. He also expects to travel to most of the games in the Midwest this season and said the group of more than 30 investors is up for a few trips to other markets throughout the season.

The Pistons, meanwhile, have been extremely active and engaged with the staff in Grand Rapids, he said.

“They have been absolutely phenomenal,” Jbara said. “Stan (Van Gundy)’s vision for this team and the investment they’re making in a veteran coaching staff will definitely lead to some basketball successes for the Pistons.

“The resources the Pistons have provided from a business standpoint have helped us enhance our game experience and leverage seasoned veterans in marketing, sales and operational decisions.”

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