Post All-Star Game State of the Franchise Interview

Calgary Charge

Sportsnet 960 The FAN

Published Jun 17, 2022

CFAC 960, SportsNet 960 The Fan™, caught up with Calgary Charge General Manager Vann the Red during the all-star break to get an overview of his time with the team, the current state of the team, and the future of the franchise. The following is a transcript of the interview previously broadcasted live.

CFAC: It’s safe to say that the Charge are a very different team today than they were just under four years ago when you took the helm. Talk to our listeners about the state of the team then and how you wanted to build.

Vann the Red: Thanks for having me on the program! There are no fans like Calgary fans, and you represent their voice. Mr. Jones asked me to come in just after the 2020-2021 season ended. It was, I’m sure you recall, an unpleasant season here mitigated only by having lady luck shine on us during the lottery.

CFAC: Some argue that was the best moment in Calgary basketball history!

VtR: (chuckles) Perhaps, but Mr. Jones has made it very clear to me that his goals are higher than that and if that remains the shining moment, I may be looking for work again. (laughs)

CFAC: Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The outcome of that lottery pick makes it seem likely brighter days are ahead.

VtR: Absolutely. When I took the job, my first focus was on the core of this team. Who could be one of the best three players on a championship level team? We had Austin Huss already on the roster. Austin is a tremendous, versatile player. Any team featuring him had a shot. We had Jonathan Archibald who I love and wish all the best for. But we needed more. And the kind of players we needed tend to come at the top of the draft. So our first, and wrenching, decision was that Jonathan had to go. And he had to go for three reasons: First, he was going to win us too many games for us to get the picks we needed. Second, he was the only guy on the team that could get us the assets we needed for the rebuild. And, finally, we needed to turn him into the type of veteran leader who could show our picks the way.

CFAC: For those of you who do not remember, Archibald was traded to Miami for Bernard McDyess and Miami’s 2022 first round pick.

VtR: Exactly. And we could not have asked for more of McDyess. He came here and was the consummate professional. He showed these young men how to be responsible players. Never complained. Never asked for a trade. If he ever goes into coaching, he has a home in Calgary.

CFAC: And we did alright with the pick, too. (chuckles)

VtR: Yes, that turned into Billy Nahra, our starting center. But that’s still down the road a bit. So, we knew Huss was a core player. We also had the first pick in the draft. But who to pick? When I looked at the pool, I saw two candidates. Obviously, we looked deeper into the list than that, but it really came down to Finn Van de Berg or Abaeze (Okagbare). I loved those guys. Can’t say much about Finn lest I be accused of tampering, but I still love ‘em both. But when we interviewed Abaeze, there just was no choice. I think he’s the best player in the Association. And he’s a better person. He’s humble, he’s hard working, and he’s one the smartest humans I’ve ever met. He is the core of everything we do as an organization.

CFAC: So, you picked Okagbare first in the 2021 draft. You had a second first rounder in that draft …

VtR: Yeah, Kenny Nelson. That was a misstep we’re still evaluating as a team. We thought Kenny would learn to shoot. Did we misevaluate or did we fail to teach him well? We’re working on it. Kenny’s a great guy. He’s playing over in Europe now. He’ll have a nice career there and if he finds the three-pointer, he may be back in the SIBA. But we also managed to find Lance Robinson as an undrafted player out of Duke.

CFAC: Right, he got an uncommonly good contract for an undrafted rookie.

VtR: I’d argue that Lance was an uncommon rookie. He made second team all-rookie and played in the rookie-sophomore game both of his first two seasons. And he averages 20 minutes a game now and has started over 50 games in his career. Lance is a big part of what we do here in Calgary.

CFAC: One of the big changes that first season was the style of play.

VtR: Yeah, that was a big battle between me and Eric (Griffin, holdover head coach at the start of Vann’s tenure). Eric likes to walk it up and start sets. No problems with that in general and Anna (Mianowski, the current coach in her second season with the team) has brought some of that back. I just felt like … well, to be honest, we weren’t going to win much with that team, and we didn’t really want to. We didn’t have much of a point guard room, but we had some athletes who could get up and down and if I couldn’t give the fans wins, at least we could get ‘em points. Eric grudgingly gave in and we ran like crazy.

CFAC: That first season, the Charge went 20-62 for the worst record in the league and the worst in team history.

VtR: Thanks for softening the blow on that one … not like I don’t still experience flashbacks. (laughs)

CFAC: Well, as you said, that was the aim.

VtR: True, true. And then the lottery gods got even with us for tanking and winning the last one as we dropped from first to fifth in the draft, the worst possible outcome.

CFAC: But it was a good, deep draft.

VtR: Thank goodness! Other years it would have been devastating. We needed a point guard. That draft had three of them projected in the top five. We’d get one, right? I mean, I’d been imagining what would come of Young or Butler or Scott helming a team with Abaeze and Austin on his wings. But then they all went in the top four. Barry Burns, and Barry’s been great for Dallas – I might’ve messed up not taking him, was still on the board, but we’d put a #3 overall grade on Chong-yee (Zhao) based on his play and another home run of an interview, so we decided to go that way.

CFAC: There was consternation at the time of picking power forwards back-to-back.

VtR: No, I get it. And, I’ll be honest with you, Jason Wright was next on our board. At that point in the team development cycle, you just take the best player. And that was and is Chong-yee. Plus, as you’re seeing now, he can play beside Abaeze easily.

CFAC: And then you surprised everyone by going big again at #18.

VtR: Absolutely. Nahra was next on our board by a mile when that pick came up. Second easiest pick I’ve ever made. I think between Abaeze, Chong-yee, and Nahra, we have the best young bigs rotation in the Association.

CFAC: That set you up for the 2022-23 season.

VtR: Anna came in as our coach. She and I discussed style of play, but she agreed to defer changing strategy until we could be more confident that we had our core in place. We improved! CFAC: To 34-48.

VtR: Fourteen games ain’t bad. And the lottery gods smiled on that improvement and gave us the 3rd pick. That let us get Terrell Sherrill and I think he’s the final piece of our puzzle. Plus, we had Columbus’ pick from a trade before my time that turned into Kevin Barnes out of Ohio State. Kevin’s tearing it up in Great Falls right now and Terrell’s been rookie of the month much of the year.

CFAC: Before we turn to the state of the team, let’s talk a little about the relationship between the Charge and the Thunderbirds in the D-League.

VtR: That relationship is core to what we do. Billy spent all year their last year and he’s starting for us now. Kevin and Kendall (Noyolla, the team’s 2nd round pick this season) are developing there now. Plus, we’ve had great success finding two-way guys and building our big club depth through them. Brad Garnet’s been our backup point for a couple years now after showing his stuff in Great Falls. Dustin Waterman may do the same this season. Jamar McFall and Clint Jones provide critical depth for us now after learning our systems in the D-League.

CFAC: So, how good is this team?

VtR: Anna and I sat down at the end of the season. I felt good, but I expected her to push back. First thing she said to me is, “that’s the last year we miss the playoffs.” So, we decided it was time to find the players to fit around our core.

CFAC: And you brought in Gary Spitler from Memphis and Dekker Whitehead from Vancouver.

VtR: Exactly. Garnet has played well for us, but we needed a starting point guard. We made offers for every young point guard in the league. Put in a restricted free agent offer on Joe Kelly. Every path we could find. Nothing came of it. So, we looked at the unrestricted free agent pool and Dekker just blew us away. He’s young enough to start for a while. Tall enough to fit our switching system. And the dude is just a playmaker. He was the type of player that could set up the young core we’d been assembling. And I’d argue he was the best free agent signing of the offseason.

CFAC: He’s certainly an upgrade on the players manning the point since Archibald’s trade. Talk a little bit about Spitler’s fit.

VtR: We didn’t want to ask Terrell to start as a rookie. That’s too much pressure. Gary is a veteran and a great clubhouse guy. He’s also a lights-out shooter (slashing at 52/83/42 this season) that opens space inside for Abaeze and Chong-yee. He and Dekker are also excellent defenders.

CFAC: After a high-temp, five-out system at the start of your tenure, the team is playing differently now.

VtR: Yeah, that’s another offshoot of that talk with Anna. She said we’re ready to win from a player standpoint, so it’s time to put those players in position to leverage their skills. We are a long team built around a transcendent power forward. We slowed the pace a bit. We are one of the switchiest teams in the Association. And we play through Abaeze. He’s so smart, we’d be foolish not to let him make decisions.

CFAC: The season started off well. On 13 November, the Charge were 8-6 and feeling bullish about the playoffs. And then …

VtR: And then Austin Huss tore his Achilles ending his season. There was a mourning period and our defense dipped for a while. But Scotty Boston, my goodness, Scotty has been great for us. He was the first free agent to sign with us during my tenure and I’m so grateful for his belief in what we’re doing here. He’s done everything for us including starting at point guard for a season. That’s a big ask for a natural forward. But he shouldered the load and never complained. Scotty and Terrell really stepped up in Austin’s absence. And now we’re looking at home court, possibly, in this season’s playoffs.

CFAC: This season is looking great! What’s the vision for the future?

VtR: In a word, more. I think we have our core. We need to keep ‘em together. Keep ‘em happy. Coach ‘em up. And complement them with the right pieces around them. Hopefully, our days of top five picks are at an end for many years. But we can’t miss on the picks we do get. They are the cost-controlled players around our core.

CFAC: And that core will get expensive. Austin extended last summer. Soon, it will be Okagbare’s turn.

VtR: Yep, that’s a big one. Abaeze’s earned every cent we can pay him. Mr. Jones and I have already discussed it and we’ll do everything in out power to ensure Abaeze’s happy here in Calgary. It’s a lofty goal, but we hope some day fans will feel Abaeze’s the best Nigerian ever to play here.

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