Leicester Riders’ ambitious floor general is a man in a hurry. Plus Cheshire’s latest change, Union talk and Davis’ bug bear. 

It all passed by in a blur. The gun went off and before he had time to make a deliberate assessment, it was all over.

In about 11.39 seconds. That’s how long it took Conner Washington to run the 100 metres in front of a full house at the star-studded Loughborough International last summer, a speedy digression from the day job as a whirlwind point guard at Leicester Riders.

“The starter had to teach me how to do a block start,” the 22-year-old reveals. “I wanted to stand up but he goes: ‘that’s illegal’. So he showed me what to do. Towards the end of the race, I thought: ‘why not go for it?’”

He was once aiming for the 400 metres rather than three-pointers. The raw speed, he declares, comes from his father. “He used to play rugby at a local club,” he says. “He’s quick.”

Growing up in Bedfordshire, hoops soon supplanted spikes, the court trumping the track. Washington made his BBL debut at the age of 17 with Milton Keynes Lions before embarking upon an ill-fated stint at a college in Missouri.

America held little appeal, in reality. His stay was swiftly curtailed. Yet if it served to divert him into the path of the Riders, then it has all worked out for the best. Now in his fourth season with the Midlands outfit, Washington has emerged as a trusted playmaker, often with the ball in his hands at crucial times, frequently deployed as a pesky defensive gnat to irritate the opposition.

Rob Paternostro has championed his cause. The respect is now decidedly mutual.

“When I first came in, I knew there’d be trust issues,” Washington states. “But I’d known Rob before I left and when I came back in, I had to just start in training, get comfortable and pick up my role in the ream. Which means knowing that when he puts me on, I’ll do what he expects me to do.”

It has been a slow burn at times but the prospect is finding ways on a weekly basis to make an impact that is not entirely reflected in modest averages of 4.8 points and 2.9 assists per game this term.

“I’d say my awareness of the game, especially my awareness on the court, has grown. I know a lot more of what I need to do. There are times in the game, when I’d expect to pass or maybe shoot.

washington 200“But I also know what Rob’s drawn up in the time outs, what’s a good shot or one not to take. I can feel the tempo of the game now, how to slow it down in my mind. My mental game is stronger and that’s something I’ve worked on.”

Paternostro has obvious faith. When Tyler Bernardini was sidelined for a spell early in the season, Washington’s role increased. That it has not fallen much since the American’s return is a point made, even at a club which has been much better at exposing homegrown talent than most.

When he is on the floor, Leicester score at a clip of 122.6 points per 100 possessions, more than with any of his team-mates receiving extended playing time. In Pure Point Rating – a metric of points, assists and turnovers – he trails only Newcastle Eagles’ Rahmon Fletcher. The numbers don’t lie.

“We’re all a team,” he acknowledges. “But everyone still wants to get theirs at the end of the day.”

It was significant that last August, when Great Britain needed bodies, and needed them fast, Washington’s name was called with a summons to training camp in Worcester.

An initial four-day stint led to a recall. Earning a roster spot remained the longest of shots but it afforded him the luxury of soaking up as much as he could.

“It was a great experience,” Washington admits. “Drew (Sullivan) was there so I knew someone coming in. And the coaches were great. It gave a confidence boost coming back to the BBL. I wasn’t nervous. I was more excited.

“Everyone made me feel comfortable. Joe Prunty’s a nice guy. I was just eager to play and make the most of it.”

Then, and now. Leicester’s Cup defence had ended but there are still three prizes in their sights, with the Riders breathing down the necks of Newcastle in the early British Basketball League running.

Depth, despite a slow bounce back from injury for Anthony Rowe that has left the Englishman squeezed, remains a major strength. There is a sense that their best lies ahead, with rotations fluid and an identity not quite fully formed.

It will come, Washington vows. Soon, and at maximum cadence.

“I think the way Rob brings in guys, he always keeps that philosophy where everyone’s aggressive but nobody’s selfish,” he affirms.

“We look out for one another. You know someone has your back.”

Bailey Nixes Cheshire

It wouldn’t be another week without another change at the Northgate. This time, it’s Great Britain international Devan Bailey who is heading out the door from Cheshire Phoenix.

The guard, whose role has ebbed over the opening two months of the season, has clinched a move to French League side Saint Francois in Guadeloupe.

“It’s an opportunity to play more and improve,” he said. “The Phoenix have a great squad and I wish the club all the best.”

Bailey has averaged 2.6 points and 3.9 assists in 22 minutes per game in the BBL this season, coming off a EuroBasket qualifying campaign in which he secured the starting role for the national side.

In a statement, the club said: “Cheshire Phoenix are not prepared to be placed in the untenable position of attempting to retain a Player who is dissatisfied with his agreed offering.”

The Phoenix, who agreed to release the point guard from his deal on Tuesday, have brought in Australian-born forward Adrien Sturt, recently freed by London Lions, to beef up their depleted roster which will not include giant centre Paul Sturgess until December 1, with the 2.33m Englishman gearing up to prove he has some future in the sport rather than merely serving as a (highly-effective) publicity stunt.

Looking at Union J

The abrupt release of Joe Ikhinmwin from London Lions, as revealed in this column last week, has sparked an atypical level of debate around the BBL, most of it in some sympathy with the young guard’s plight.

The second year of Ikhinmwin’s deal, BBL sources told MVP, is understood to have called for a pay increase from £1600 to £1800. By BBL standards, both sums are considered extravagant for an inconsistent back-up (that’s more than many proven imports receive). While normally league contracts have team options up to 60 days or eight games, the London native was in the second year at the club with many questioning the morality (if not the legality) of imposing new – and ultimately unacceptable to him – terms at this juncture. Yet the Lions needed to lose that salary to bring in Eric Boateng and Paul Guede.

One of the most interesting exchanges of views on the move came via Twitter between the Great Britain co-captains Kieron Achara and Drew Sullivan, and Newcastle Eagles assistant coach/superscout and practicing lawyer, Dave Forrester.

It has been around 15 years since there was a Basketball Players Association, run largely by the one-time Sheffield and Manchester forward Mark Robinson, which was engaged in a number of issues back when there was serious money in playing in the BBL.

“The real deals we were able to strike were a minimum amount of months a club would pay a player if they got cut from a team,” Robinson, now based in California and a specialist in player development, recalled. “(Plus) the amount of money the league would support for youth programmes and some stuff about housing.”

The contract compensation agreed with BPAUK was a sliding scale, he added. “The example, if someone was cut during the first month, a club would play them at least three months wages unless they signed with another team in the BBL. Because they would not be losing money. But if they went back to the States, they would get 3 months pay.”

Later in the the season, cancelling a deal could cost anything between zero and 3 months.

It appears unlikely we’ll see such a trade union again – and clubs, with small budgets, will fight to keep the flexibility to switch out under-performing recruits (ironically, Achara came into Glasgow at the expense of US import Paul Egwuonwu).

Incidentally, as of last week, Guede had to get one more scan before getting cleared to join London but it could be a while before he is fully match fit. Ikhinmwin is pondering his options.

It’s a bug’s life

Sterling Davis had to be forced, almost against his will, to go to hospital last Monday for a look-see at his ever-expanding knee. At 35, such blows are simply part of the course, the Glasgow Rocks player-coach felt.

Instead of a drain or a dose of anti-inflammatories, the American was rushed into surgery after doctors disgnosed a mystery infection that, it was suspected, had come from an insect bite.

“It’s just been a crazy situation,” he said. “No-one’s sure if I was bitten by something but my knee swelled up before the (league game with Leicester) last weekend and I ignored it. But afterwards, our physio ordered me to go straight away and get it looked at.

“It was all infected and they had to cut a part out. It’s just a freak thing but it’s just not what I needed.”

It didn’t stop the Rocks from a stunning win over the Riders in the BBL Cup quarter-finals last weekend but with Davis out for up a month, he plans to accelerate his search for an additional frontcourt recruit – with a work permit place still available.

“I would mind less if I’d hurt it on a dunk or something,” he smiled ruefully.

Worth a read

– Oliver Hylands is pulling double duty for Leeds Force 

Roger Moreland on how the International Olympic Committee’s reforms might mirror British Basketball’s new challenge.

Manchester Giants are balancing prudence with ambition.

BBL Insider appears every Tuesday on MVP 

Main photo: Leicester Riders/Matthew Withers

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