By Jamie Thomas
With all the excitement and drama surrounding so many other storylines in the BBL over the last few months, the Leicester Riders sitting pretty at the top of the standings with a 20-4 record going into the last month of this crazy season probably hasn’t been talked about nor lauded nearly enough.
There’s still plenty of basketball to be played, of course, but we took the opportunity as the 2020/21 regular season entered its final furlong to catch up with the Head Coach of the BBL Championship leaders, Rob Paternostro, to discuss the strong league season for his side so far.
“We just try to get about our business and put a team together that plays the game the right way.” Paternostro said. “We’ve had a really good season, I think. There are no nights off in this league. These teams can all beat anybody on their night, so to be 20-4 shows we have a talented group who are committed to the cause and mentally tough.
“Especially this season, the schedule has been a grind. Every year in this league is different, so it gives teams an opportunity to improve. Plymouth are doing really well, Worcester will be really dangerous in the post-season, and I think the way the playoffs are means they’re going to be pretty wide open.
“If we had five or seven-game series’ then I’d be confident of the favourites pulling through in those situations, but I can see some upsets coming and there’s a lot of time left before then – especially with injuries!”
“We definitely haven’t seen the full potential of this group yet.”
More recently the injury to the Riders’ MVP candidate Geno Crandall has been brought into sharp focus across the league – and his regular highlight plays have certainly been missed by fans! – but Leicester have been dealing with significant injuries all season and have had to rely on their depth.
As we approach the business end of the term, then, with Crandall now back in action alongside fellow key player Mo Walker, could the best still be to come for Leicester ahead of the playoffs?
“We’ve had a tonne of injuries this year. We lost Raheem May-Thompson for the season in pre-season and Mo Walker – who we all expected to be one of our best players this year – after two games. We also lost Zach Jackson for the year, and Geno Crandall for a spell, but we’ve dealt with it pretty well and have guys coming back now.
“We definitely haven’t seen the full potential of this group yet, and as the weeks go on and we hopefully get everybody healthy, when we hit the playoffs this’ll be a group that people haven’t seen yet.
“We have to have a level of urgency when we get to the playoffs that maybe we haven’t had yet – you have to know that it’s win or go home, so that should ramp up the play. We’ve been pretty successful there, winning the last three finals and reaching the last four, so hopefully we can get there again and there’s nothing like being the last team standing at the end.”
“It is bigger than basketball with those two.”
With injuries to contend with, the Riders’ sublime depth has certainly been needed, with Conner Washington and Jamell Anderson in particular being trusted to continue to instil the Riders’ ethos in the side throughout a challenging spell for the roster.
The British duo have been with Coach Paternostro for much of their professional careers, growing in stature as players as their club did the same around them, and their Head Coach spoke on how beneficial it has been to have them available through the team’s tougher times this term.
“Conner and Jamell have been in so many big games with our club, challenging for titles all the time, so those two know what it takes to win a BBL Championship and their experience has been so valuable to us this season.
“They’re two great team guys and the types of guys who when you’re sitting in a locker room before a big game you’re happy they’re in there with you wearing your colours. The commitment they show is so impressive. Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in, but everybody has that problem occasionally, but they keep playing defence, keep doing team stuff and are so important.
“It’s been awesome to watch their growth since joining me at 18/19 years old. I’ve really watched them grow up and it has been more than just basketball with those two – they’re two guys that are like family, because I’ve watched them go from teenagers to men with families. When you look at our programme over the last 13 years, helping develop guys like that is what we’re most proud of.”
“We’re so used to it now we don’t even talk about it.”
The first team to qualify for the playoffs this year, the Riders have laid a marker down so far this term and know there’ll be a target on their back going into the knockout games when they arrive.
Paternostro is adamant that those expectations don’t affect the club anymore, as they’ve been in this position so many times, and he spoke of a key focus for the club as the playoffs loom ahead.
“We’ve been up at the top of the league for a long time and had a lot of success over the years so we know when teams come to play us we get their best shot and have to handle that as best we can.
“We’re so used to it now we don’t even talk about it, we know what is coming and what being a part of this club represents. We just have to take things one game at a time and we honestly haven’t looked beyond the next match.
“There’s so much left to play for and our minds are solely focussed on that. You never know what could come next – you look at teams like Cheshire who were doing so well and they lost Kahron Ross and now they’re struggling, and the same happened with Newcastle and Justin Gordon. There’s still time for that to occur, so we’re focussed on being as healthy as possible going into the playoffs.”