With the Dakota Wizards ending their 17-year run in Bismarck, it seems like a good time to pick the franchise’s all-time team.
The ground rules will be similar to the ones I used in 2004, when the Tribune picked an all-time team for the Wizards’ 10th season.
Players who competed for the Wizards in the CBA and D-League are given a bit more credit than those who played in the IBA, because those leagues had a higher caliber of competition.
But for the most part accomplishments are judged on their own level. Longevity is a factor, but because turnover is so common in minor-league basketball, not an overriding one.
We’ll go with a 15-man roster this time dominated by guards and small forwards, because that reflects the team’s talent over the years.
A no-brainer. Dave Joerger won four titles in five years at the helm in Bismarck, posting a 154-72 record. In between his two stints here, Joerger went to Sioux Falls for two years. The Skyforce beat the Wizards in a classic five-game series en route to the 2005 title, with Joerger likely denying his former team another championship.
Joerger just received his first interview for an NBA head coaching position, with the Charlotte Bobcats. That’s an amazing rise for a guy from a small school who clawed his way up the minor league ranks. But to those who saw him here, it’s not surprising.
Honorable mention: Duane Ticknor also had two stints as Dakota’s head coach, going 86-50 and leading the Wizards to three playoff appearances. The Wizards went 18-0 at home his first year in Bismarck, as Ticknor changed the course of the franchise. Casey Owens went 32-16 in one year as a head coach, and as an assistant played a vital role in putting together Dakota’s two CBA championship teams.
The starter here is another easy choice. At the end of the regular season the Wizards chose Maurice Baker as the franchise’s all-time franchise MVP, and it’s impossible to argue. Baker is the Wizards’ career leader in games, points, rebounds, assists and steals. Mo played parts of eight seasons for the Wizards and next to Joerger, is the face of the franchise.
The backup is Malik Dixon. Dixon played three seasons with the Wizards, in both the IBA and CBA. He averaged more than 20 points and a shade under eight assists per game in his best season, 1999-2000.
Honorable mention: Because of Baker’s longevity, no other position on the roster has been dominated as much by one player, but the Wizards have had a number of quality players running the offense. Michael Johnson helped the Wizards win their first two titles, earning finals MVP honors in 2001. In 1997-98 Rod Blakney was a second-team all-star, rookie of the year and defensive player of the year in the IBA. Stefhon Hannah, a combo guard, Billy Keys and Eddie Gill were all-star caliber, but each had relatively short stays in Bismarck.
The Wizards probably had more talent at shooting guard than any other position, but the pick here is Miles Simon. The performance Simon put on in 2001-02 was the single most important season turned in by any Wizard.
The CBA was so uncertain about the new teams it imported from the IBA, including the Wizards, that they were actually termed “lower tier,” with shorter schedules and smaller budgets than the established teams.
Simon ensured the Wizards could not only compete at that level, but excel. Simon won a host of awards, including league and playoff MVP honors, as the Wizards stormed to the championship.
Next in line is Blake Ahearn. Ahearn was named the D-League rookie of the year in 2008 and the next season was first-team all-league.
Ahearn played mostly two-guard during his stay in Bismarck, and his desire to run the point led to his trade in early 2010. It was by far the worst player personnel move the Wizards ever made, as Ahearn has gone on to become the leading scorer in D-League history and had several NBA call-ups.
No Wizards’ all-time team would be complete without Willie Murdaugh. Murdaugh brought a bit of everything to the table. Perhaps most important was his tenacity, reflected in his 2001 defensive player of the year award. But in his prime Little Willie could score, rebound and distribute, too.
Brian Green averaged 26.8 points per game in 1999-2000 and was named the IBA’s most valuable player. Green’s team record of 54 points in a game was never broken.
Honorable mention: Other players of note include sharpshooter Billy Thomas, explosive swingman Melvin Sanders, Maurice Carter, Shawn Bankhead, Nate Driggers and Mike Jones, who helped the Wizards reach the IBA finals in 1997.
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Small forward is another loaded position, and a tough call. There were several players that had single seasons better than any by Renaldo Major, but none had the lasting impact, which is why Renaldo gets the nod. Major played four seasons with the Wizards, earning defensive player of the year honors and an NBA call-up while helping the Wizards win their final title in 2007.
Major’s comeback from heart surgery was inspirational, and he always conducted himself with the utmost class. It was unfortunate the Golden State Warriors opted to trade him before the 2011-12 season, but as a member of the Bakersfield Jam, Major was able to play in the Wizards’ last game in Bismarck.
Andy Panko was the CBA’s most valuable player in 2002-03, and if he hadn’t gotten ill during the playoffs, Joerger may very well have gone 5-for-5 with Dakota. Panko was also a valuable piece on the 2002 champions after being picked up midseason.
Kevin Rice played four seasons with the Wizards and also served as an assistant coach for two years. He is one of just four Wizards to have his jersey retired, along with Baker, Major and Kevin Beard. Rice was a first-team all-star on the 2001 championship team and was the CBA defensive player of the year in 2002-03.
I didn’t want to leave out Kasib Powell. He had an all-star season for the Wizards in 2005-2006, then went to play overseas. When he came back to the U.S. in 2007, Powell wanted to return to the Wizards, but instead went into the player pool due to D-League rules. Powell was snapped up by Sioux Falls, where he went on the win the league MVP award.
Honorable mention: There are plenty of other strong candidates, including Edwin Ubiles, Chris Porter, Romel Beck, Kaniel Dickens, Quemont Greer and Carlos Powell.
This is the one position where nothing has changed since the 2004 version of the all-time team.
DeRon Rutledge was an absolute beast on a terrible team in 1998-99, averaging 27.0 points and 13.6 rebounds per game. He had a 47-point, 22-rebound night against Rapid City that was perhaps the most dominant performance in franchise history.
Rutledge returned in 2000-01, earning first-team All-IBA honors while leading the Wizards’ to their first championship.
Backing him up is the underrated Antonio Reynolds-Dean. Reynolds-Dean averaged 18.7 points and an IBA-best 12.2 rebounds in 1999-2000 and was named the IBA’s rookie of the year.
Honorable mention: Ben Ebong and Courtney James were key players on the 2004 and 2001 championship teams, respectively. Will Frisby progressed nicely in his two seasons in Bismarck.
Good big men generally don’t last long in the minor leagues, because the NBA usually snaps them up. Center was Dakota’s weakest position, but Chris Johnson became a worthy all-time starter with his performance in 2010-11.
Johnson averaged 16.2 points and 9.2 rebounds while swatting 97 shots for the Wizards. He earned a couple of NBA call-ups and was the D-League defensive player of the year.
To back him up, we’ll go with Rod Benson. Best known for his blog, Benson became a top-notch rebounder, leading the
D-League in boards in
Also, thanks to minor-league basketball expert Scott Schroeder of the web site ridiculousupside.com for pointing out an omission from our 2004 team _ Robert Bennett. Bennett averaged a double-double, 15.9 points and 10.3 rebounds, on the Wizards’ first good team in 1996-97.
Honorable mention: Kevin Beard and Kevin Lyde were a couple of lunch-bucket guys who were not flashy, but worked hard. Dave Vik was a bright spot on the first incarnation of the Wizards.
(Lou Babiarz is the Tribune sports editor and covered the Wizards for 15 of their 17 seasons in the Capital City.)