The Dakota Wizards’ 2011-12 season was overshadowed by the question of the team’s future in Bismarck. But there were plenty of noteworthy developments on the basketball side during what was apparently the team’s final season here.
Right guy for the job
The Golden State Warriors’ first major decision after buying the Wizards was to hire a new head coach.
With their NBA connections, the Warriors could have gone with a big-name former player, but instead opted for Iowa Energy assistant Nate Bjorkgren.
Bjorkgren had helped the Energy win the D-League title in 2011. Regarded as an up-and-comer, Bjorkgren had been named Iowa’s associate head coach with the plan to make him head coach if Nick Nurse got a shot at the NBA.
When that didn’t happen right away, the Warriors pounced at the chance to hire him from the Wizards.
Bjorkgren rewarded that confidence by leading the Wizards to a 29-21 mark and a tie for the East Conference title.
Bjorkgren had been with Iowa since the team’s inception. The Energy’s first game was on Nov. 23, 2007, at the Bismarck Civic Center. The Wizards had a banner celebration that night.
“There’s been so many great players, great teams, great everything, to come through this city,” Bjorkgren said. “... I’ve always felt it as an opposing coach, but I really felt it this year. I think you couldn’t have picked a better spot to be a first-year coach.”
The Warriors made it clear immediately that it was new era on draft night when they shipped Renaldo Major and Osiris Eldridge to the Bakersfield Jam for Edwin Ubiles and Travis Walton.
“(Ubiles) was a guy that we targeted,” Bjorkgren said. “Renaldo Major is another who’s a great player and a guy I’ve got a lot of respect for. It’s just how it works and what had to be done. Both players had great D-League years.”
The last time the Wizards had made a trade that big, they got virtually nothing in return for Blake Ahearn, who went on to become the D-League’s all-time career scoring leader.
This trade was more even. Ubiles played well enough to earn all-star honors and a call-up by the Washington Wizards. He finished the season averaging 19.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Walton played just nine games with the Wizards, averaging just 4.8 points per game and shooting 36.8 percent from the floor.
The Jam got two quality players out of the deal. Major averaged 15.2 points and Eldridge 15.1.
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“It was tough when I got that call, but I knew God wouldn’t put me in a bad position,” Major said. “... Edwin Ubiles is a great player, and he’s going to be a long-time NBA player. I wasn’t mad at that, because it benefitted both teams.”
Feeling the draft
Aside from the Ubiles trade, the Wizards did not have a good draft night. They did net Shy Ely, who became a valuable role player, in a post-draft trade. But the only other player to make any impact was Justin Johnson, who was waived before being re-signed later in the season.
With a strong veteran core that included Maurice Baker, Marcus Dove, Mike Anderson, Curtis Withers, Anthony Goods and Mickell Gladness, the Wizards appeared capable of overcoming their weak draft.
But Gladness ended up spending much of the season in the NBA, Goods went overseas and Withers had a mediocre season. Thus, the Wizards had trouble getting any traction. The team floundered around the .500 mark until February.
The Wizards kept adding pieces and improving. They plucked Tommy Smith from the player pool and when Goods wanted to return to the U.S., dealt his rights for Leo Lyons.
But the key piece was Stefhon Hannah. Like several players the Wizards added, Hannah had played for Bjorkgren in Iowa. Hannah averaged 18.4 points per game, but his production spiked as the Wizards closed out the regular season with a 9-2 push.
That momentum didn’t carry over into the playoffs. The Wizards dropped their regular-season finale at Fort Wayne, missing a chance to claim the second overall seed. They then played listlessly while getting swept 2-0 by the Jam, ending their season.
“I think the end of the season we started playing some of our better ball, but we didn’t end the season right by losing to Fort Wayne, and it carried over into the playoffs,” Hannah said. “It seems like we never got over that game.”
What may have been
The Warriors said they bought the Wizards because they were serious about developing players, and they proved it. In the past, the Wizards have had one assistant. The Warriors gave Bjorkgren three aides — Vitaly Potapenko, Casey Hill and Sammy Gelfand.
The Warriors also capitalized on the affiliation with player assignments, sending Chris Wright to the Wizards three times and Jeremy Tyler once. Between them they played 14 games with the Wizards, and unlike most other players assigned to Dakota in the past, made a difference. Wright was particularly important in the run to the playoffs.
“There’s no doubt that (the assigned players) had a positive experience when they were here,” said Kirk Lacob, the Warriors director of basketball operations and the Wizards general manager.
The level of commitment the Warriors have shown says they are serious about making the franchise a success. But unless their proposal to move to Santa Cruz, Calif., unexpectedly falls apart, that won’t be in Bismarck.