Another professional sports league is about to tip-off. The B. Braun Sheffield Sharks are looking to build off of what could be said to be a disappointing season in 2019-20.
Finishing joint 5th, with a record of 7-6 when the season was cancelled, the Sharks were not the winning machine some were expecting last year.
They bowed out of the BBL Cup in December, beaten 58-81 by the lesser Bristol Flyers at Ponds Forge, a disappointing result after topping the North group.
They’re looking to bounce back, at least in terms of competitiveness, and during pre-season, they have looked really good. They beat the always strong Leicester Riders by four and the widely considered “team to beat” this year, the London Lions, by 23.
Old faces and New
The Sharks have really mixed up the roster this year. They’ve retained the likes of Mike Tuck, who returns for his 12th season with the team; Guard Mackey McKnight, who was fourth in the league in assists last season and Nick Lewis, a 15 ppg performer.
Each of the players that have stayed will allow Head Coach Abita Lyons to have a degree of continuity along with the newcomers.
These newcomers will add a lot of high-quality basketball to the Sheffield squad.
BBL Veteran Callum Jones crosses the Pennines to join the Sharks from the Manchester Giants, Oscar Baldwin joins from Sheffield Hallam’s BUCS teams and Americans Kipper Nichols and Antwon Lillard join Sheffield after impressive performances at the University of Illinois and Canadian team Island Storm respectively.
All of the Sharks new signings have made good contributions over the pre-season, most notably Nichols, who put on a strong performance against London.
Ex-Giants guard Callum Jones will quite possibly have the best impact, of any new signing, for the Sharks this season. His signing means that for the first time, in what seems forever, Sheffield have actual good depth at the guard spot.
Last season, fan favourite Mackey McKnight play most of the minutes at the guard spot, as there wasn’t really a good enough back-up.
With the addition of Jones, McKnight will have the opportunity to sit a bit longer and allow Jones to run the team, or Abita Lyons may run a double point-guard backcourt that will be crafty with how they approach the offence.
One of the imports that Sheffield have made has the potential to be a BBL star.
Antwon Lillard, a second-year pro, is six-foot-six and a phenomenal scorer. He averaged 15.5 ppg in Canada and shot 43% from the field. As that was his first professional season, it is clear why the Sharks took interest in Lillard and they will be hoping he can immediately get up to speed in the Sharks offence.
Ca-sure gonna miss him
The biggest player loss this off-season will surely be scoring-wing Conor Cashaw.
Leading the Sharks in scoring last season (16.4 ppg), Cashaw’s rookie campaign was very strong. It’s no surprise that the Surrey Scorchers took the opportunity to snap him up and it is likely he will play a healthy amount of minutes as the South Eastern outfit look to improve on their ninth-place finish in 2019-20.
It is a disappointing departure for the Sharks as Cashaw showed immense promise and could have been their scorer for the future, but it is possible that Coach Lyons defence-focussed style just wasn’t the perfect fit for the 23-year-old.
An uncertain season ahead
The wider consensus from BBL fans on social media is that the Sharks will once again be a mid-pack team. Though I am certain that the players and coaching staff want to push for a strong place come BBL Playoff time, in the hopes they can win their first BBL Playoff Championship since 2016.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the reopening of the Ponds Forge International Sports Centre, the Sharks opted to relocate their home venue. They have returned to the English Institute of Sport Sheffield
The BBL season gets underway on Friday 30 October.