PORTLAND – As the Maine Red Claws went through their annual media day Monday morning at the Portland Expo, first-year coach Dave Leitao looked out at his 12 players as they went from one interview station to another.
Yes, he said, practice is going as expected.
If, that is, “you expect the unexpected.”
Leitao has eight first-year players on the roster, each one not only trying to impress, but also learning the difference between playing in college and playing at the professional level. But Leitao also has some veterans to lean on.
“As I’ve gone through four practices, I’ve realized they are pretty important,” he said. ‘This is a different game we’re playing, where a lot of the rookies come from. Just something as simple as understanding spacing, or pacing yourself, or changing speeds, or things that you don’t necessarily get a lot of.
“Understanding the clock, understanding the situation those are the things that veterans bring. And then if you have talented veterans, obviously now they can execute. I can understand why coaches like having them around because they make the job a little easier.”
Among those veterans is point guard Kenny Hayes, who last year was a rookie with the Red Claws and averaged 7.4 points.
“I remember Kenny Hayes as the classic wide-eyed kid coming in here last year really not knowing what to expect or how to navigate the professional game,” said Jon Jennings, the president and general manager of the three-year-old NBA Development League franchise. “This year he comes in as a grizzled veteran and is really providing the leadership. I’ve seen him pulling guys aside and talking to them.”
Hayes, 24, realizes that with such a young roster, he needs to become a leader.
“I feel that every night, no matter what, off the court or on the court, in practice, every day I have to bring it,” he said. “If they see me down and not leading, what are they going to do? They’re going to look at me and do the same thing I’m doing. So I feel that every day, no matter where I’m at, I’ve got to lead, (show) that I’m thrilled about this and I want to win the D-League championship.”
Hayes had surgery on his right wrist — his shooting hand — after last season to repair a tendon that bothered him all year and affected his shooting. He worked hard in rehab, came back stronger and spent a lot of time watching video of such NBA point guards as Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Chris Paul.
“I did a lot of watching how they control the tempo of the team,” he said. “I think that helped.”
That, said Jennings, was the whole idea.
“I think that is one of the core ways a player can develop, to watch a successful player at their position,” said Jennings. “This summer we provided video of NBA players we think are relevant to Kenny’s game.”
Hayes isn’t the only veteran on the roster. Forward Paul Harris (absent from camp thus far for personal reasons) played for the Red Claws last year. Guard Darren Cooper has played the last three full seasons in the D-League. Center Anthony Kent played for Fort Wayne the previous three seasons. And guard J.R. Reynolds played overseas the last three years.
“I’m just trying to bring leadership and experience to the team,” said Cooper. “I’m trying to get the guys to understand the difference between the college game and the pro game.”
Kent and Cooper want to teach the young players how to survive a 50-game season: how to eat — “You can’t have fast food every day,” said Cooper — how to rest, how to mentally prepare.
“There is a big difference,” said Kent. “You really need to take care of your body.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: