The New Orleans Pelicans’ investment to buy and move a G-League team to Birmingham is already paying dividends. The Birmingham Squadron being six hours away from their home base has allowed several players to get some court time, aiding their development or rehab stints. Trey Murphy Jr., Naji Marshall, Didi Louzada, and Jaxson Hayes have all made the trip to join the Squadron for a game, then dressed out with the Pelicans the next night. The biggest bonus is the boost the Squadron players have given the Pelicans.
Gary Clark came up and won the Pelicans a game. Jose Alvarado joined the Pelicans and won over the fan base just as much as he did Willie Green. Jared Harper is back with the Squadron but he provided quality minutes proving he deserves a full-time NBA spot. He just has to wait out the roster shuffling to come in the next six months in the hopes of starting the 2022-23 season on an NBA roster.
They won’t be the last Squadron players to make the jump. John Petty Jr. and Riley LaChance are helping carry Birmingham through the inaugural season, even going on a seven-game win streak in the G-League Showcase. While most Pelicans fans were watching the gritty 117-113 Pelicans win over the Indiana Pacers, I caught up with LaChance after the Squadron dropped a heartbreaker in their new Legacy Arena at The BJCC home.
First I just wanted to understand his journey from Wisconsin POTY to Belgium and the Netherlands and back to Birmingham, literally just down the road from Vanderbilt. LaChance said he “ended up going to Vanderbilt when the hometown schools didn’t really recruit me. Spent four years there then played my rookie year in Poland. Had a kind of up and down year. After that, I went to Belgium for my second year, had a really good year. I was top three or four in scoring. And then from there came a long 11-month break without any games because of COVID. I didn’t really have a job for a while, nothing came about that stuck. Then I went back (to Leiden in the Netherlands) and we won the championship last year. This opportunity came about after that season.”
“My experience in Belgium and the Netherlands was definitely really cool. It was obviously a lot different from over here. Definitely, the championship was special, especially in a COVID year, which kind of sucked because we didn’t have any fans all year. I think it made it kind of that much harder to bring your own energy every game. It’s just about the 10 guys, you know, whatever, 25 guys in the gym, on each team, so that was definitely a really special experience.”
The Squadron had to open the season with a road trip while waiting for their new home to be ready, but LaChance said, “Every home game in Birmingham has been great. You know, win or lose they’re cheering for us till the end and bringing a lot of energy that you don’t see in a lot of G-League arenas. So they’ve been great so far. And, you know, we hope that continues throughout the rest of the spring season, hopefully into the playoffs. It’s definitely been really special. They got a really nice setup for us here in Birmingham. Everything’s been first class so far. So it’s been a really good experience.”
LaChance gets to share the experience with former SEC rivals John Petty Jr. and Jared Harper. In their playing days, the rivalry was fierce, whereas today it’s more playful in the shared locker room. Asked how far the trash-talk goes LaChance explained, “Everybody’s been cool. Everybody on the team is a high-character guy. You know, obviously, I was familiar with those guys playing against them in college so we can talk about it and bond over it. Obviously, we talk a little bit when our schools go up against each other, but everybody’s super high character and that’s been one of the best things about being on this team, it was really easy and fun to play with everybody.”
When asked if he ran the locker room, DJ Booth, LaChance said, “Nah. We got a system but nah. I get to sometimes but not often.”
If he did run his newest playlist, though, you’d “definitely hear Gunna’s newest album. And I’m a big guy, so Drake’s always on my playlist. Jay Cole, you know, and I got a Lil Baby as well.” As for his streaming when relaxing at home or embarking on another road trip, he “ran through part one of Ozark’s last season already but can always re-watch Law Abiding Citizen.”
Speaking after a tough loss, LaChance shared, “I thought we fought really hard. We started off pretty bad, I think we were down 9 or 10 to nothing. We clawed our way back into the game and I think everybody was definitely proud of the way we fought the whole game. So [we] got to fix up some things, watch some film, and we’ll be back. If we can keep that fight, playing hard that way every game, we will be good from here on out. Now, obviously, it’s been a tough starts regular season for us but we had a really good end to the Showcase.”
He knows the G-League is the best showcase for the NBA. No other league has such a direct path to a player’s NBA dreams. The Squadron has sent several players up and not just to the Pelicans. It is a tough breeding ground in Birmingham. LaChance just appreciates the opportunity and enjoys cheering along his former teammates.
“For guys who are called up to be able to achieve their NBA dreams, being able to see those guys go up and get the opportunities, but also, you know, being teammates with them, obviously, I’m super happy for them. It’s been a good experience. It’s been great to see those guys get the opportunity to get called up. They definitely deserve it, each and every one of them. Having been able to see firsthand the work they put in and the ability they have, I hope they get more opportunities going forward, and it works out for them. As far as the guys coming down, obviously, it’s been great to meet those guys and see how they work. The work they put in and their abilities and stuff like that. So, you know, it’s definitely a different experience than I’ve ever had before playing overseas.”
The roster shuffling is a challenge in putting together a winning season but in the G-League, winning isn’t everything. It is more about learning a role, developing skills, and addressing weaknesses. For coaches, it can be a strategy lab while they teach the game. For LaChance, it is “definitely something I’ve never had to deal with before. I mean overseas we had a couple of different roster shakeups that you normally see maybe once, maybe twice a year. Not knowing the roster or what could happen week to week, and even game to game here. It’s definitely a different experience I’ve ever had before. But, you know, that’s kind of part of the process, part of the game here in the G-League. So just kind of embrace it and make the most of it.”
LaChance wished more fans embraced the G-League and the Birmingham Squadron. Having seen the European circuit up close, he says people would be surprised just how good the G-League product is compared to most of the world. He said, “There’s a lot of guys who can ball. Who can play at the highest level and are just waiting to get their opportunity, the right opportunity to make the most of it. But the talent level, the skill level in the G-League is extremely impressive. And I just wish people would watch that more and appreciate it.”