High above the court at CenturyLink Arena hang the retired numbers of former Idaho Stampede basketball stars Randy Livingston and Roberto Bergersen, right next to the team’s NBA D-League championship banner from 2008.
The banners are warm reminders of the franchise’s not-so-distant winning past — a tradition the team hopes to rekindle this season under a new ownership group and with an overhauled roster led by No. 1 draft pick Jeff Ayres.
As Idaho embarks on its 18th season — the Stampede tip off at 6 p.m. Friday at the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in Texas — second-year coach Dean Cooper has high hopes for his squad.
“We have some good players coming back, we have some good affiliate players, and I feel like we had a very successful draft,” Cooper said. “We have a very professional group of guys, and my expectations are high for where we’re headed and what we can accomplish.”
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Idaho, which was purchased by the NBA’s Utah Jazz from a local ownership group in the offseason, had the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft. Cooper used it on Ayres (Arizona State), a 6-foot-9 power forward with more than 200 games of NBA experience.
Ayres — known as Jeff Pendergraph before changing his surname in 2013 — played five NBA seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. He was part of the Spurs’ 2014 championship team, and hopes to share lessons he learned from future Hall of Famers like Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich with his new teammates as Idaho seeks its first winning season since 2009.
“I want to help create a winning culture here,” Ayres said. “I learned from the best what it takes to win. It’s not just showing up in games and scoring a lot of points and trying to be cute. It’s gritty, it’s ugly, it’s nasty, and you have to do a lot of things that nobody really wants to do. But at the end of the day, if you can get everybody on the same page and get those things done, everybody looks good.”
Ayres will be joined by a handful of familiar faces on Idaho’s season-opening roster. Point guards Brandon Fields (Nevada) and Ta’Quan Zimmerman (Thompson Rivers, Canada) are holdovers from last year’s team, while swingman E.J. Singler (Oregon) returns to Boise after spending a year overseas.
Zimmerman played 39 games with Idaho last year, including 16 starts. Fields averaged 14.2 points and 4.6 assists in 48 D-League games. Singler was one of the team’s top players during the 2013-14 campaign, averaging 14.1 points and 4.7 rebounds.
“This definitely feels like home,” said Singler, an Oregon native. “There’s a good energy around the team. We have a lot of weapons, and we want to be a championship team. That’s our goal, and I think we’re going to have a really good year.”
In the good-news, bad-news shuffle that typically accompanies D-League rosters, Idaho already lost one of its top players to the league’s first NBA call-up of the season. Point guard Phil Pressey (Missouri) was signed by the Philadelphia 76ers, and he scored 11 points in 13 minutes Monday versus the Chicago Bulls.
Pressey likely won’t be the last Stampede player to get the call-up this season — and according to Singler, that’s good.
“Everyone’s goal is to make it to the next level,” he said. “We’re all happy for Phil and we want to see him succeed, but our goal here is to win. If we have success as a team, good things will happen.”
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