BY STEPHEN LYNCH Special to The Californian
All the necessary components are in place: A roster stocked with skilled and hard-working players; a coach with a proven NBA D-League track record of success; and an ownership group with a commitment to fielding a winning team.
The Bakersfield Jam begins the 2012-13 season, with a game at Rio Grande Valley on Friday, completely prepared for another successful year.
"We like our team," Jam coach Will Voigt said. "I think we've got some really talented players. But the D-League season is a long one and a lot of things happen during the course of it. So obviously, with great talent also comes opportunity for these players. It's hard to predict who gets called up when and injuries that could happen, but I think we've got the depth to sustain a lot of that movement. And I think we've got a good team. I think all of us have high expectations."
The Jam returns two of its top three scorers from a year ago in 6-foot-11 center Brian Butch (15.3 points per game) and 6-foot-6 guard Renaldo Major (15.2 ppg). Stephen Dennis, one of the club's top players from the 2010-2011 season, is back.
They, along with several quality newcomers, including first-round draft pick Shan Foster (20.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game at Vanderbilt last year), give the Jam plenty of weapons to keep its fast-paced offense running smoothly.
"I'm excited," said Major, a former Fresno State standout. "Training camp has been great. I honestly think this is the best team I've been associated with, talent-wise, since I've been in the D-League."
The Jam is coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Last year Bakersfield finished (28-22) and made the playoffs for a second straight time. It was the Jam's third post-season appearance in four years.
The one constant during the Jam's recent run of success has been Voigt. After a tough debut season, the young defensive-minded coach has guided the team to a combined 14 games over .500 the past two years.
"I'm very fortunate," Voigt said. "(Managing partner) David (Higdon) and (Majority owner) Stan (Ellis) really provide everything you need to be successful. From the facility to just their overall support."
In May, Higdon was chosen as the NBA Development League's Team Executive of the Year Award winner for the 2011-12 season.
Voigt, 74-76 with the Jam, believes the team's biggest strengths this season are athleticism and depth.
"I think that everyone (in the league) can roll out a really strong starting five," he said. "But for us, our second unit could be a starting unit anywhere. That's got to be our philosophy. To play 100 percent so that you're wearing down their starters so that you get to their bench versus our bench. On any given night, any of our bench guys could be a starter. So we really are looking at this as a 10-deep roster and trying to play games in that way."
One of Voigt's biggest challenges this year will be trying to continually mesh together a constantly changing roster, due in part to NBA call-ups.
Four ex-Jam players -- Eric Bledsoe (L.A. Clippers), Devin Ebanks (L.A. Lakers), Travis Leslie (L.A. Clippers), and Luke Zeller (Phoenix Suns) -- began the year on NBA rosters.
"There's just so much fluctuation during the course of a D-League season that it really has to be looked at on a day-to-day basis," Voigt said. "We've got to enjoy coming into the gym and getting better every day. We've got to be committed to working as hard as we possibly can. And then everything else just kind of takes care of itself. Of course we want to win. We want to build on the successful seasons we've had. But I think it really starts on that day-to-day approach and everything falls from there."
While Voigt is hesitant to voice specific long-term goals for the team, Butch has no such qualms.
"Last year we got to the semis and this year we're looking to contend for a title," the former University of Wisconsin star said. "I think everyone has got that same mentality, which is great. We've got a great team, very long, athletic, and really fits the style of play that we want to do. So we're really looking forward to going out there and putting the best product that we can out there for Bakersfield and hopefully we can bring home a championship."