By Mark Colley
Nothing was working for Lloyd Pandi in a matchup against the Hamilton Honey Badgers last summer.
He missed a jump shot. He was called for a charge. On what should have been an easy lay-up, Pandi committed a turnover.
All in all, the July 11, 2021 game between his Niagara River Lions and Hamilton was a struggle for the forward from Ottawa. Playing in the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) for his second season on a developmental contract, Pandi couldn’t break through, failing to score a point in almost 12 minutes of action.
Perhaps worst of all, Pandi was hearing about it from the Honey Badgers’ bench.
“That’s the first time he looked down on himself,” Victor Raso, head coach and co-general manager of the River Lions, told the Ottawa Sports Pages in a recent interview. “He let people bark at him and get to him and treat him like a kid. I think he hated that feeling.”
The game was a turning point for Pandi, and his attitude changed over the River Lions’ 10 remaining games of last season.
“He literally put on a headband and he started flexing after scoring and screaming at people,” Raso said. “You eat what you kill in the professional (basketball) world and he realized that he needs to be a dog.”
Pandi, 22, who’s played for the Carleton Ravens since 2018-19, announced on April 10 he’s leaving Carleton University and declaring for the NBA draft.
Pandi’s attitude shift in the CEBL is just one in a long series of steps in Pandi’s basketball journey, and one of the earliest in what he hopes is a long professional career.
Now he’s taking a shot at bringing his game to the world’s top league at a time when he’s got some momentum. He averaged 14.9 points per game in the 2021-22 season, was named U Sports Player of the Year, and led Carleton to its 16th championship in 19 seasons.
“He just did all the little things well,” Carleton head coach Taffe Charles said. “He was a go-to guy offensively and he was an above-average passer … Whenever we struggled, we went through him to get guys good looks.”
Pandi’s attempting a leap few Canadian university players do. The last U Sports players to declare for the NBA draft were Laurentian University star Kadre Gray and Ryerson University forward Tanor Ngom in 2019. Ngom withdrew his name from the draft nine days before it took place; Gray went undrafted.
The last U Sports player to be selected in the NBA draft was Saint Mary’s Huskies forward William Njoku in 1994 — almost 30 years ago.
Pandi’s chances of being picked are made tougher by measurables that don’t jump off the page. Listed at 6’4”, he’s competing against players at his position who are generally between three to six inches taller than him.
Explaining his decision to the Sports Pages, Pandi said one factor was timing. He red-shirted for the Ravens in 2018-19, and continued his classes in 2020-21, even when the U Sports season was cancelled because of the pandemic. Now Pandi’s “basically done” university and coming off an MVP season. He’s currently training in Las Vegas at the Impact Basketball training camp.
“I just felt the time was right,” Pandi said.
Another factor was Pandi’s attitude.
“Lloyd is fearless,” Raso said. “He [was] fully confident that at 19 years old he could come to the CEBL [for the Ottawa BlackJacks in 2020] and play big minutes in a bunch of games. No one thought he could do that.”
At the same time, those close to Pandi aren’t ignorant to the odds stacked against him hearing his name called at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on June 23. Raso said he was on the phone with Pandi when he posted his draft pursuit on social media and the two of them were “dying of laughter.”
“The fact that he did it — that he’s confident enough in himself to put that out there, where people are going to look at it and go, ‘Really, Lloyd, you think you’re an NBA player?’ — that’s awesome,” Raso said. “That means Lloyd is going to overachieve, like he already has, wherever he goes because he really puts no limits on himself.”
In conversation, Pandi shows that confidence. But it’s not lost on him, either, the challenge he’s up against.
“I’m just testing the waters. I’m just trying to do something that has never been done,” Pandi said. “Why not shoot for the stars? … It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Anything can be done.”
Pandi’s rare level of potential has been clear from early in his playing career. In high school, he played club ball with the Ottawa Elite, a local development program that’s catapulted Ottawa players to higher programs across North America.
That’s where Tony House, the founder and director of Canada Topflight Academy, another development program for high-school-aged players, first met Pandi. House coached him on Ottawa Elite teams all throughout high school.
Pandi was “one of the top players right from the get-go,” House said.
“What he’s doing now, it’s not really a surprise,” he added. “No one had a crystal ball, but … I always knew that he could play pro.”
House described Pandi as a swiss army knife — a versatile player open to any spot on the floor, and who’s always working hard to be the best man out there.
“He’s like a bull in a china shop,” House said. “He’s an absolute beast.”
Pandi’s also known to coaches past and present for his strong work ethic — a signature characteristic of standouts in the Carleton dynasty. One way he’s shown this is by improving as a shooter over his time as a Raven, as Charles explained.
Pandi regularly showed up to the gym to practice shooting at 7 a.m. as a freshman. Carleton coaches preach the need to take 500 jump shots a day and Pandi “took it seriously,” Charles said. While he still scarcely shoots the ball from beyond the arc, Pandi went from barely being able to knock down a three-pointer to being reliable from distance, Charles said.
Pandi has also developed off the court. His Ravens teammate Alain Louis said Pandi was shy when he first came to Carleton.
“Now he’s one of the loudest,” Louis said. “His voice means a lot to us as people and as basketball players.”
The same was true on the River Lions, according to Raso.
“In the two months I had him last summer, he became everybody’s favourite player,” Raso said. “All the guys on the team loved Lloyd, from the coaches to the staff to the people in our front office.”
While Pandi was drafted by the River Lions again in the CEBL-U Sports draft earlier in April, he’s also been asked to stay in Vegas to train for longer at Impact Basketball — meaning it’s unclear where Pandi might play next if he’s not one of 60 players chosen in the NBA Draft on June 23.
If the Ottawa native doesn’t hear his name on draft night, those he’s impressed before aren’t going to count him out.
“If I turn on the TV one day and see him in a Raptors uniform, nothing would surprise me,” House said. “It’s definitely a bit of a longshot but I wouldn’t bet against him.”
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