Leeds Force: Blossoming basketball club is thriving on homegrown talent

Vasja Pandza
Vasja Pandza
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When the biggest club in Leeds were elevated to the ranks of the British Basketball League in 2014, the remit given to them by the league was varied, but clear.

Grow the game. Be sustainable. Be successful. Produce your own players.

Leeds Carnegie Basketball player Daniel Evans, who has earned a scholarship to the University of Maine. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Leeds Carnegie Basketball player Daniel Evans, who has earned a scholarship to the University of Maine. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Leeds Force can say that two years down the line they have ticked those boxes – and then some.

Attendances for home games at Leeds Beckett University have grown.

They are commercially viable and progressing in that area.

The Force achieved success in 2015-16 by reaching the BBL play-offs.

And they can also be proud of a production line of young talent that is coming to blossom through the age groups, some of which goes back way beyond their transformation to the Force and has its origins in the inaugural basketball programme that began at the then-Leeds Met in 2006.

One of the young men they identified around that time was Alwoodley Primary School pupil Daniel Evans.

Evans was introduced to basketball through Leeds Carnegie’s junior programme of which he would advance through the age groups for the best part of a decade.

Now, aged 20, Leeds lad Evans has earned a scholarship at the University of Maine, an NCAA Division 1 team in America.

That comes after a stellar year at Andover Preparatory School, a step he took with the intention of earning a scholarship to one of the big American colleges.

For all their development on the court, and progress off it, the journey of Evans from a primary school in Leeds to becoming a college basketball player in America has to be one of the Force’s most notable accomplishments.

“Daniel is proof that the pathway we have set up here works,” said Matt Newby, Force’s director of professional basketball and the founding figure of the university basketball programme in Leeds back in 2006.

“And for me personally it’s great to see a young man go all the way through the system, someone who worked hard and has reaped the rewards.

“Daniel has set the benchmark for future generations of boys and girls in Leeds and West Yorkshire.”

If Evans is the yardstick then there are other city youngsters excelling in the Force’s Junior National League set-up.

Brothers Vasja and Jaka Pandza, who attend Allerton High School (they are of Slovenian descent), have impressed in England colours in recent times.

Younger brother Vasja top-scored for England Under-15s at the Copenhagen Invitational while elder sibling Jaka played for the country’s Under-17s in a tournament in Cherbourg, France.

Both players had been identified years ago by the Force’s talent identification programme that goes into schools.

The club’s junior set-up has also had two of its own selected for the Deng Top 50, which is an initiative led by British NBA star Loul Deng to help nurture the brightest young talents in basketball in the United Kingdom.

This accolade is the latest in a long line of honours for James Banton, 18, who is set to follow in Evans’s footsteps by attending preparatory school in the US in the autumn.

Micah Savery-Richard is also due to take part in Deng’s Top 50 in a summer that he hopes will be highlighted by a call-up to the England squad for the European Under-18s championships.

Again they are a product of Leeds’s academy set-up that identified and nurtured that talent from a young age.

“We’re enjoying success across the age groups,” said Newby. “It’s important for us as a club that we are capable of producing our own players.”

On top of all that, Force’s Under-12s boys became North of England Mini Basketball champions last month, proving it is not just a senior team flush with imports that are standing firm, but that the roots of basketball in Leeds are getting deeper all the time.