2026 Chicago Jailbirds Preview
- By Austin Simpson, Day 1, 2026
IN: Jevon Novak, Joe Layton
OUT: Deonte Cameron,
RETURNING: DJ Gordon
Jevon Novak 27.9 ppg, 7.3 apg, 1.42 spg in 34.3 minutes (48.8% fg, 37.1% three point, 2.06 a/to ; 6.3 WS)
DJ Gordon 9.4 ppg, 4.8 apg, 0.95 spg in 25.9 minutes (41.9% fg, 37.8% three point; 4.10 a/to; 3.9 WS)
Jevon Novak was acquired this offseason via trade with the Denver Dragons in exchange for Rasheed Stone and their 2029 1st round pick. Novak is on the decline but is still an exciting add for an aging team. Questions surround the Jailbirds on Novak’s ability to adapt his playstyle with top-dog Jason Cheaney, as their play styles are very similar. Novak + Cheaney are similar, this is true, but it does alleviate scoring concerns. Having two players who can score at will certainly can help if done the right way. Chicago hopes this alleviates Cheaney of double teams and that players will get more open looks. The main concern is Novak’s high usage (33.9% last season) – will he play nice with Cheaney? DJ Gordon played well in 2025 for Chicago, but he will have a reduced role behind Jevon Novak. His minutes will be cut in half and will need to make the most of his playtime, especially if Novak sits.
IN: Axel Frazier, Sheldon Granger
OUT: Nick Alvin, Luke Williams
RETURNING: Jason Cheaney, Dennis Howard Jamal Wilkinson
Jason Cheaney 28.4 ppg, 7.3 apg, 1.79 spg in 35.5 minutes (45.5% fg, 44% three point, 2.25 a/to ; 8.0 WS)
Dennis Howard 7.3 ppg, 3.2 apg, 1.06 spg, 1.43 bpg in 27.9 minutes (35.7% fg, 29.5% three point, 3.40 a/to ; 3.7 WS)
Jamal Wilkinson 5.7 ppg, 1.6 apg, 0.64 spg, in 14.1 minutes (44.5% fg, 40.1% three point, 1.54 a/to ; 0.9 WS)
Cheaney returns a year older without missing a step in his game. This may be the last year we see Jason Cheaney at his peak and the team is looking to capitalize by making another title run. Cheaney’s usage likely drops with Novak in town, as well as his scoring, but hopefully his efficiency improves. Easier buckets will be welcome to the 11 time all-star. Dennis Howard was a raw wing last year struggling heavily with his shot. He has improved significantly in that area over the off-season but it may not be enough to make him a positive force on offense. Howard will also lose minutes, but not as many as Gordon. His defense on the perimeter and post will be helpful, not to mention his lack of needing the ball to be effective. Wilkinson was signed with the MLE last offseason and he was intended to be primarily a spot up 3 point shooter. He was that, but the overall net was negative for the Jailbirds. Wilkinson is still a valuable addition in the locker room and will bring a strong veteran presence to the Chicago bench. Axel Frazier and Sheldon Granger are both young shooting guards that the Jailbirds selected in the 2026 draft at the #28 and #34 spots respectively. Both players are likely to spend the majority of their time in the J-League, but will get spot minutes when veterans such as Carter and/or Cheaney need rest. Granger appears to be more ready now and Frazier the better long-term player.
IN: Keydren Carter
OUT: Mitchell van Bree
RETURNING: Kane Thomas
Keydren Carter 18.7 ppg, 2.5 apg, 1.41 spg, 0.97 bpg in 29.4 minutes (48.4% fg, 32.8% three point, 1.26 a/to ; 4.3 WS)
Kane Thomas 2.8 ppg, 0.9 apg, 0.33 spg, 0.33 bpg in 27.9 minutes (39.7% fg, 28.8% three point, 2.72 a/to ; 1.3 WS)
Just one year after trading Keyren Carter to the Pittsburgh Vipers, KC re-signs with the Jailbirds in order to go for another ring with best friends Jason Cheaney and Dameon Clarke. Reports indicate Carter was jealous when Clarke was re-acquired during the 2025 season and once Clarke re-signed this offseason had made up his mind to rejoin his friends. Carter was in the running for 6th man of the year award last season averaging over 18 ppg for the Vipers. This year he will begin the season as a starter, giving the core of the JBirds another weapon to throw at opposing defenses. Kane Thomas did not shoot well last year, but he brings a well-rounded game that deserves minutes. He will be the primary backup to Carter, but is the most likely to have his minutes usurped by one of the young wings in Frazier + Granger.
RETURNING: Antoine Willis, Dameon Clarke
Antoine Willis 16.4 ppg, 5.0 apg, 1.18 spg, 1.81 bpg in 33.3 minutes (55% fg, 26% three point, 5.15 a/to ; 9.1 WS)
Dameon Clarke 14.3 ppg, 2.0 apg, 0.49 spg, 1.10 bpg in 24.8 minutes (43% fg, 37.2% three point, 2 a/to ; 3.2 WS)
Willis signed a 4 year deal averaging $14 million per season just recently. This was widely considered a fair deal by many and a steal by some. An anonymous Atlantic division GM reportedly became furious after hearing Willis’ deal. If only that team had the money, they would have likely made Chicago pay a true market price for Willis – if this wasn’t already. Willis received a more prominent role last year due to the jettison of Carter, and will likely have a similar if not more prominent role with the loss of Stone. He is likely the 3rd on the pecking order for shots after Cheaney and Novak, but will be the defensive leader + anchor of the 1st unit. Clarke re-signed this offseason for a 2 year deal worth $10 million/season, with the 2nd year being a player option. Clarke had little to no bites in the offseason except for one other big, for what was reportedly the MLE of $6 million. Clarke will resume his role of 6th man for the Jailbirds in 2026, which an effective strategy was giving him a big advantage over 2nd team defenders. “No comment” was the response when Chicago’s GM was asked if he would toy with lineups featuring both Willis + Clarke. Their inside / out potential is likely the best frontcourt combo in the league, however Willis lacks the necessary height to play significant minutes at Center and Clarke could be bullied in the post.
IN: Travon Cage
OUT: Rasheed Stone, Tomas Bullard
RETURNING: Ray Washington
Ray Washington 5.6 ppg, 0.9 apg, 0.23 spg, 0.52 bpg in 11.4 minutes (50.4% fg, 21.2% three point, 3.91 a/to ; 2.4 WS)
In order to obtain Jevon Novak, Chicago had to send a player of value and they chose to send Stone over Willis, whom they have high hopes for. Stone is on a team friendly deal and by the looks of the pre-season games is ready for a breakout season. Center is the weak position for Chicago with only two true Centers on the roster. Ray Washington will be in his third year and will see an increase in minutes. For the first time he will see consistent playtime over 20+ minutes a game, so we will have to wait and see how it translates. In his first two years Washington had been an efficient player given the little playtime he was given. Chicago had moved back in the draft to select Travon Cage at #18 and appear to be very happy with him as a prospect. He is raw but the potential is salivating. Because of this he will likely get a strong set of minutes as long as he does not cause the Jailbirds to lose games.
The expected rotation will be 10 players:
PG: Novak / Gordon
The move to get Novak, although lauded at the time has become controversial in league circles. Many are well aware the front office’s viewpoint on winning, but there are questions on whether they would move on from Novak before the deadline if all doesn’t go to plan. This team will certainly be one to watch as chemistry and cohesion is built and adjustments are made. A playoff spot is expected somewhere in the #3-#5 range and the team hopes to achieve their goal of 50 wins. All of which seems likely.