Five Points to Be Proven This NBL Season
The most anticipated NBL season in recent memory tips off on Thursday when the returning Brisbane Bullets host the reigning champion Perth Wildcats. Both teams will be out to prove right away why they should be taken seriously, but for different reasons.
The defending champs will want to reassert their authority and show everyone that they’re still the team to beat, while the Bullets are keen to prove they can build a winner (almost overnight) and get basketball back into people’s minds in the Sunshine State capital… and quickly.
They’re not the only ones looking to make their mark. Here are five other points to be proven in 2016-17.
The New Zealand Breakers can win without Cedric Jackson
It’s no secret that Ced’s decision to move across the Tasman was a shock to Breaker Nation, and for good reason. With Jackson, the Breakers made it to four grand final series across five years, winning three titles. In the one season Cedric entertained abroad, the Breakers failed to make the playoffs at all.
So adjusting to life without their point god is a challenge that rookie head coach Paul Henare would’ve preferred to do without. Unfortunately, there’s no time to dwell on the past, and the 2015-16 runners-up are moving forward with a new import quarterback in Ben Woodside.
A veteran of seven pro seasons in Europe, Woodside certainly has the credentials to replace Jackson, but comes in with no firsthand knowledge of how to win in the NBL.
However, the Breakers have also brought back Kirk Penney, who knows a thing or two about winning, having been part of the Breakers’ first title back in 2011. He’ll join Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie to form one of the deadliest wing rotations in the league, and they’ll continue to be supported by Mika Vukona and Alex Pledger up front.
Akil Mitchell fills the second import spot and has already dazzled in the dunk contest, while youngsters Finn Delany, Izzy Tueta and Jordan Ngatai should earn some run.
But the biggest addition (literally) may be Tall Blacks veteran Rob Loe, who also returns home to New Zealand. He’s been playing in Europe and will make his NBL debut this season.
“The Breakers have always been a good club and I have always eventually wanted to come back here,” Loe told the Breakers’ website recently. “I also felt the NBL is improving so much I just felt it is a good time to come back. It’s the right time in my career I guess.”
Jackson did a lot for basketball in New Zealand, but it’s time for a new crop to lead the Breakers this season. They’ll be keen to prove they can win without him, starting Friday against the title favourites, Melbourne United.
Angus Brandt is ready for a feature role
The defending champions lost two big pieces of their dominant front court this offseason when Nate Jawai returned to Cairns and Tom Jervis looked for a larger role in Brisbane. Trevor Gleeson wasted no time in trying to replace some of that production with a young big man who started to prove worthy of more responsibility last season.
Brandt was a backup centre for the Sydney Kings but started 15 games to end the season following an injury to Julian Khazzouh. Brandt averaged 10.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks as a starter and although he will likely come off the bench for Perth in the Jervis role, big things are expected from him this season.
“His strength is going to be a bonus for us around the basket,” said Gleeson when Perth signed Brandt in May. “He’s only going to mature over the next three or four years and we’re very happy to have him here at the Wildcats.”
Brandt was looking for an opportunity to play in a stable environment and the Wildcats will certainly offer him that.
“I think we will see Angus flourish in our system,” teammate Greg Hire told Downtown on Tuesday. “It’s quite obvious we played a lot through the post through the dominating impact of Nate, and whilst not the physical specimen Nate is, he isn’t far from it. I believe Angus is going to enjoy the added responsibility of joining this club.”
He will back up Matt Knight and import Jameel McKay, but will start the season manning the middle as Knight recovers from a shoulder injury that will keep him out through October at least. This presents a great opportunity for Brandt to showcase what he can offer and to earn a consistent role for the season ahead.
“One thing I think that will go unnoticed is the advantage Angus has of being under the tutelage of Matt Nielsen,” Hire continued. “That experience and knowledge is a special thing and will help Angus excel.”
Dean Demopoulos can keep his team focused
It sounds strange to talk about a team that got swept out of the first round of the playoffs as one that needs to remain focused, but that will be the exact challenge coach Dean Demopoulos faces this season.
Melbourne finished the 2015-16 regular season on top and have strengthened their roster considerably during the offseason with the likes of David Andersen, Jackson, Tai Wesley and the return of two-time Olympian David Barlow from a season lost to injury. They also added two other new imports, with each looking capable of great contributions on both ends of the floor.
On paper, they should be better than last season. The roster that CEO Vince Crivelli has assembled may be the deepest the league has seen, as they legitimately go ten deep and possibly beyond that.
The bookmakers have United as short-priced favourites for the title at $3.50 and Chris Goulding is equal favourite to win the MVP this season.
All signs point to a relatively easy path back to the playoffs for Demopoulos, but his biggest challenge will be keeping his troops’ eyes on the prize and away from reading their own mail during the regular season.
We saw it at times last year when they lost focus and had a string of poor performances midway through the season. Demopoulos appeared to struggle to find answers or know which buttons to push to get them back on track. Ultimately, they fell into those same bad habits against New Zealand in the postseason and went home early.
So can Demopoulos manage the expectations of ten guys who all think they should be playing, and get guys to play for each other and sacrifice for the greater good? Can he convince them that they’ll all have their turn to play a part in the success of the team, but to also share the responsibility?
“Coach Dean [Demopoulos] was the reason I wanted to sign with Melbourne,” Jackson said upon signing with United.
He has the confidence of his point guard, which is a good start. However, it’s been an interrupted preseason with Goulding and Andersen taking their time to re-join the team post-Rio, Jackson brought along slowly from a minor injury and now Barlow out to start the season with a calf injury. It could take some time to get everyone on the same page.
“This is a work in progress and we have a lot of new faces,” Demopoulos said recently.
A slow start could prove challenging because, despite the talent on hand, Demopoulos may be under more pressure than any other coach in the league. He’ll be keen to prove that he and his staff can stay united and bring a title back to Melbourne for the first time since 2008.
Things will be different in Sydney
New coaching staff, new ownership, new management, new arena, new roster.
The more things change… well, let’s hope for Kings fans that they won’t stay the same.
Sydney hasn’t won a postseason game since it re-joined the league in 2010, and the Kings’ last title came when Brian Goorjian led them to their third straight Dr. John Raschke Trophy in 2005.
It’s been a tumultuous era in recent times with multiple coaching changes and general managers seemingly rotating through the Kings’ doors more frequently than Shane Heal dies his hair.
So why will things be different this time?
For starters, the new ownership group, AEG Ogden, is not new to this. It’s the Australian branch of the group that owns shares in multiple professional sports franchises around the world, including the Los Angeles Kings (NHL), LA Galaxy (MLS) and Hammarby Fotboll (Sweden), as well as owning and operating Staples Center. AEG Ogden manages Qudos Bank Arena, formerly the Sydney SuperDome, where the Kings will play.
Sydney’s managing director, Jeff Van Groningen, is a veteran of the NBL having held similar roles with the Bullets and Melbourne Tigers. He’s most recently been the GM of corporate strategy for the Brisbane Broncos.
Having an experienced and capable front office with resources to do things right will go a long way. But is that enough?
The Kings have often been criticised for making moves just to draw headlines. They were the glamour team in the 1990s and in many ways have been chasing that publicity ever since, often with names over substance.
I was sceptical when I heard their choice for head coach, as there is no bigger name in Australian basketball folklore.
Andrew Gaze had virtually zero coaching experience when Van Groningen hired him. He was at the start of a debut season coaching the Melbourne Tigers in the SEABL, an experience that did not go well with a weak roster.
Gaze however knows the game, knows how to relate to players and has spent a fair few hours around a Hall of Fame coach over the years. His old man knows a thing or two about manning the sidelines and I’m sure some of that has rubbed off on Drewy.
Also to Gaze’s credit, he very quickly brought in some help in old backcourt partner Lanard Copeland, who has been a development and state league coach in Melbourne, and also NBL championship-winning coach Dean Vickerman, an old teammate and assistant coach of Gaze’s at the Tigers.
“We are ecstatic to secure not only two of the highest profile names in the NBL, but men who have a proven track record working with the head coach,” Van Groningen said of Vickerman and Copeland when they were announced.
Vickerman especially knows how to coach a team to success in the NBL. He was on the bench as either an assistant or head coach for each of the Breakers’ four championships.
The roster also has some name value with last season’s MVP in Kevin Lisch as well as former Boomers Brad Newley and Aleks Maric, who’ve both returned to Australia after years playing in Europe. Add them to Julian Khazzouh (injured currently), Jason Cadee fresh off a career year, Tom Garlepp and some new imports eager to impress and the foundation to build something special is there.
Gaze is a winner. He is as competitive as anyone you’ll find and you can rest assured he’ll do everything he can to put a team on the floor that’s able to contend. On paper they already have that, and with the right support off the court, it’s time for this team to get back to the glory days.
Harvey Lister, the chairman of AEG Ogden, said it best: “The NBL isn’t a true national competition unless there’s a strong successful team in Sydney.”
He’s put his money where his mouth is. Time to prove that money has been well spent.
Joey Wright has the cattle to compete
Wright is a player’s coach. He has a proven track record of getting everything out of a roster he possibly can. His teams compete hard, play for each other and often surprise their opponents by virtue of that style.
And while it’s safe to assume Wright will prepare his troops in that same manner this season, will that be enough to overcome some pretty major departures from last season?
Gone are veterans and former Boomers Adam Gibson and Anthony Petrie. Both were stalwarts for the 36ers and extensions of Wright on the court. They led by example through effort and making the right plays.
Taking that experience out of a side and replacing it with rookies in Majok Deng and Anthony Drmic is going to be tough to overcome, even for Wright.
That may be compounded by the fact that his second import was playing in high school last year and has never played a minute of professional or collegiate basketball. Terrance Ferguson is an experiment to say the least; a very entertaining, high-flying experiment mind you, but I’m not sure he can be relied on to consistently help this team win.
Thankfully for Wright, he has Jerome Randle (a.k.a. the People’s Champ) back for another season. Randle’s style of play is infectious and he won a number of games last season by putting this team on his diminutive back. He’ll be sure to do that again, but he may need a good chiropractor if no one else steps up.
Fortunately for Randle’s sake, Daniel Johnson and Mitch Creek are back and will in many ways try to replace the veteran presence Gibson and Petrie took with them. Johnson is now entering his seventh season with the 36ers and his ninth in the league, while Creek has been voted captain by his teammates.
“I see myself as a leader, someone who the team can follow,” Creek said in a Sixers media release from August. “I’ve got a lot to learn and we have a big task ahead of us this season to be successful, but is one I’m willing to take on and enjoy at the same time.”
Randle was named vice captain and he in many ways personifies the type of swagger and style that Wright tries to get his team to play with.
“Mitch and I have been working hard together on the court and we have been having some great discussions off the court talking about what we can do to help the team,” said Randle.
“I cannot wait for the season to start and show our fans what we can do together.”
Creek knows they all need to step up as a young group, but with Joey’s help, they feel like they can achieve far more than what many are predicting right now.
“We have a great team this season with a lot of characters and mature heads, as young as we may be, I believe that we will be a formidable force.”
Follow me on Twitter @tomhersz
Follow Downtown @downtownball