The Difference Maker

Scottie Wilbekin has been dubbed many things in his basketball journey. He’s WilBuckets, a leader, an underrated talent, a coach’s son, SEC Player of the Year, First-Team All-American and a winner. But a true difference-maker? Well, he wasn’t thought of as that in June when he went undrafted in the 2014 NBA Draft.

Recent rule changes in the NBL have pushed the league towards a more free-flowing and aesthetically pleasing style. Lanes are opening and dribble penetration is unnerving defenses more than ever. In short, the NBL has become more of an NBA-esque competition. And this bodes well for Wilbekin who is perfectly suited to thrive in this landscape.

In an age of speedy scoring-crazed small men, Chris Paul remains the archetypal point guard. He’s always finely balanced, mean spirited on defense and wields a sophisticated array of hesitation moves that includes deploying his ass as a weapon.

Scottie Wilbekin seems to fit in this mold (although his ass-game needs a little work).

It’s impossible to put a number on just how many games, plays and easy lay-ins he may affect. Importantly, like CP3, he gets the most basic point guard principle: make those around you better.

“He is obviously extremely talented. He can really defend, and he sees the floor and moves the ball. He plays like a true point guard and makes plays when we need them made,” said Coach Aaron Fearne.

Wilbekin has already amassed 50 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in just two games of NBL action.

Indeed, it’s early days, but Fearne has already unleashed Wilbekin’s game. The former Gator has punished nearly any defensive scheme with his speed and passing skills in the season’s early stages.

“Scottie’s ability to find an open guy is on point and is probably the best I’ve seen in this league for a long time,” said veteran teammate Alex Loughton. “Because he distributes so well after breaking his man down, everybody is able to enjoy those benefits and take those open shots.”

Wilbekin and Loughton enjoy an insanely fun pick-and-pop connection. Loughton typically sets the pick at the top of the arc and glides a few steps to his right while Wilbekin draws a cluster of defenders near the right elbow. This is a big reason why Cairns terrorised defenses last weekend and throughout the preseason. Sure, the Ervin-Jahii backcourt is a ball of fire and Cedric Jackson is a one-man-wrecking-crew, but the Taipans’ pick-and-pop game is a deadly delight when Loughton’s draining the 3-ball.

“With me, I love it because when he doesn’t hesitate he’ll either pass it up if he’s double teamed, and then I get the open look, or he’ll take the shot if he can get it off. His unselfish play is pretty impressive,” shared Loughton.

The Taipans reward Wilbekin for his unselfish play by allowing him to call his own number and even dominate the ball for entire possessions.

“I think a lot of it has to do with my teammates and Coach Fearney just instilling that confidence in me and telling me that they believe in me, and even when I miss shots they tell me to keep shooting and attacking, and find other people,” said Wilbekin.

Twice at the crime scene which was Hisense Arena on Sunday, Wilbekin launched a volley of dribble moves against old SEC-rival Jordan McRae that ended with a buzzer-beater at the end of the third and a heat-check triple in the second quarter.

“It felt like being back in college days when we [he and McRae] were going up against each other and guarding each other,” noted Wilbekin postgame.

In college, the slight on Wilbekin’s draft stocks was that his lack of size and explosiveness (which is actually better than advertised) would hurt his ability to finish in the lane against seasoned pros. Yet, this hasn’t been the case in the NBL despite being only 21.

Sure, the NBL isn’t flooded with shot blockers, but WilBuckets has already exhibited an early knack of finishing with contact.

Learning new schemes, teammate tendencies and the professional game takes diligence.

“As a young guy, his ability to continue to concentrate and lock in, keep getting better, train hard and work hard in individuals – It’s a part of the process of being a pro,” said Fearne. “He’s not a college athlete anymore. He’s a pro.”

Wilbekin added: “I’m just staying aggressive and staying in the gym outside of practice and in practice – just keep working hard to continually get better. It’s a grind and a daily process.”

But with Captain Cameron Gliddon, the team’s MVP last season, acting as an extension of Coach Fearne on the court, Wilbekin’s transition to the pro-game has been rather swift.

“Something that people won’t see is that Cameron Gliddon is on the floor and feeding Scottie Wilbekin with an IV-drip of all our plays and tactics,” revealed Loughton. “So Scottie gets a direct line as well as using his own vision and ability to see what’s next and what play to call. But Gliddon is a pretty good player to learn from and play side-by-side with. That’s where most of the brains trust is coming from.”

And yet, we shouldn’t pigeonhole Wilbekin as purely an offensive wiz. He’s too adept and predatory on defense for that. Heck, his anticipatory instincts and precise footwork on defense would be elite in any league.

“That agility is something else that I haven’t seen in any of my years here,” added Loughton.

In fact, here’s where you can argue Wilbekin’s biggest difference-making credentials.

It’s unusual to call a point guard a defensive anchor, but in many ways, Wilbekin is. For instance: Melbourne United jacked a record 58.6 percent of its field goal attempts from beyond the arc against the Taipans (courtesy of @nblfacts). A combination of a new roster struggling to gel and an off-shooting night surely plays a part.  But ultimately, the perimeter defense, led by Wilbekin, deserves considerable credit.

“He does have a defensive ability that obviously is an attraction to our coach who is defensive minded,” said Loughton. “He gets more kicks out of a stop than a score, which has been a downfall in various years where we had the offensive talent. But this year maybe we have the right mix of guys that can provide that defensive tenacity.”

With four of the first five games on the road, the Taipans would surely be delighted that they’re 2-0. But they were also 2-0 last season before enduring a six-game losing streak. It’s early days of a long season. After all, Perth are the champs, Melbourne is too talented to not figure it out, New Zealand have retooled, and quite simply, this league is an unpredictable beast.

It’s tempting to suggest that the Wilbekin onslaught should continue, but defenses will ultimately become friskier. Don’t be surprised if we see teams begin to hedge Wilbekin into the corners, or begin to extend the pressure on Wilbekin’s dribble in an attempt to upset the offense.

Length, quickness and athleticism will be essential to corralling the rookie’s influence, and Damian Martin, Stephen Dennis (whose absence was telling last Sunday) and Cedric Jackson are the obvious candidates here.

“He’s exciting for us and inspirational for all the stuff he has been able to do so far. Teams will adjust quickly to try to nullify his impact, but that will be his next challenge,” suggested Loughton.

Regardless, the Taipans boast a neat balance of veteran leadership and roster continuity (seven players returned from last season) that renders them a dangerous proposition. Even so, it’s their point guard Scottie Wilbekin who may provide the decisive edge for Cairns during the inevitable dogfight for NBL playoff positions in the New Year.


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