The New Zealand Breakers have made all the right noises this season. Cedric Jackson returned home, dropped a couple of triple-doubles and lobbed a half court buzzer beater. Corey Webster has evolved into an elite shooting guard and Mika Vukona has continued to scare the crap out of everybody. They’ve been too mighty to ignore with each part fitting in seamlessly. But there’s one piece to the Breakers’ championship board that has yet to quite show its full form, and that’s the silent destroyer, Tom Abercrombie.
As rare as it may be to hear Abercrombie say anything on the court, it may be even harder to find a player in the NBL who’s had a more overlooked season. He is one of the league’s most efficient operators for arguably the league’s best team, and he serves as the guiding, steadying influence on the Breakers. Abercrombie is shooting a super efficient 48 percent from the field and beyond the arc (second in 3P%). According to Real GM, only Melbourne’s Daniel Kickert boasts deadlier dual efficiency.
Despite his team’s rollicking success, you get the feeling New Zealand will need more from Abercrombie to survive the playoffs. Jackson will always be the guy New Zealand leans on in crunch time, but a dialed-up playoff defense can junk things up, especially a Perth defense, and so nabbing easy buckets through different channels becomes a premium. Jackson is smart enough to understand when his teammates can generate a better look. Defenses simply can’t overload on him. This is where Abercrombie comes in.
The Breakers have crafted a neat pet set where Abercrombie curls viciously around an off-ball pick at the elbow for a midrange jumper, which forces defenders away from the ball to toggle from ‘don’t help’ to ‘help’ in an instant. On this occasion, DeAndre Daniels was found sleeping at the wheel.
There are subtle variations to the play, where he comes off a low post turnout to the wing, and then the big man sets another back-pick for a lob-finish. Players I’ve spoken to say it’s one of the toughest covers as a trailing defender in the NBL. His elevation is so smooth that altering his shot is nearly impossible. “That’s the goal,” noted Abercrombie.
This isn’t just about simple play calling. There is a skillful art in how Abercrombie manipulates off-ball picks and lulls unsuspecting defenders. From general repetition and battling the likes of Kirk Penney, CJ Bruton and Phil Jones over the years in practice, he has become a silent destroyer on the curl.
“It’s definitely a skill. There’s two things: One, just playing in that kind of system and environment a lot. The more you can practice using those screens you learn to make reads instinctively,” shares Abercrombie. “The other one, just having those weapons – inside and outside – when guys go under screens you gotta be able to punish them, or turn the corner and get to the rim. Once you’re able to show both those things, it comes pretty hard to guard you in those situations. It’s a pick your poison type of situation.”
It’s often said that the point guard position carries the trickiest learning curve. This might well be true. But what of a capable go-to-scorer having to embrace a reduced role as a third or sometimes fourth option scorer?
“I made a conscious effort earlier on this year,” says Abercrombie. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the main focal point as I was last year, so I made a mission to be as efficient as possible and do whatever it took to make this team successful. I’ve done a pretty good job so far but it’s only really beginning.”
With the temptation of hijacking possessions to fluff his own stats for the next European contract, Abercrombie has blended in well, showing All-NBL selflessness. In fact, malleability might be his most impressive skill this season. After all, it’s harder to construct championship-caliber rosters around guys not willing to ‘fit in’.
“Winning is the most important thing. At the end of the day, that is what hopefully other [European] teams look at,” adds Abercrombie. “All I try to do is do my job to the best of my ability and not worry about how I’m perceived elsewhere. I’m focused on this team and what’s best for this team. The other stuff will take care of itself.”
In many ways, Abercrombie has been adapting on the fly all season. He endured a brutal 12-month playing schedule, which included the Tall Blacks’ World Cup campaign and concluded with a sports hernia operation before this NBL season.
He understood from his brief sideline stint and watching Jackson and Webster pairing together that his role would be vastly different from last season. Indeed, his health has been a concern this year. From achy knees to little niggles, recovery hasn’t really merged into Abercrombie’s vocabulary.
“I didn’t have any preseason with the team and essentially jumped in for the second game of the season,” he said. “Then I had to spend a couple of weeks out in the middle of the season for my knees as well. So, it’s been a disrupted season. I knew from that and by looking at how the team played and worked earlier on, how we were going to play and be successful.”
Still, there have been games when the line has been blurred between unselfishness and passivity. This was particularly evident in New Zealand’s rare 97-71 defeat at Townville earlier this month, where Abercrombie only attempted three shots for the game. Indeed, his teammates and Coach Vickerman want him to shoot. Only, he’s still learning to ride that tightrope of when to defer to teammates and when to take command.
“It’s a tough one. I haven’t had a lot of success in that this year and it’s something that I just have to keep working on,” admits Abercrombie. “Just finding that balance, and when Corey and Ced are playing well, I’ve just got to try stay aggressive when I get my opportunities. But at the same time, I don’t want to try to force things if the ball isn’t coming my way that often.”
Abercrombie is one of those rare players who possess genuine 5×5 potential (5pts, 5reb, 5ast, 5stl & 5blk). He’s a stat-stuffer in the vein of Portland Trail Blazer Nic Batum. Sure, the Breakers may well win this whole damn thing with Abercrombie just ‘fitting in’. But coincidentally, like Batum’s X-factor potential in Portland, Abercrombie has the tools – athleticism, off-the-dribble juice and shooting prowess – to provide the extra oomph in New Zealand’s championship drive.
There is risk in being entirely faithful to the act of ‘fitting in’. Abercrombie wants the ball whipped around the court, and the Breakers’ system definitely encourages this egalitarian approach. This much is clear. Heck, even with a European contract hanging on the periphery, he readily accepted a reduced role.
But the playoffs are a different beast and the Breakers will need Abercrombie to be more of an irritant in the passing lanes and a presence on the glass especially if Ibekwe and Vukona endure foul trouble again.
Think about a scenario in which Damian Martin blankets Jackson and Jermaine Beal outshoots Webster – a genuine possibility. This is why Abercrombie is arguably New Zealand’s most important piece. Seriously, he could win the Breakers a series.
“The playoffs are another level. I certainly feel like I’ve been here before and I know what it takes to be successful when you get to the playoffs,” says Abercrombie. “I hope I can take my game to another level and really be an X-Factor for the team come playoff time, and that’s something I expect of myself and I hope I can go out there and really take things to a different level because that’s what it takes – everyone stepping up and doing that little bit extra”
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