Five Players to Watch at the NBL Blitz

The NBL’s pre-season tournament – the Blitz – kicks off this evening, with each team set to play three games over the next five days to decide the Loggins-Bruton Cup.  Make no mistake, these games matter.  Maybe not in terms of wins and losses, but the foundations of championship seasons are laid during the pre-season.

Coaches will be looking to sort out their rotations and develop chemistry among their squads prior to the start of the regular season.  It’s also a chance for players – especially those new to the league – to showcase their talents.  Play well, as Scottie Wilbekin did last year, and the Blitz can serve as a valuable launch-pad towards a successful season.  Stink it up and… well… history suggests that could be a problem.

Here are five players to watch over the next five days.


Markel Starks (Cairns Taipans)

Let’s face it, despite all the noise to the contrary, the shadow of Scottie Wilbekin will loom large over Markel Starks this season.

Fearney will say otherwise, but deep down he knows he’ll compare.  So will Starks’ teammates. We all will. WilBuckets was such an excellent fit and such a clutch performer last season, his impact is the standard against which his replacement will be judged and that’s just how it is

Pic via Cairns Taipans

Unfortunately, that is Starks’ curse.  DeAndre Daniels knows the feeling.

Nonetheless, Fearne believes his point guard can do the job… at least he did when he recruited him.

“It came down to four main areas for us when we were looking at recruiting this position,” Fearne told the Cairns Post last month. “Can they defend?  Are they a good teammate?  Can they make plays to help you win games, and can they move the ball and pass?

“These are the same areas we prioritised when Scottie came in, and that’s what we came back to.  If a guy doesn’t tick those boxes, then he wouldn’t be a player that we would inject in our program.  Markel definitely works into all those categories and he’s a good piece to the puzzle.”

Starks struggled with foul trouble in his first few hit-outs – and has averaged only 1.8 assists per game thus far in the pre-season – but was the game-leading scorer the other night against Townsville, dropping 17 points.

With Scottie’s shadow helping to block the intense Townsville sun, the Blitz holds a little extra importance for Starks and the Taipans.


Igor Hadziomerovic (Melbourne United)

Melbourne enter the Blitz as one of the league’s most fascinating teams.  A new Head Coach (who is brand new to the league – and the country!), a brand new import fresh off the plane, injured veterans and with only one practice match against professionals under their belt.

Pic via Melbourne United

They’ve also recruited some outstanding Australian talent this winter who will be looking to develop some chemistry as quickly as possible.

Hadziomerovic, who played his college ball at Boise State, has hit the ground running this pre-season and has a lot to gain from a strong showing at the Blitz. The kid is relentless, constantly looking to attack and make plays at both ends of the floor. I was super impressed with him during United’s win over LSU last month, and with Nate Tomlinson on the sidelines, the former Melbourne Tigers junior will have plenty of chances to make an impression this week.

Is a significant spot in the regular season rotation up for grabs?


Nathan Sobey (Adelaide 36ers)

Sobey has been one of the key talking points of the pre-season, having moved to Adelaide from Cairns this off-season.  His electric play in Darwin earned him MVP honours and his explosive athleticism has been on display in Adelaide’s high-paced system.

Even at training, Sobey has very little chill…

Sobey has fit right in with Adelaide thus far.  He mentioned back in July that the symmetry between his game and Joey Wright’s style was a big part of his moving to the 36ers.

“The play a lot in transition, play above the rim and a faster type of basketball and that suits the way I am playing at the moment,” he said.

It certainly does, and with Ebi Ere sitting out with a calf injury, the former Wyoming standout has a golden opportunity to impress even further this week.



Kirk Penney (Illawarra Hawks)

The recruitment of Kirk Penney was met with tremendous excitement by the Illawarra faithful, and for good reason.  As a Breaker, Penney was league MVP in 2009, led the NBL in scoring for three consecutive seasons and was an All-NBL First Team selection each and every season from 2008-2011.

Pic via Illawarra Hawks

He’s a gun.

However… upon his return from Europe, Penney is now the oldest player in the league (he will turn 35 in November), and as Charles Barkley loves to say, “Father Time is undefeated.”

When Penney arrived at Illawarra I wrote this

What about his senior-citizenship?  After all, Penney will turn 35 midway through this season, so he’s clearly not building for the future. Nonetheless, there’s nothing in his recent ACB play or at last year’s FIBA World Cup to suggest that he’s over the hill. Far from it.” *

Hmm… maybe.  The truth is, it’s difficult for any player – any player – to have a significant impact at this level in their mid-thirties.  It has been done but, as Ebi Ere is currently finding out, it’s not easy.

Penney and Coach Rob Beveridge will be taking a sensible approach to his play at the Blitz but I’ll be watching him closely nonetheless.

One thing’s for sure, if Penney still has it, buy yourself some shares in the Hawks.

* Yes, for the record, I did just argue with myself.  


Charles Jackson (New Zealand Breakers)

As the jubilation of last season’s championship win slowly wore off, the Breakers began re-constructing a roster capable of defending it.  With point god Cedric Jackson already under contract, Dean Vickerman and the front office quickly inked multi-year deals with guys like Abercrombie, Webster and Vukona, before turning their attention to re-signing big man Ikene Ebekwe.  Alas, it wasn’t to be and the search was on for that all-important rim-protecting presence.

Enter Charles Jackson stage left.

Jackson impressed in Vegas and Vickerman was excited to land him, but he’s young and big men traditionally take some extra time to develop.  The reality is that Jackson, at 22, is still very-much a work in progress.  Had he stayed his full-term at Tennessee Tech, he would currently be preparing for his senior year of college ball.

“His ability to pick things up quickly, to learn our league, learn the players in our league and learn our style of play is going to be important,” Vickerman said late last month.

Fair to say he’s up to speed on at least one of those players…

Word out of New Zealand is that the Breakers boys have been impressed with Jackson’s attitude and work ethic – a great start.  He also bounced back from that uncomfortable Childress moment by posting a near double-double two nights later in Invercargill.

Jackson is well aware of his rookie status and the challenges that lie ahead.

“You’ve just got to be hard-nosed about those challenges and get through them,” he told Kiwi sports reporter Marc Hinton last month.

Watch this space.

Author of the article

I like to think that I bring the all-important little man’s perspective to the Downtown crew. The rim may be 10-feet high folks but the court, itself, is at ground level. My one season playing ball on the national scene was back in 2001/02, when I played the vital role of 4th-string PG as a member of the Victoria Titans. Go back and watch the tapes, I’m confident that only Patty Mills outranks me worldwide as an end-of-the-bench towel-waver. This experience, however, gives me the kind of an insight into pro hoops that can only be gained by spending time ‘behind the curtain’. These days I spend most of my spare time squeezing every last cent out of my League Pass subscription. And when I’m not playing, watching, writing about or podcasting about basketball, you’ll find me soundly outplaying all-comers at the fantasy version of the game. Safe to say that if I had a tattoo it would say ‘mum’. But if I had two tattoos, the second one would definitely be of a basketball. Follow me on twitter: @liam_santa