The new NBL era starts tonight

Oh what an off-season it has been for fans of basketball in Australia.

After coming off the high of an Aussie-infused NBA Finals series featuring major story-lines around our own Matthew Dellavedova and Andrew Bogut, we were then treated to the #homecoming of our NBA and European stars in the Oceania qualifying series for the 2016 Rio Olympics.  Whilst those highs captured the public’s attention and brought some more shine back to basketball, there was also the recurring theme of a potential downturn in our local product, the National Basketball League.

The NBL off-season started with concerns around the Wollongong Hawks and Townsville Crocodiles ownership models, was compounded by June movements in the Adelaide 36ers ownership group and culminated with luminaries such as Andrew Gaze calling the league “broken” and in need of an IT-technician-style ‘switch it off and turn it back on again’.

However, where we are sitting right now, with hours to go before tip-off between the 36ers and the reigning champion New Zealand Breakers in game one of the new season, it’s almost excusable to have forgotten all of that upheaval. Surely the casual basketball fans may have merely skipped a beat and missed it all.

And won’t those casual fans be pleasantly surprised when they see what is in store for them from this week onward.

Returning talent

The league has been blessed with an array of talent returning from overseas and other leagues this season:

  • BIGS: Julian Khazzouh (Sydney Kings), AJ Ogilvy (Illawarra Hawks) and Nathan Jawai (Perth Wildcats) will all be dominant forces in the paint and suddenly give the league a highly legitimate stable of pivot players. These are guys who can dramatically alter the complexion of a game. Add the late return of Daniel Johnson to the 36ers last season, and you’ve got a major shot of size to the NBL, along with big-time European experience.
  • MVPs: Kevin Lisch and Kirk Penney (both Illawarra Hawks) are a formidable pairing of perimeter talent for the re-tooled Hawks. Both are former MVPs of the league – so it goes without saying that they boost the average talent level of the NBL product.
  • GAME-CHANGING GUARDS: Chris “Bubbles” Goulding (Melbourne United) and Ebi Ere (Adelaide 36ers) are both guys who have made indelible marks on the NBL in the past. Both have spent time away from the league and both have returned for this epic NBL re-birth.
  • THE COACH: Rob Beveridge has been regarded as one of the true super-coaches during his NBL career. It is great to see his return to the league — with the Hawks — but no doubt it will be awfully hard for Damian Martin to avoid taking orders for him, as they compete on opposing teams for the first time in a long time.

Consistency of stars

Inevitably there is a leak of talent over time from the NBL — as with any league. However this season it is very promising to see the return of stars such as reigning MVP Brian Conklin (Townsville Crocodiles), former MVP Cedric Jackson (New Zealand Breakers) and Sydney Kings superstar Josh Childress. Having stars like that remain with their clubs does great things for fans in terms of recognition and loyalty. Add to those big names the likes of Mark Worthington (now with the Cairns Taipans), rising star Cam Gliddon (Cairns), Perth guns Martin, Jermaine Beal, Matty Knight, Shawn Redhage and Jesse Wagstaff, Illawarra’s Oscar Forman, Breakers stalwarts Tom Abercrombie, Mika Vukona, Alex Pledger and (assuming he doesn’t catch on with the New Orleans Pelicans) Corey Webster,  Adelaide’s strong core of Adam Gibson, Anthony Petrie, Johnson, Mitch Creek and now Lucas ‘Waxy’ Walker, and then you’ve got Melbourne United with the arrival of Todd Blanchfield, joining Daniel Kickert, Nate Tomlinson and David Barlow.

As you can see, the core of most teams has remained remarkably consistent. There is definitely a greater feeling that players are happy to stay put, want to be in the league and have a genuine excitement with the trajectory of the NBL under its new ownership direction.

Re-brand, re-everything

Speaking of that new ownership… Larry Kestelman has brought a renewed sense of certainty to the league with not only his financial investment, but increased vigor of direction for the management of the league.

The laundry list of changes he and his team have made to the league in the short months since his purchase of a controlling interest in the league include:

  • League re-brand (including logo, social media rejuvenation etc)
  • New website
  • New mobile app
  • New pay TV deals
  • New free-to-air TV deal
  • New streaming service
  • Centralisation of shared services for clubs
  • Sponsorship deals with the likes of Europcar, Telstra, Virgin Airlines, Wilson basketballs, Chemist Warehouse, Alcatel, Shock Doctor, McDavid, and the list goes on.

Of course, the big factor which will catch the fans will be that television coverage. From tonight, FOX Sports will show five evenings per week (Wed-Sun) of LIVE, HD, primetime NBL action across Australia. SKY Sports will be showing the Breakers in New Zealand. Nine in Australia will show a Sunday afternoon free-to-air game each week. And today the NBL launched its new app (Android and IOS) which will stream the games too – reportedly free for the first week, with a subscription service starting thereafter.

This is an unprecedented level of coverage for the league.

There will be fans who will complain that every single game isn’t live on FTA. Don’t be one of them. Live in the real world, with the rest of us. The reality is that the TV deals that the NBL has struck are very good ones. It is unlikely that any better deals could’ve been found. They certainly haven’t been done any time recently.

New talent

We’ve talked about the talent returning from overseas and the existing talent continuing to entertain. The bonuses are both the influx of rookie talent and new exciting imports.

In terms of rookies, guys like Majok Majok (Melbourne United), Matthew Hodgson (Adelaide 36ers) and Nick Kay (Townsville Crocodiles) are all big men worth keeping your eye on. All three will have a significant impact on their teams and will challenge for the Rookie of the Year award. Don’t discount the athletic Nathan Sobey (36ers) either!

Meanwhile, the new class of imports is an exciting one. Marcus Thornton (Sydney Kings) is a 2015 NBA Draft pick of the Boston Celtics,  Stephen Holt (Melbourne United) and Markel Starks (Cairns Taipans) showed their pedigree as joint-MVPs of the pre-season Blitz tournament, Kenyon McNeaill is looking like a leader for the 36ers, and of course Hakim Warrick (Melbourne United) brings the type of NBA background and excitement that has fans salivating.

Enjoy the new season, fans.  #HardBall

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