It has been an eventful year for Australian basketball.
The nation enjoyed an all-time high number of athletes in the NBA — seven. Dante Exum and Cam Bairstow joined a short tradition of countrymen before them to be selected in the NBA Draft. Joe Ingles received a deserved call-up from Europe to join Exum in Utah, bumping fellow Aussie Brock Motum out of the roster on the way.
Australia’s highest profile NBA star, Andrew Bogut, starred in an uber-successful Golden State Warriors outfit, going all the way to the NBA Championship, a year after Patty Mills and Aron Baynes took out the hardware with the San Antonio Spurs.
Oh, and in those NBA Finals we saw the international awakening of the phenomenon known simply as “Delly”. Yes, Matthew Dellavedova has been known to passionate Aussie basketball fans for some time – but almost overnight he became a household name in Australia and the United States (and every other basketball-following nation) after a hustle-fueled NBA Playoffs performance culminated with a rise to prominence in LeBron James‘ Finals squad.
Meanwhile back in Australia, the NBL continued to show a high level of talent, despite not managing to gain the attention of the broader NBA-loving public downunder. Far and away the biggest arrival to the local competition was the signing of former NBA lottery pick, Josh Childress by the Sydney Kings. “Chill” brought an undeniable level of talent, marketing presence and importantly, off-court charitable work to the harbour city and the league.
Other teams weren’t resting on their laurels either. The Perth Wildcats replaced NBA-transferee success story James Ennis (Miami Heat) with Toronto Raptors draftee DeAndre Daniels. Meanwhile, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Melbourne Tigers’ legacy was new club Melbourne United – including Philadelphia 76ers draft pick and scoring machine Jordan McRae.
Adelaide managed to secure Motum. The Cairns Taipans pulled in star guard – now a 76er signing – Scottie Wilbekin. However despite all the moves, the New Zealand Breakers once again proved their class (and the immense talents of Cedric Jackson) in taking out a sweep of their NBL Grand Final series against the Snakes.
Unfortunately the off-season brought the seemingly recurring toll of the league’s economic death knell. Season after season uncertainty has surrounded the ability of some corners of the national league in staying afloat financially. Hardcore fans cowered in fear. Casual fans and many mainstream media outlets shook their heads in collective smugness at the sport that just can’t get it together.
Enter the knight in shining armour, Larry Kestelman. His injection of cash into the league (in return for a majority shareholding) provided newfound confidence to teams struggling with debt and ailing revenues. Perhaps more importantly, the team he has brought on board, his vision for digital media, television presentation and league image overhaul have given fans a renewed sense of excitement of what is ahead in the local game.
Suddenly the NBL sees itself evolve from an off-season snatched from the jaws of defeat, into a product full of energy and potential. The website and branding have been refreshed. Television and digital rights are being re-imagined and renegotiated. Most visibly, a huge influx of talent is on hand for 2015-16.
The Sydney Kings managed not only unexpectedly to retain arguably the most impressive and talented player in Childress, but also snared a return of star centre Julian Khazzouh and Boston Celtics draft pick Marcus Thornton. Perth have not sat on their sizeable hands, bringing in NBA D-Leaguer, Casey Prather, along with rising star Hugh Greenwood and are even rumoured to be on the hunt for big Nathan Jawai.
Melbourne United go from strength to strength, pulling star shooting guard Chris Goulding back from Europe, along with NBA prospect Stephen Holt. However the biggest mover and shaker of the off-season has been the re-branded Illawarra Hawks.
Apart from dropping “Wollongong” for “Illawarra”, giving their fans the ability to once again chant “Illlll-a-warraaaah”, the team brought in defensive guru Rob Beveridge as coach, lured his former star import protege Kevin Lisch back to the league, signed star centre AJ Ogilvy on his return from Europe and even snared a second former league MVP in Kiwi star Kirk Penney. Whilst the team has much to prove on the court, they certainly talk a mean game on paper.
All of the excitement on the NBL front meshes well with the reloading of the Australian Boomers national program. This weekend in Melbourne sees game one of the FIBA Oceania qualifier series, securing a spot at the 2016 Olympic Games for either Australia or New Zealand. Andrej Lemanis‘ squad is bolstered by the rare appearance of so many NBA-experienced athletes.
Mills, Bogut, Bairstow and Dellavedova are all currently on NBA rosters. Their NBA counterparts Ingles (wedding), Baynes (injury) and Exum (injury) will all miss the tournament. Bigs David Andersen and Jawai are former NBA players. Ryan Broekhoff, Brad Newley, Goulding and Motum are all former NBA Summer League participants. That leaves experienced NBL guards Damian Martin and Adam Gibson as the only roster members with no NBA linkage. This is undoubtedly the strongest group from top to bottom that the Boomers have ever had to work with.
Initial controversy surrounded the original omission of Mills from the squad, as he was unable to fulfill a commitment to the European leg of their preparation tour. However the unfortunate ACL injury to Exum has opened the door for a popular call-up by Lemanis of the feisty Spurs guard. Mills, a proud representative of his country, will be a key to success against the Tall Blacks – particularly with the play-making ability of Ingles absent.
New Zealand will be no pushover, but make no mistake – Australia goes into this series as a clear favourite. This, despite poor showings in preparation games and the aforementioned injuries.
It is time for Australian basketball to shine.
Our stars are performing on the world’s biggest basketball stage – the NBA. Our local league is set to flourish. Our national program has the deepest roster of internationally experienced talent it has ever had. And just around the corner, we have burgeoning stars the likes of multi-talented forward Ben Simmons, uniquely versatile big man Thon Maker, Deng Adel, Isaac Humphries and Jonah Bolden — just to name a few. The NBA is set to take on an ever-growing Aussie face.
What better time for the return of A Stern Warning? I started writing about basketball here back in 2006 — back in those days blogging was a bit of a dirty word and basketball blogs were few and far between. The mission of this site has always been to provide content related to the NBA, the NBL and international basketball — all from the unique perspective we have downunder.
The last couple of years I’ve taken a break from the grind of writing here. Writing at different times for the NBL site, the Sydney Kings and the fun demands of life in general got in the way to some extent. However, the new direction of Aussie basketball (re-read this article if you don’t know what I’m talking about!) has reinvigorated the desire to write. Bring on the future. #HardBall