The NBL’s second foray into NBA’s preseason this year, left no doubts that Australian basketball is on a meteoric rise.
None of the participating NBL clubs –including Melbourne United, Perth Wildcats, Sydney Kings, New Zealand Breakers and the Adelaide 36ers– left the USA with a win, but their valiant efforts further attested to Australia’s undeniable resurgence as a basketball power.
Having said that, NBLxNBA 2018 featured dazzling highs and at other times, crushing lows for the visiting Australian teams.
The reigning NBL champions Melbourne United were put through the mill, as they faced two Eastern Conference powerhouses – the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors.
Led by Alex Pledger’s 19 points and 13 rebounds, Melbourne put up a spirited fight against Ben Simmons and the 76ers. Goulding seemingly caught fire, scoring 13 points in 19 minutes. He made his intentions clear with a three-point swish off the dribble in the first minute. Disaster struck shortly, as he left the court in the second quarter with an ankle injury, after Sixers behemoth Joel Embiid landed on him after a block.
Goulding quickly clutched his knee, and it looked like Melbourne has suffered a devastating blow to their upcoming NBL campaign. Luckily for United, it was revealed to be only a mild ankle injury, and he was cleared to play against Toronto. Melbourne United eventually succumbed to the 76ers 84-104, and Australian fans were left asking, “What if?”
United’s next game against Toronto was a stark reminder of the NBA’s elite talent, as they suffered an emphatic 82-120 loss. Even with Goulding back in their ranks, they couldn’t overcome the Raptor’s onslaught.
“We really competed in patches,” Vickerman said after the Toronto game. “In both games we had 2-4 minutes patches where we didn’t shoot the ball well, we turned it over. These teams are so good that if you have that two or three minute patch and don’t play well, they can break you out by twenty points very quickly.”
The Perth Wildcats’ first match against the Utah Jazz was a literal disaster. Without Damian Martin and Angus Brandt, the Wildcats were never able to find their groove. They were swiftly dismantled, 72-130.
After a week of reflection and recalibration, the Wildcats headed to the American heartland to face the Denver Nuggets, in a campaign for redemption. It was there that Perth showed why they are one of the most successful clubs in the NBL, and leading the charge, was reigning NBL MVP Bryce Cotton.
Cotton finished the game with an incredible 33 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals, with 15 of his points came from the three-point line. Cotton’s shot making and ability to score under duress was on full display. Midway through the first quarter Cotton launched a three-pointer right in the face of Paul Millsap, mere seconds into Perth’s shot clock. Perth’s biggest star played with a fearless attitude, and showed that despite his light 6 ft 1 frame, he can play amongst the giants.
It was a brilliant performance, one that impressed Denver head coach Michael Malone to no end. “Bryce Cotton had a hell of a game… he was terrific tonight,” Malone said during a post-match press conference.
Despite an electric Cotton and a fearless team performance, it wasn’t enough to walk away with a win. Perth ended up with a narrow loss, 88-96. The Wildcats couldn’t secure the win, but created one of the best redemption stories Australian basketball has seen in a long time. Even Malone admitted he had seen something special. “We knew this wouldn’t be an easy game,” he said. “Obviously after their game in Utah, those guys have pride. They’re tough, they’re physical and they compete. They did that tonight for 48 minutes and I’ve got a lot of respect for them and the job they are doing.”
The Sydney Kings battled the Los Angeles Clippers in an entertaining contest over at Hawaii. Sydney couldn’t manage the upset, losing 91 -110, but their MVP backcourt duo shone. Two-time MVP Kevin Lisch flirted with a triple-double, scoring 16 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. However, the player that turned the most heads was 2017 MVP Jerome Randle.
The diminutive 5 ft 9 guard seemed to be where he belonged. His wizardry with the ball seemed to give some of the Clippers a serious case of whiplash. They could seemingly could do little to stop him blowing by them like a flash. In the second quarter Randle took the ball coast to coast for the finish, abruptly freezing Mike Scott with a sudden crossover at full sprint. By the end of the night he had added 25 points of his own to Sydney’s tally, as well as 3 assists and 3 rebounds.
Clippers guard Patrick Beverly, who grew up with Randle in Chicago, sang praises of his old friend. “To me, he is one of the shiftiest guards in the world. I put him up there with Kyrie [Irving] when it comes to handling the ball.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers was impressed by the Kings’ play style. “I just like how they play,” he said after the game. “Andrew [Gaze] does a great job. I love their movement and how they play together. They’re a fun team to watch.”
The game was also a return to the NBA stage for the King’s marquee recruit, Andrew Bogut. The NBA champion demonstrated throughout the game, that he could still compete at the highest level. He dissected the defence with his pinpoint accurate passes, including a gorgeous feed to a cutting Lisch in the first quarter. Bogut who finished the game with 8 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. also showed he still has a spring in his step, slamming home a lob from Randle in the second period.
The New Zealand Breakers came the closest to victory, losing to the Phoenix Suns 86-91. The Breakers exhibited fantastic team basketball, but one player stood out from the rest. Corey Webster was the Breakers’ engine, scoring 27 points to go with 7 assists and 4 rebounds.
Webster seemed to toy with Ryan Anderson in the first quarter, crossing him over twice before burying the fadeaway jump shot. He gave Josh Jackson similar treatment early in the second period, crossing him over and then nailing the spinning fadeaway jump shot. Webster played as if he had the ball on a string, and played with a relaxed looseness that would have you believe he’d been lighting up NBA competition all his life.
Jarrad Weeks even got the crowd roaring, dunking on the 6 ft 10 Richaun Holmes in the dying seconds of the third quarter. It was a moment the characterised the Breakers never say die attitude to the game.
“I’m just proud of the boys and how we competed,” Webster said after the game. “We wanted to win the game and we were right there in the end. I think we can be proud of that, and we showed we can ball with anyone.”
The Breakers certainly showed up. Trailing by 15 points heading into the fourth quarter, the Breakers won the final quarter with an impressive 14-24 effort, but it just wasn’t enough to get them across the line.
The Adelaide 36ers stepped up to the stage and faced a confident Utah Jazz team, who had demolished the Perth Wildcats a week earlier. Adelaide ended up losing 99-129, but competed evenly for three quarters, managing to win the first and third quarters. The ultra-competitive Nathan Sobey turned many heads.
He was fearless with his shooting. No matter who was in his way, he found a way to get off a clean shot. His bold creativity seemed to frazzle Utah’s defenders. Epke Udoh nearly fell over when he bit too hard on a Sobey pump fake, only to have the Adelaide guard nail the shot as he tried to recover his balance. Sobey top scored for the game, with 23 points, as well as 4 rebounds and 4 assists.
Despite the 36ers’ inability to maintain their relentlessness in the fourth quarter, Sobey left an impression on the Jazz. Joe Ingles, who had an off night scoring only 3 points, spoke highly of Adelaide’s leading scorer. “He’s got that kind of mentality of trying to take over a game, trying to dominate a game,” he said after the game. “Obviously he got cut by the Jazz, I think it was last year in Summer League, so he was probably dirty on that too.”
“We’re Nathan Sobey fans,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said, adding to the chorus of praise. “He’s a heck of a player and a heck of a kid.”
Despite the lack of victories, it’s hard to viewNBLxNBA 2018 as anything else but a success. The remarkable performances of Sobey, Webster, Cotton and Randle among others, proved that the NBL is a league to be paid attention to. When given the chance to step onto the NBA stage, the NBL showed the world, and the doubters back home, how far it has come.
The NBL’s ambitions for the future remain incredibly high. Last year the NBL sent three teams to the USA, this year it was five. League owner Larry Kestelman is eager to continue the momentum. “I knew that we could repeat it and we’re hoping to make this into an annual event,” he said at the unveiling of NBLxNBA 2018 in June.
The NBL will be keen to ride on the coattails of this event. Last year the league enjoyed record attendances at live games, as well as record broadcast audiences. With the bright spotlight of the NBA having shone on the NBL, in combination with a new broadcasting deal with Channel Nine, it is likely records could be broken again this season.
NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger believes the state of Australian basketball is at it’s highest level. “The quality of our athletes and our competition, the professionalism of the league, and the quality of our product has never been better,” he said at the 2019 NBL and WNBL launch event last Sunday.
Basketball in Australia is in the early stages of a renaissance, with NBLxNBA 2018 being only a part of a growing movement. If the current trajectory can be sustained, or improved, the rest of the world had better watch out. Only time will tell.