Illawarra Hawks: 2017-18 NBL Season Preview

Photo Credit of the NBL

In what was the tightest season in NBL history, the Illawarra Hawks concluded their 2016-17 regular season with a 15-13 record, clinching a playoff berth in the final round of the season by crushing the Brisbane Bullets 106-79.

Photo Credit of the NBL

Once in the playoffs, Rob Beveridge continued to show why he is one of the brightest coaches of the past decade. Taking a team of undersized misfits and ill-fitting imports past the number one seeded Adelaide 36ers in the semi’s (2-1), the Hawks were swept by the Perth Wildcats in the grand final series (3-0). [Read the Wildcats preview here]

As the season fast approaches, the arrival of new import talent has joined the incumbent core of his Hawks, calling Rob Beveridge to work his magic again. Will reigning Sixth Man of the Year Rotnei Clarke continue to come off the bench? Is Demitrius Conger a legit MVP candidate? And, is Delvon Johnson the closest thing the NBL has ever had to Robert Parish?

(*All statistics noted below are courtesy of the NBL and RealGM)


OFF-SEASON CHANGES

Key Additions: Demitrius Conger (Port of Antwerp), Delvon Johnson (Sodertalje)

Key Losses: Michael Holyfield, Marvelle Harris

In October 2016, Marvelle Harris was playing as a professional for the first time, in a foreign country and just 22 when making his debut for the Hawks. In his first 7 games, Harris scored 19 or more points 5 times and averaged 17.1 points in roughly 27 minutes per game. The Hawks rightly thought they had hit on a stud but then an ankle injury saddled Marvelle and he could never get ‘it’ back, not once scoring more than 17 in a game after November 1. With confidence in his body shaky, and his scoring effectiveness dwindled, Marvelle finished the season averaging just 10.8 points across 32 games (including a meagre 4.0 points per game in the grand final series). (stats)

“I think Marvelle Harris is going to be a really, really good player but he was probably just a bit too young for us” Rob Beveridge (source)

Michael Holyfield was a post bruiser who should have been on court far more. In his first 7 games, Holyfield averaged 7.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in 14 minutes per game. He proved to be a load down low, whilst rightly being viewed as a lane enforcer around the league. Across his last 15 games, he averaged just 3.1 points and 3 rebounds in under 10 minutes a game. I’m not sure what went down but why would you pay an import to play only 11 minutes and never start? (stats)

This off-season, adhering to Bevo’s well known “no idiot” policy, the Hawks have hit the reset button on their imports – except Rotnei – and are hoping that the inclusion of two experienced and hardened international veterans, in Conger and Johnson, will be enough to push the team over the hump in 2017-18.

“It was really important for our club to find a quality import who had extensive playing experience in Europe” Rob Beveridge on Conger (source)

JUMP ON THE CONGER LINE

Demitrius “Meech” Conger is a 6’6 guard/forward with a sneaky good up fake that he’ll use to great effect to knife into the paint and attack the rim hard. Once there he can finish going left, right or right over. Has an array of spin moves in the paint (though he likes to spin and finish left a lot), and will relish taking players on the drive or in the post. Is an efficient shooter, knocking down the three ball at a touch under 40% from outside the arc in 2016-17.  Looks comfortable finishing in traffic but loves to dunk the ball and should throw down a few “dunk of the year” contenders. With a pterodactyl-like 6’11 wingspan, Conger is a ball hawk that could smother opposing players in this league and garner some defensive player of the year attention.

A four year veteran of Italian, Greek and Belgian leagues, Conger most recently averaged 11.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in 54 games for Port of Antwerp (stats). Whilst those numbers aren’t gaudy, he appears ready made to be a dominant force against NBL competition in Australia. In a ringing endorsement, he reminds Coach Beveridge of the greatest Hawk of all-time – Glen Saville.

Demitrius Conger has all the tools to dominate the NBL and will likely finish high in the MVP voting this season.

THE CHIEF – DJ JOHNSON

Delvon “DJ” Johnson reminds me of Boston Celtic legend ‘The Chief’ Robert Parish.  Delvon has a ton of international experience, plying his trade in Germany, Cyprus, South Korea and most recently for Sodertalje in the Basketball Champions League and FIBA Europe Cup. The former SEC Defensive Player of the Year is a block machine whose purpose in life will be to protect the rim, rebound the ball and dunk everything thrown up to him. (stats)

DJ is a smart basketball player who knows his limitations and sticks to what he does well. He is instinctual in the pick and roll and has good timing on dives to the rim. He finishes with purpose and aggression at the rim. On defence, he moves his feet well and is surprisingly nimble for a 6’9 big. If caught up top, he can stay on guards and is quick enough to move back and disrupt a pass or shot, which is going to surprise a few players. Chief is pretty quick on the rim to rim run and might get a few big dunks catching out slower players that can’t go with him. Lob catches and put back dunks will be his offensive bread and butter.

“I think he’ll bring a tonne of things, he can alter shots, block shots, he’s good defensively, he can rebound and he can finish at the rim. He’s got a really high basketball IQ to, so you can throw him in there and he knows all the plays.” Rotnei Clarke and former college teammate Delvon Johnson (source)

If the pre-season is any indication, the incoming imports ‘Meech and The Chief’ appear to be much better suited to Bevo ball than the outgoing duo, which should be reason enough for fans to get excited about the Hawks chances.

“I’m really, really happy with both guys, I always said we needed a stud three-man and I feel very confident that we’ve found him” Rob Beveridge (Source)


WHAT TO EXPECT

Smart coaching, good basketball and Conger highlights… all on a tight budget.

With very little roster churn, highlighted by just the two import changes, expect the Hawks to be much the same.

The Hawks were the worst rebounding team in the league last year according to RealGM, corralling only 47% of available caroms. Their bench performed even worse: setting league low numbers for offensive and defensive rebound percentages. The team was clearly undersized and it shows in their numbers.

Provided Delvon and Conger are given minutes, the teams rebound count should see an uptick in raw numbers.  The Hawks already play (and score) at the league’s second fastest clip and more boards means more possessions which leads to more shots. This would be to Bevo’s liking.

The Hawks have traditionally shot a lot of three’s and last season they jacked up almost 26 per game (second behind Melbourne) hitting at about the league average 35%. They finished second in free throws made and attempted while easily leading the league with just under 20 assists per game.

Combined, the numbers give you an indication of the type of ball the Hawks like to play: Quick, lots of passes and good efficient shots.

Look for the Hawks to again be amongst the leaders for assists, three’s made and attempted and free throws made and attempted. It’s Houston Rocket’s ball ‘lite’ – it’s Bevo Ball.

On the other side, the Hawks like to extend the defence, leading the league in forced turnovers and steals per game last season. Conger will only help the team in both of these categories. Where the team needs to do a better job is defending the three point line. Opposition teams hit at a league best 36.4% when playing against Illawarra, it’s an area they can improve on and both Delvon and Conger will hopefully help in this area. (stats)


BREAKOUT CANDIDATE

If Eric Watterson All-Star Angus Glover was fit and ready to go, he would be the clubhouse leader for a breakout in 2017-18. Unfortunately, he’s rehabbing from ACL surgery and may not see any NBL action at all this year.

So a 25 year old forward who is already an important piece in the Beveridge jigsaw gets the nod here.

Heading into his second season with Illawarra (third overall), Nick Kay will look to improve on the 9.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists he averaged last year for the Hawks. (stats)

During the FIBA Asia Cup for Australia, where he averaged 7.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists, Nick shot a blistering 52/40/91 across 6 games. Impressive shooting numbers.  Kay hopes to parlay that whole Boomer experience into a leading role on the redemption campaign for the Hawks in 2017-18. Aging duo Oscar Forman and Tim Coenraad are showing signs of slowing down, whilst Cody Ellis is consistently inconsistent. Look for Nick to relish taking on an expanded role this year. How he combines with AJ Ogilvy and Meech in the frontcourt will be crucial for Illawarra.


OUTLOOK

It’s downright ugly for Illawarra early on and how they handle the first 12 games will define the season. It’s that simple.

Nine of the first twelve are on the road with 4 games against the Sydney Kings (who are a reasonable bet to push into the top 4) and two trips to Perth to take on the Wildcats.

Four of the last five are on the road too, including two trips to New Zealand.

Wake up on the 5th December with a 4-8 or worse record and things are looking shaky for the Hawks, especially considering their 7 game home stretch in Dec/Jan includes playing Perth and Melbourne twice.

It is an absolutely brutal schedule that will test the mettle of Bevo’s men.


PREDICTED RECORD: 14-14

Great coaching and a dominant wing player may not be enough to overcome what looms as a crucial start to the season. Last year the team was 8-7 in games decided by 8 points or less, they won a lot of the close ones. With a road heavy early schedule and a lack of quality depth, the Hawks could find that tough to replicate.

If any man is able to instill a total focus on what the team’s identity is and have it pay dividends, it’s Bevo.  Will it be enough?

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