As the NBL’s preseason Blitz tournament kicked off on Thursday, a heavy contingent of scouts including representatives from 27 different NBA teams followed the league down to Tasmania to get their eyes on available talent, with a focus on this season’s Next Stars.
One particularly notable name following the action was Jonathan Givony from DraftExpress, who spoke to ABC Grandstand’s David Lithgow on Friday about the NBL’s Next Stars program, preseason NBL Blitz grades for LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, and the potential of Josh Green this coming season in Arizona.
The decision for top NBA prospects such as LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, to come to play in Australia is a massive coup for the NBL, but Givony notes the ripple effect that the decisions will have back home with the existing NCAA pathway.
“It’s been done before. Not [so much] in Australia but with Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrence Ferguson [who played for the Adelaide 36ers in the 2016/17 NBL season], but this is unique what they’ve built here – the Next Star pathway, I think it’s really interesting and it’s an experiment for both sides.
“People are looking at it in the US and they want to see how it’s going to end up because it’s a totally brand new thing and I’m sure that’s it’s taken a little bit of a hit out of the college game too, I mean, not having two exciting talents like LaMelo and RJ and makes the college season that much less interesting.
“It speaks to the initiative of the Next Stars program that they’ve put forth and the recruiting that [the NBL has] done – it’s not easy to convince this caliber of prospect to give up on [their NCAA options], and especially a guy like RJ Hampton who could’ve gone anywhere; Duke, Kansas, Memphis, he could’ve told any college in America I want to come to you and he could be the starting PG right now. I think it’s pretty unique and incumbent on the NBL to make sure it works out for him.
“The NCAA has never been less popular than it is now and I think people are really looking at it now and saying, ‘Why haven’t they made any changes to give these players a piece of the pie? They’re the ones holding the product together.'”
The LaMelo show
It was that same night LaMelo Ball put skeptics on notice with an incredible opening statline of 20 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists against defending champion Perth Wildcats, and naturally, his impressions were positive.
“LaMelo Ball is going to be much higher than we’re we had him on our last board. [previously 24th]. The shot making is one of the most interesting thing about him. Where they [LaMelo and his brother Lonzo] are similar is in terms of their feel for the game, their vision, their creativity, just how natural talents they are with the ball in their hands.”
Comparisons to his brother –who went second overall in the 2017 NBA draft– are natural, and complimentary given his draft range, but the shooting with which Lonzo has struggled so mightily with since entering the NBA is a comparison that may not sit so favourably with LaMelo.
“[His jumpshot] is a little bit unorthodox, not quite as unorthodox as Lonzo, but I was watching him today in shootaround and he’ll reel off nine or ten in a row no problem, so we’ll see how that translates during the season. That’s one of the main things NBA teams will be looking at; how well does he shoot it from three and also from the free throw line, but I think you can say with confidence that he’s a better shooter than Lonzo.”
Givony believes the NBL will continue to be a pathway for NBA athletes who are no longer at the prime of their careers, and commented on the way LaMelo Ball has been taken under the wing by former NBA veteran and current Hawks teammate, Aaron Brooks.
“I’ve been at a couple of practices now and just watched the way [Aaron Brooks] has interacted with LaMelo Ball, and he’s embracing the role of being a leader and being a mentor.”
The Hampton watch
Whilst the majority of the exposure is rightfully aimed at Ball after his breakout performance on Friday night, Givony had glowing remarks for fellow Next Star RJ Hampton, who recorded 11 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in his opening Blitz game for New Zealand.
“He’s a big point guard, he’s grown also – he’s now around 6’6, he’s a big time athlete, and he’s really good with the ball in his hands.
“I was talking to the Breakers’ head coach Dan Shamir, and the thing that has impressed him the most is how versatile he is defensively, just how disruptive he can be just getting up on people at the point of attack but also wreaking havoc with his length, off the ball, closeouts, and I think he’s talked a lot about his basketball IQ and how quickly he picks things up and how professional he is.”
“Big guards, they’re always really intriguing in the NBA because you can do so many different things with them. It’s a positionless game now and the fact he can guard 1’s, 2’s and maybe once he gets stronger maybe some 3’s, it’s going to really help him, it’s going to make him easy to fit into different lineup configurations, and with different types of players.
[Like LaMelo] his shooting is another aspect that people are going to be tracking pretty closely to see where is he at at this stage, he’s looking a little streaky in that regard, but I think he’s making good progress there too.”
On Josh Green’s potential
One player that would’ve been welcomed with open arms to a Next Stars roster spot but decided to stay with college program Arizona for the upcoming season, is Australian star prospect Josh Green.
“It’s funny that the tradeoff that we’re seeing is the top Australian [2020 prospect] Josh Green is at Arizona and where RJ Hampton is with the New Zealand Breakers.”
Whilst Givony admits that early season boards are prone to wild fluctuation, he spoke highly of Green, an athletic wing who sits in the teens of DraftExpress’ most recent mock.
“The physical tools, that’s where you gotta start – he’s 6’6, 6’10/6’11 wingspan, great body, really, really good athlete.”
“The shooting has been inconsistent, that’s going to be one of the things they’re going to want to monitor. He’s missed the last five months with [a shoulder surgery]. He was only recently just cleared for practice, so he probably hasn’t had as much chance as he would’ve liked to work on that part of his game, but I think the potential you see defensively, in the open court, handling the ball… There was a school of thought earlier on in his career that he was going to maybe develop in to more of a combo guard because he was so good with the ball in his hands.”
“It’ll be interesting to see how things play out. He’s going to get to play with his good friend Nico Mannion that he played AAU ball with, and he’s going to have a huge opportunity to have a big year with Arizona.”
Having NBA scouts down for star US recruits like LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton has benefits for our local talent, especially for prospects like Dan Grida and Sam Froling, who play alongside Ball in the Illawarra Hawks. The attention these players attracts also helps exposure of our local prospects, and Givony says many eyes are peeled for Australian talent, especially with the team-first, high effort work ethic players are known for.
“I talk to a lot of college basketball coaches and as soon as they heard that I’m out here they say, ‘Can you find me a player? I’d love to have an Aussie on my roster’, just because people know what they’re getting with Australian players and the talent is undeniable.”
“I mean look how many NBA players there are now; Andrew Bogut being the #1 pick in the draft, and Ben Simmons… it’s a serious pathway.”
The world is certainly growing in awareness for the talent our country produces, and there’s no doubt things can only continue to get better.