Now that the NBL and NBA seasons are firmly in the rear vision mirror, Australian basketball’s focus turns to national team action and specifically, World Cup qualification.
On Friday, the 12-man Boomers squad set to take part in the third window of the first round of qualification, convened at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre (MSAC), with local media invited to a partial open practice.
The Boomers have already booked their place in the second round of qualifiers to take place down the road, but the points on offer in the upcoming two road contests against Japan and the Philippines will carry over, making the two fixtures ever so important.
Roaring through the first four games with relative ease (the closest final margin being 16 against the Philippines in February), the NBL-centric Boomers squad have been able to take care of business in impressive fashion. Though, there was a different feel in the air as you walked into the MSAC show court on Friday. There was a tangible feeling of anticipation, even excitement.
The reason for that? An injection of NBA talent, as the Milwaukee Bucks duo of Matthew Dellavedova and Thon Maker are set to add their talent to an already impressive roster.
Much of the intrigue surrounds the 21 year old Maker, who is slated to make his Boomers debut, an achievement he has proudly – and publicly set as a goal since day one. With his long-awaited debut less than a fortnight away, Maker gave the feel of a man who is just ready to get out on the floor.
“It’s very special,” Maker responded when asked about his debut. “Australia has been great to my family, to make it to the NBA is one thing, but to play for my country and represent, it means a lot.”
— Basketball Australia (@BasketballAus) June 23, 2018
One guy that knows how monumental the milestone will be for Thon, is a guy who has spent as much time with him as anyone in the basketball world – Matthew Dellavedova.
“I know he’s really excited to be here and be among the group,” Dellavedova said. “He’s exactly what the Boomers are about, all about the team; tough, competitive, and an unbelievable team mate. I’m really excited that he’s here. It’s going to be great for him and great for the Boomers.”
Though only 27 years old, Dellavedova is well and truly an elder statesman of the Australian national team. Already a 2-time Olympian, and World Cup participant, the honour of suiting up for the Boomers is not yet lost on him.
“It’s awesome, there’s nothing better than putting on the green and gold,” Dellavedova beamed. “These boys have done an awesome job so far, helping us qualify for the World Cup. I’m really excited to be a part of it and get into practice.”
The word of the day was undoubtedly excited. Through three interviews spanning approximately 15 minutes with Maker, Dellavedova and head coach Andrej Lemanis, the word excited was dropped seven times. The smiles were wide across the group, laughter and banter free-flowing, pop music blaring in the background as the squad stretched and prepared for practice.
Lemanis touched on the mood of Maker in particular, leading into the first match-up against Japan on June 29.
“[Thon has] always spoken about one day he wants to play for Australia,” Lemanis said. “It means something to him, and there’s something special about seeing the joy in a person’s face when it becomes real and they get to play for their country. It’s a special moment and one of those things that comes with being involved in this environment.”
While thrilled to welcome NBA level players to the roster, Lemanis was quick to remind the present media that the wider job at hand is the primary focus.
“The important thing now is that as a crew, we don’t get too distracted with both Delly and Thon being here,” Lemanis explained. “They are both good guys, and they both just want to fit in and integrate into the group. We just want to find a way to work those guys in and continue to build as a team.”
Despite Lemanis calling for normalcy, the atmosphere was far from it. With 3-time NBA champion Luc Longley joining Mark Bradtke on the Boomers staff, the small show court at MSAC was stacked with Australian basketball royalty. That was even before Andrew Gaze strolled around the back of the court and took a seat on the far side of the room, after greeting Maker with an enthusiastic hi-five.
— Kane Pitman (@mkebucksaus) June 22, 2018
The one marquee name missing from the afternoon session was the recently returned home Andrew Bogut, though Lemanis confirmed he has been keeping in touch with the Sydney Kings’ newest recruit.
“‘Bogues and I have had good communication as I have with all the NBA-based guys,” Lemanis said. “He’s firmly committed to 2019-20. He’s really positive and we’re looking forward to having him a part of the group.”
As the road to the World Cup gains steam, the Boomers will welcome back an abundance of international playing talent, something that will make their iron-clad goal of claiming Australia’s first ever medal at a major men’s basketball tournament, a realistic one.
Friday was the first coming together for this new group, ahead of two very much meaningful qualification milestones. It was fun, it was vibrant and it felt like a special occasion, but the focus was clearly there. As I was leaving MSAC Friday, I couldn’t help but ponder the future for the Boomers. There’s no surprise the Boomers reiterated “exciting”, because it truly is.
The two game schedule tips off in Japan on the 29th of this month, before the squad visits the Philippines on the 2nd of July in front of possibly as many as 55 thousand, sure to be parochial fans in the basketball loving nation.