Australia's NBA talent approaches a new normal this 2020-21 season

Another NBA season tips off tomorrow and a handful of Australians are littered around North America, all sitting at different stages of the NBA lifecycle.

Another NBA season tips off tomorrow, and a handful of Australians are littered around North America, all sitting at different stages of the NBA lifecycle. From All-Stars in Philadelphia to veteran stalwarts in Texas to neophytes in Louisiana, this contingent of Australians provide a glimpse into the diversity of being an NBA athlete.

This is now the new normal for Australian basketball. There is no more placing Australian NBA players into historical archetypes. The talent base is way too diverse in 2020.

Ben Simmons is the most fluorescent of talents. He is also the Australian with the most succulent media narratives circling around his season. Equipped with a new front office leader (Daryl Morey) and head coach (Doc Rivers), the Sixers are (again) trumpeting hope of elevating into the upper echelon of teams. It’s a return to the optimism that characterised Simmons’ first two seasons.

In the twelve months following Kawhi’s Leonard’s magical moment in Toronto, the Sixers seemingly made every possible mistake they could. Brett Brown was a lame duck coach, with a playing roster that cramped (putting it nicely) the ability for Simmons and Joel Embiid to dominate, as two young All-Stars should. They were doomed to fail and did exactly that last season. Morey has pressed “Ctrl+Z” on the sins of the 2019 offseason, and on paper, created a roster full of shooting to complement the Sixers’ two leading men.

The excuses for Simmons and Embiid are now gone. The Sixers are now led by Rivers and Morey, two men with zero emotional ties to the careers of their All-Star duo. Morey has built a reputation for trading anyone and anything he can to improve his chances of making the NBA Finals. If Simmons and Embiid flame out in the playoffs once more, then one of them is likely out the door. All the promise of the #Process will be gone and the pair will become the latest duo of promising starlets who needed a divorce to reach their potential.

One closing note on Simmons, Embiid and the Sixers, they have accomplished exactly what John Wall and Bradley Beal did five years ago: a couple of runs into the second round of the playoffs. Which is to say, they have barely done anything of note in the postseason. The Wizards once hyped duo maxed out as a second round team. Simmons and Embiid must show they are capable of more, and they are running out of time to prove it. With a Simmons for James Harden trade continuing to float around NBA gossip circles, this Sixers roster will remain one impulsive decision away from a seismic shakeup until they prove capable of contending for the championship.

Ryan Broekhoff started the preseason alongside Simmons in Sixers training camp and has subsequently been released. He is now floating around NBA free agency, awaiting the next chance to revitalise his career.

While Patty Mills and his San Antonio are no longer capable of making deep playoff runs, Australia’s most experienced NBA athlete has been pushing forward a new narrative of his own over the past few weeks. Mills has been a consummate role player during his entire career in San Antonio. Even as his talents have blossomed over the past five years, he has averaged just 22.8 minutes and eight shots per game.

This is in stark contrast to the Mills we have seen in a Boomers singlet over the past decade. When Mills plays for his national team, he becomes one of the most lethal players in FIBA basketball. Mills has long sacrificed in San Antonio and it has clearly been worth it: his career has blossomed under Gregg Popovich, and his standing as one of the most liked players in the NBA has only elevated. For the first time in his career, however, Mills has been teasing with taking a bigger role in the NBA over the past few weeks. Suggestive social media comments and gaudy box scores from preseason games are mounting up. Will this be the year that Mills’ NBA output matches his FIBA exploits?

It must also be noted that Mills is playing on the last year of his contract, for a team that lacks the talent to compete at the highest levels. He is no longer on a championship contender and at 32, has one more opportunity to secure a long-term contract in the NBA. Kemba Walker, whom Mills thoroughly outplayed when the Boomers and Team USA got together last August, collected $141 million (USD) last July from the Boston Celtics. Mills is a couple years older than Walker, and has never had All-Star seasons like the former Charlotte Hornet. But there are more generational dollars out there for Mills if this season goes to plan. More shots and a bigger role for the Spurs will only help drive up his price ahead of free agency.

Joe Ingles is remarkably entering his seventh NBA season. It’s also a fresh start that will see longtime owners, the Miller family step back and and a new ownership group, which includes Atlassian co-founder (and fellow Australian) Mike Cannon-Brookes as a minority owner.

The memories of Ingles being the Clippers final training camp waiver in 2014 have been comprehensively replaced by a prosperous NBA career. Ingles, along with his Jazz team, have both been a model in consistency since joining forces. The Australian rarely misses any time, and the Utah franchise has become a reliable playoff outfit in the cutthroat Western Conference. But can they take the next step? It’s a leap that is the hardest of all, and asks that they vault into championship conversation by making the conference finals.

Mike Conley’s first year in Utah didn’t go as expected, and it forced Ingles to yo-yo between starting and coming off the bench. During Conley’s extended absence, the Australian averaged 15.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 5.9 assists, while shooting 51% from behind the arc. This output is nothing new, and it offers Utah fans an added boost if Conley can regain his form from Memphis. Inserting an effective Conley over Ingles into the starting unit can have trickle down impacts all across the Jazz rotation.

At 33, Ingles will eventually begin his decline. A reserve role on his team, especially as the Jazz offence continues to evolve around Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanović, appears beneficial for both player and team. Ingles figures to be one of the best bench players in the NBA this season. His statistics won’t always bear this out; but in the same way Andre Iguodala was the reserve glue that held Golden State together during their title runs, Ingles is one of Quin Snyder’s most important men.

In Cleveland, Matthew Dellavedova is again with the franchise that made him an NBA champion in 2016. Much has changed since that title season, both with player and team, and the Victorian native is now on the fringes of the NBA, as he plays on a minimum contract for the first time since his lofty payday with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Dellavedova is on the back end of his NBA career. His ability to lead and teach — something Cavaliers head coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, profoundly spoke on earlier this month — will ensure he remains on an NBA roster for as long as that is palatable for Dellavedova. But the Australian’s days of being a regular rotation piece on quality teams are likely a thing of the past. As a reserve guard, Dellavedova can be the second unit facilitator needed to stabilise a questionable Cavaliers bench. He will be tasked with providing mentorship to the likes of Colin Sexton and Darius Garland. Minutes given to Dellavedova could vary during the upcoming season, but the Cavaliers will certainly be relying upon his leadership to carry the franchise out of the doldrums.

Dante Exum is now Dellavedova’s teammate and the realities of professional sport are starting to hit. A healthy Exum will play for the Cavaliers. The fit on paper is beyond obvious. Exum can be a defensive anchor for a team devoid of competent wing defenders. He is also young enough, where the Cavaliers front office can espouse his long-term future in Cleveland if things go to plan this season. As with everything Exum-related, his effectiveness comes back to having a healthy body.

Exum is in the final year of his contract and is facing the most pivotal season of his career. If the injuries return, the Cavaliers have no emotional investment into his career and could cut ties with the oft-injured Australian. In a worst case scenario, he could easily be used in a deal to acquire more assets if the season doesn’t go to plan. Simply put: it’s on Exum to prove his place in Cleveland.

Aron Baynes could be forgiven for thinking he has seen it all over the past year. The March shutdown put an end to the best regular season of his career, before COVID-19 placed much of his basketball career to the backburner. Having endured his own battle with the coronavirus during the US summer, Baynes could not regain his health in time to make an impact for the Phoenix Suns in the Orlando bubble. Now he is a member of the Toronto Raptors, who are based out of Tampa Bay because COVID-19 restrictions make international travel to Canada implausible for NBA teams. How bizarre and how 2020 is that?

Through all of the madness thrust on professional athletes at the moment, Baynes has found an attractive landing spot with the Raptors. Nick Nurse has already established himself as one of shrewdest coaching minds in the sport, and while the team has lost a number of big names from their championship roster, the guts of an upper echelon Eastern Conference side remain. The departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are of most relevance to Baynes. They are the reasons he is now a Raptor. Baynes is slated to start at the five when the season tips off, and his two way talents are now vital to the Raptors success.

Josh Green has next in Dallas. More accurately, Green has finally arrived to the platform that has been prophesied to him for the past decade. As we explored in November, Green has been given with the perfect launching pad for his NBA career in Dallas. He landed on a team with the NBA’s next prodigy, Luka Dončić, and a head coach in Rick Carlisle that is admired throughout the league. Green offers the Mavericks a promising developmental option as they attempt to build a perennial contender around Dončić. It’s very possible, perhaps likely, that Green is the Australian who plays on the best regular season team this year. With that opportunity also comes this harsh reality: minutes won’t be given to Green under the pretence of development and learning. He must become a reliable contributor or he won’t play much this year. Carlisle is notoriously stingy with handing minutes out to rookies. Given the Mavericks’ desire to accelerate up the standings this season, the onus is on Green to hit the ground running. Long-term, Green is in the perfect place to build his career in the Association. This season, however, figures to be a trial by fire for the Sydney native. 

Will Magnay has graduated from the NBL to the G League. He is sitting on a two-way contract with the New Orleans Pelicans, and appears destined to spend the majority of the season playing with the Pelicans’ minor league outfit in Birmingham, Alabama. Toiling away in the G League is an experience unique to itself. This is the fringe of the NBA, albeit without any of the glitz and glamour of the highest level. Magnay will be tested, mentally more than anything, and the allure of an NBA debut is the carrot to chase. Current NBL superstars Deng Adel, Isaac Humphries and Mitch Creek have followed the exact same path as Magnay in seasons prior, and each was rewarded with minutes in the NBA proper.

For the Pelicans, playing Magnay alongside Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson would signal that something has gone haywire this season. Steven Adams, Jaxson Hayes and Willy Hernangomez all begin the season on the Pelicans’ active roster. Magnay is closer than ever to his NBA dream, but minutes wont be given away. Vitally, however, the reigning NBL Most Improved Player has found an NBA ecosystem to incubate his development.