Bogut on Australian basketball's junior development, and the NBL's fit in international hoops
How well does Aussie hoops stack up against the rest of the world, both in terms of junior development, and the ever-growing NBL?
Credit: JBC Studios
Australian basketball is entering an unprecedented era on the world stage, with seven Aussies currently listed as active NBA players, and that’s without counting Kyrie Irving. In fact, this figure should soon become eight, as Dyson Daniels is a projected first round pick in the 2022 NBA draft. Similarly, the recent 2021 WNBA season featured seven Australians, six of whom made the playoffs.
While the Opals have been a consistent force for decades, with a resume that includes four Olympic medals and a World Cup title in 2006, the Boomers have overcome the proverbial hump much more recently in terms of silverware. Following a string of fourth place finishes in major tournaments, dating back to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Boomers’ 2021 bronze medal winning Olympic campaign was a landmark achievement.
At the junior level, Australia’s Under-19 women’s team struck gold at the 1993 FIBA Under-19 World Championships, before the men matched this feat at the 1997 FIBA Under-22 World Championships. Later, an Andrew Bogut-led Under-19 men’s team was victorious at the 2003 FIBA Under-19 World Championships. Having picked up tournament MVP honours at that event, Bogut knows first hand how competitive Australia can be on the world stage.
The NBA veteran of fourteen seasons recently offered his thoughts on Australia’s junior basketball setup, and how it stacks up against the world, in an interview with The Pick and Roll. Bogut recognised the growing number of Aussies earning NBA minutes, and the recent successes of the senior national team, whereas in previous generations our junior teams’ accomplishments didn’t quite translate to significant NBA representation.
“We usually are very competitive on the world junior stage. I guess the difference now, in the last decade, has been [that] the junior development has now correlated to senior development - which we didn’t have before. A lot of our juniors would be really good, but would never really end up in the NBA. They would be really good NBL players, [and] at best they might be a European player,” Bogut said.
In terms of player development, the establishment of Canberra’s NBA Global Academy, in 2018, was a major endorsement for Australian basketball. NBA executives recognised the achievements of Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence (CoE), in producing NBA draftees like Luc Longley, Chris Anstey, Andrew Bogut and Danté Exum. However, while Australia holds the NBA’s tick of approval as a player development hub, there’s one area where European clubs have an edge over Australia.
In Europe, professional clubs have their own junior academy, providing young prospects with a direct pathway to the pro scene. This often allows youths to test themselves against grown men at a very young age, and the extreme example would be Ricky Rubio, who made his professional debut in the Spanish league at age 14. Reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokić similarly started playing professionally at 17, while Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić graduated to Real Madrid’s senior team at just 16.
“I think our development is up there, but the Eastern Europeans are probably up there [as well]. I think the development over there is probably one of the best in the world. The Balkans, Lithuania and those countries just have basketball factories essentially,” Bogut added.
“They do a pretty smart thing where their professional clubs have junior academies linked directly to them, which we don’t have in Australia. That’s the one negative of Australia, that there is no real pipeline to the pros, per se. Whereas in Europe it’s pretty clear - if you play in Barcelona [for example], you go to the Barcelona academy and you work your way up.
“The US development is decent but it’s a different kettle of fish, just because they are born athletes over there. [Regarding] development, I don’t think is as good junior-wise, because it just doesn’t need to be, to be honest with you. They just have amazing athletes.”
While Basketball Australia’s CoE will always be the gold standard for player development in the country, there is ultimately a limited number of spots on offer. Bogut suggested that we may start to see the European model creep into Australia, such that a wider group of junior talent can be reached. The Sydney Kings for instance have initiated the “Hoops Capital Academy”, which is advertised as “Australia’s linear pathway from beginner to elite basketball”.
“I think that [a direct link to the pros] definitely would help. We’re trying to do something similar with the Sydney Kings, down the line - with junior programs. I remember when I was a junior, at Dandenong stadium, they had posters of Simon Dwight and they had Sam Mackinnon [as well]. There was somewhat of an affiliation with the NBL, but there wasn’t a direct link. So, I think if you can have a direct link, where kids can see that if they get good enough, they can play at Rod Laver Arena, John Cain Arena or Qudos Arena - that’s one thing [that could help].”
When Bogut was an aspiring NBA draftee, there were essentially two pathways for an Aussie kid to reach basketball’s premier competition - US college hoops, and the NBL. Exum changed the game when he trained at the AIS right up until the 2014 NBA draft, foregoing both the college and NBL routes in the process. Ben Simmons similarly created his own adventure, by joining an American high school in preparation for college. More recently, Dyson Daniels became the first Aussie to sign with the G League Ignite program, allowing him to enter the professional arena on a team created specifically for draft prospects.
“There’s no right way anymore, and I think that’s a good thing. The right way back when I played was, if you wanted to get in the NBA, you would go to college and you would hopefully get drafted. Whereas now, you can go via the NBL [or] Europe [to give a couple of examples]. Brandon Jennings was a teammate of mine [in Milwaukee] who went via Europe. You can go via high school and college like Ben. You can go via high school and play G League for a year.
“There’s no right or wrong way, and I think if you have the opportunity [to attend the AIS], it’s a fantastic pipeline to go in. But you know, the AIS only has 12 scholarships and the NBA Global Academy has a handful for Australians. So, there’s not that many spots when you look at it. It is hard to get into. The beauty of today, with the world being as accessible and open as it is, is there’s no right or wrong way in my opinion.”
When asked if there’s one area where Aussie hoops could improve, Bogut pointed to the winning vs development dilemma at the junior level. Having been cut from the Victorian under-15 state team in his youth, the Melbourne native knows too well how junior talent can fall through the cracks. In recent years, Josh Giddey was cut from three Victorian junior teams, before clearing this hurdle at the 2019 Australian Under-18 Championships. Some juniors have the potential to develop into an NBA frame like the seven foot tall Bogut, or possess NBA level basketball IQ like Giddey, but the rest of their game is yet to catch up.
“My biggest gripe with the Australian system is that, [while] I think winning is very important —and you should never teach that losing is okay— I don’t think an Under-12s coach who is coaching the second team should have winning as their priority. What I mean by that is, if you’ve got a kid that’s clearly growing and going to be 7-foot, or is long and athletic but hasn’t put it together yet, I feel like you have to put them in your team at a junior development age - rather than trying to win an under-12s B grade championship.
“No-one is going to remember the coach that won the Under-16s, and you could even argue state championships. They’re going to remember it for three to four months, and that’s it. But everyone is going to remember the coach that develops player X, that got drafted. That’s what i try to tell junior coaches. It’s great holding that trophy, and you want to teach winning - I’m not saying anything against that. You don’t want to teach losing and reward losing, but if you develop an NBA level talent, everyone is going to know your name. If you win an Under-12 championship [on the other hand], it’s small in the grand scheme of things.”
This school of thought could even be extended to the professional level, with the recent advent of the NBA G League Ignite program. Dyson Daniels passed on a likely NBL Next Stars deal, as well as numerous college offers, to join a competition where winning or losing wouldn’t stifle his development. The NBA prospect averaged 31.6 minutes for Ignite, allowing him to freely put up numbers and showcase his talent, without being restricted by a coach who might be focused on wins. This move paid major dividends, as Daniels is currently ranked tenth in ESPN’s best available list for the upcoming 2022 NBA draft.
“It’s going to be a lot of player-focused individual development. So, I feel like with the NBL, it’s more about team and winning – that sort of thing. And I think in a young guy [like me], still getting that individual development is a key for me, as well as being able to play against high-quality players, and getting high quality looks from NBA scouts who live over in America. I felt like signing with the G League was going to be the best way for me to develop, and get some good eyes [from scouts] as well,” Daniels told The Pick and Roll, in August 2021.
At the other end of the spectrum, talented Next Star Mojave King has been starved of playing time, for two years running on struggling NBL teams. The likes of Brian Bowen, Terry Armstrong and Nikita Mikhailovskii have faced similar challenges down under. However, Bogut acknowledged that the NBL is a business where winning comes first, and that this argument holds only at the junior level. While the G League have burst onto the scene with a novel scheme, NBL teams are in no position to develop NBA hopefuls at the cost of winning.
“Pro basketball is a different level - it’s tough for a professional coach. Depends what your goals are for the organisation, but winning is most of them. So, you’re always going to go for the win rather than development, as a pro organisation. The coach is going to think ‘my job is on the line’, so it’s a bit different professionally.
“I think Dyson’s got a fair point [however] - he could end up going to an NBL team that’s deep and making a run, where he’s only getting 15 minutes a game. Kind of like Brian Bowen, who had that issue with us, when he was there in Sydney. He just didn’t play a whole lot of minutes, like he thought he would, and I think he was pretty pissed off about it, but it was what it was. We were a deep team about to try and win a championship, and sometimes it’s just the way it goes.”
Even at the professional level, Conner Henry will always be remembered as the coach who helped Josh Giddey get to the NBA. Just six games into the 2020-21 NBL season, American import Donald Sloan was released by the Adelaide 36ers, and Henry didn’t hesitate to hand Giddey the reins as starting point guard. Giddey to be fair, did play at a very high level, and ultimately became a nightly triple double threat, so one could argue Henry was promoting both winning and development. Nevertheless, Adelaide missed the playoffs and Henry was out of the job months later - but to add to Bogut’s point, nobody will remember that. Henry will rather be remembered for facilitating Giddey’s rise.
NBL vs Europe
While the NBA will always be the pinnacle of professional basketball, the NBL has carved out its own niche as a premier second tier competition. The weekly schedule of games means the stakes are higher every night, especially late in the season when postseason spots are on the line. NBL clubs may lack the history, bankroll and prestige of EuroLeague heavyweights like Barcelona and Real Madrid, but Bogut believes they are on par with the vast majority of European teams.
“I think the NBL has its own niche. I think people appreciate that there’s one or two games a week. I’ve talked to people in the US that follow the NBA, [about the NBL] - Ethan Strauss is one of them, and he’s a prominent journalist and reporter. He was saying he was shocked by how much the games meant, game to game. He said he tuned in for a few games of LaMelo Ball’s and R.J. Hampton’s last season, and game 19 was fisticuffs, physical, back-and-forth and passionate.”
“I think we’re right up there [with Europe], but there’s probably a handful of teams that we’re probably not on the level of. You look at Barcelona or Real Madrid, [and] maybe CSKA Moscow - there’s a handful of teams that are top tier EuroLeague teams, which the NBL might struggle to compete against. But I think, other than those teams, even using Spain as an example, take away the top 3-4 teams in Spain, and the NBL can compete very well with the rest of that league.”
The NBL’s Next Stars program, launched in 2018, has undoubtedly expanded the league’s international audience. LaMelo Ball is the first name that comes to mind, as the then-teenage celebrity featured on his family’s reality TV show “Ball in the Family”, before ever stepping foot on an NBL court. In the most recent 2021-22 season, the NBL has attracted interest from top shelf European prospects, including Ousmane Dieng, Hugo Besson and Ariel Hukporti.
“I think [the NBL] is getting better and better. We’re getting younger talent coming through with the Next Stars, but I think welcoming back NBA guys like myself [is important too], and then hopefully Joe Ingles one day. Patty [may come back too], and Delly is back now. Maybe Aron Baynes [as well].”
The NBL’s marquee player rule allows clubs to satisfy salary cap rules, while retaining elite local players who hail from either Australia or New Zealand. This includes players like Matthew Dellavedova and Bogut, who returned to Australia following long and productive careers in the NBA. For a club’s first marquee player, only $171,654 is counted in the salary cap, although this figure progressively increases with additional marquee players.
“I think the rules [have helped the NBL] as well - allowing marquee players has really helped, as it doesn’t affect the cap. I think continuing to be progressive, and tweaking little rules along the way, is what the NBL has done well - to this point. And they need to continue to do this. Sometimes you need to tweak certain rules to try and bring back talent, and sometimes people won’t like it, but it’s better for your league long-term.”
Moreover, European basketball contracts have always held a questionable reputation, with players often not getting the money they were promised. Romeo Travis, an American forward who spent fourteen years playing in Europe, claimed that he had “gone months without being paid” at times. “I've been fined for no reason other than the team was having money problems and didn't want to pay me,” Travis added.
Bogut echoed this sentiment, giving credit to the NBL’s professionalism and reliability in honouring contracts. “I think people are starting to understand that with the NBL, you’re not getting as much money on paper as you would in Europe, [but there’s more to it]. The problem with European deals is that they are [only] on paper. If you go on a losing streak and you lose six straight games [in Europe], the pay [occasionally] doesn’t show up in your bank account.
“So, you might have signed a million dollar deal, but you might only get $700,000 of it, and you’re [left] fighting for the other 300,000 in court for the next three years. That’s what Europe is notorious for. If a new owner comes in and they don’t like you, [that can be devastating as well] - I knew a player who got cut mid-contract, despite having a guaranteed contract, and he never got the rest of his money.”
The fact that Australia is an English speaking country doesn’t hurt either, especially when attracting American talent. Playing basketball on the other side of the world is difficult enough, but when compounded by language and cultural barriers, Europe may be less appealing to some ex-NBA or ex-G League players. The annual NBLxNBA preseason games have given Australian basketball a new platform, and Bogut believes these intercontinental relationships between clubs are critical moving forward.
“Whereas with Australia, it’s an English-speaking country, and the competition is held in the summer. Now, I think the ties with the NBA are very important. Most clubs have some sort of ties or relationships with NBA teams. There are the NBA games in preseason - that helps. And you know that whatever you sign for, you’re going to get. So, I think more and more athletes now - LaMelo Ball did it, and a few other guys came over here - understand that the NBL may be the best path for them. Rather than being in Lithuania [for instance], where it’s snowing, it’s freezing, they don’t know the language and there’s different food, plus a different culture. Australia is still part of the Western world, especially for emerging talents.”