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Can Mangok Mathiang go from bad team backup to playoff team starter with the Breakers?
Wading through the press release noise to decipher how well Mathiang will do in New Zealand.
Credit: Daniel Bennett Photography
By now, you would have likely seen the interesting comments from the New Zealand Breakers following Mangok Mathiang’s signing, labelling him a ‘defensive demon better than Dererk Pardon.’
If the recent 2022/23 NBL season was your first extended look at the 30 year old Mathiang though, you might be left scratching your head. He played less than 19 minutes a game in a backup role on the 3-win and 25-loss Illawarra Hawks. Dererk Pardon was named Second-Team All-NBL and finalist for Defensive Player of the Year.
Of course, there’s context to add here. Mathiang has good pedigree, with earlier career production in Europe, as well as a stint in the NBA prior to an injury-interrupted period, prior to signing in Illawarra. He displayed positive signs of progress in the Israeli Basketball Premier League after the last NBL season. In that three-month run with Israel’s Hapoel Eilat, Mathiang played starter minutes and helped reverse the team’s poor form (6-5 with him in the lineup).
In what looked like good signs for his body’s return to peak conditioning, Mathiang was able to handle a higher minute load and his rebounding numbers skyrocketed, after career-lows with Illawarra. Hapoel Eilat also improved considerably on the defensive end of the floor in the games that he played — 11 points per 100 possessions better per realgm.com.
“Whoever was going to take the undertaking of replacing Dererk Pardon is going to have a monumental challenge in front of him. Mangok, in my opinion, is somebody who relishes challenges. I truly believe Mangok is the most underrated local free agent, and I believe in his ability to fill Dererk’s shoes in a little bit of a different way; they’re obviously not identical. That will require the best out of Mangok… The wording in the press release was trying to relate to the fact that Mangok had very good numbers in Israel that were similar or, in certain areas, better than Dererk’s, and I think that got lost in translation, where the goal of this messaging was to give our fanbase and the people that are around the Breakers belief and confidence.”
Whilst New Zealand was a strong team on both ends of the floor last season, it was the defensive end which was the foundation, and the area where Mathiang will be most important.
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The Breakers topped the regular season in defensive rating, while Illawarra allowed an awful 118 points per 100 possessions with Mathiang on the floor per spatialjam.com (only one point better than when he was on the bench). Mathiang was finding his way again after a lengthy layoff, but will need to be much sharper with the Breakers this season. Having Izayah Le’Afa, Will McDowell-White, and Tom Abercrombie as the pick and roll defensive partner will be an upgrade on the revolving door of imports and mishmash of inexperienced guards he had with the Hawks.
In terms of physical profile, Mathiang and Pardon differ, with Mathiang having additional height, and Pardon using his bulkier chest. Pardon’s physicality was certainly a highlight of his game last season, in the way he relished contact and used his body when it came to establishing space. Pardon also showed a little more agility when changing directions last season, and it shone through in a better ability to guard pick and roll, as well as finding the right angles and timing as a screener.
Both are role players on offence, with below-average usage rates across their careers. Mathiang’s tasks will be simplified even more now compared to his time in Illawarra, where the Hawks’ lack of guard play limited his easy finishes at the rim off dump-off passes, or he ended up creating in one-on-one situations more often than he should have. The Breakers run a slower and more deliberate offence, with the highest number of pick and rolls in the league, so Mathiang’s screening will need to be his major focus.
What also makes the Mathiang signing particularly interesting is Rob Loe’s retirement. Dane Pineau brings some things to the team, in terms of competitiveness and playing strictly within his skillset, but he’s also played just 532 minutes total over the past three seasons. Loe, on the other hand, has been one of the best backup centres in the league, and is a bigger body with a broader skillset and superior experience. Loe was coming off a strong season that saw him finish 24th in the league in Box-Plus-Minus (first among backup bigs), but was reportedly lowballed by the Breakers and opted for retirement.
The move from Pardon and Loe to Mathiang and Pineau is a downgrade, but Maor likes what they can bring to continue on the style of play that the team showed last season:
“[Mathiang and Pineau] don't shy away from the battles... it's a very, very important piece for how we play. It was one of the things Dererk did so well that we needed to replace so, yes, what they do on the boards is very important, but it's really the tenacity, and the effort, and the intensity, and the bruising physicality they play with on a consistent basis."
With a possible step back in centre production, an opportunity for greater play at guard or on the wing will present itself, with Maor’s decision to land Mathiang opening up an additional import spot on the perimeter:
“One of my conclusions from last year was that we wanted a little bit more offensive versatility on the perimeter. At the end of the day, we had two and a half main creators on the perimeter: we had Will, we had Barry, and for stretches we had Izayah. But that's really the only creation we had on the perimeter. We want to create a situation where we have another perimeter player who can create, at least to a degree. We couldn't find that in the local market, so that required us to finagle a little bit in how we build the roster from a local standpoint.”
The other major addition thus far has been Mantas Rubštavičius. Maor has described the Lithuanian as “the one [Next Star this year] who cares about winning more than anyone else”. Rayan Rupert and Ousmane Dieng both played close to 500 minutes each, so expectations are that he will be a regular contributor too, though there now could be a squeeze on the perimeter with an extra import earmarked there.
After being too deep at guard in recent seasons, then not quite deep enough on the perimeter last season for Maor’s liking, it will be an interesting watch to see if New Zealand finds the appropriate mix this season. Mathiang’s signing has unlocked the new vision in the Breakers’ eyes, and you can see the idea. He plays with energy, is a good shot blocker, and has scope for more production than last season — there’s some presumed value on my end with the contract dollars.
The Breakers trust that their structure will simplify a player’s role and allow them to showcase their best version. Whether that comes to fruition for Mathiang could be the difference between a playoff berth and missing out.