Duop Reath and Sam Froling hold the keys to Illawarra's title hopes
Tyler Harvey is the star of a talented Hawks roster, but it's Reath and Froling that could determine their fate this season.
Credit: May Bailey Photography
2021 was a year of change for the Illawarra Hawks. After gradually sliding down the NBL standings in the seasons prior, from a grand final appearance in 2016-17 to the wooden spoon three years later, and with the club placed into voluntary administration in early 2020, a drastic overhaul was needed both on and off the court. With a new ownership group in place ahead of last season, the Hawks signed legendary coach Brian Goorjian and reshaped their roster, with none of their starters and just five fully contracted players returning from that last placed finish.
Those moves paid off in spades, as Goorjian led the Hawks back into the finals and within one win of a grand final berth. Tyler Harvey was named to the All-NBL First Team in his debut season, fellow newcomer Justin Simon won the Best Defensive Player, and the Hawks won 20 games for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
Not content to sit on their hands despite that success, Illawarra were again active this offseason. Simon departed despite his silverware, with a pair of American perimeter talents in Antonius Cleveland and Xavier Rathan-Mayes taking his place. Fresh from winning an Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo, Australian Boomers big man Duop Reath returned home after three years spent playing in Serbia. Despite showing plenty of promise in NBL21 and the subsequent NBA Summer League, sharpshooter Justinian Jessup returned for the second year of his Next Stars contract.
Ahead of the new season, most seemed to view the Hawks as a near lock to make a second consecutive finals appearance. Plenty of the excitement around their new-look roster centred around their perimeter depth — Harvey was the trendy “dark horse” pick to be the league MVP, Rathan-Mayes and Cleveland both brought NBA experience, and Jessup was another NBA-level talent.
While all four guards have played their roles, none have dominated to the level that many would have expected. Instead, it has been Reath that has spearheaded a balanced Illawarra attack, with NBL21 Most Improved Player Sam Froling thriving alongside him in the frontcourt. In a league stacked with talented big men, Reath has led the Hawks in scoring and dominated games, while Froling has continued to blossom into one of the NBL’s best rebounders and an increasingly versatile player.
Where their depth on the perimeter allows the Hawks to mix and match their rotations as needed, a relative scarcity of talent up front has seen Reath and Froling emerge as arguably their most important pieces.
All stats correct prior to round eight.
The season so far
As a whole, the Hawks have lived up to preseason expectations thus far. With a 4-3 record after eight rounds, with the first two of those losses coming by a combined eight points and the third against a rampant Wildcats side, they have largely kept pace with the title favourites and cemented their own standing as a contender. Given the lack of familiarity among their stars and the overall lack of continuity in the NBL season, it’s hard to fault the start that they have made.
That early success hasn’t come exactly as was expected, though. Harvey’s shot has deserted him for longs stretches, and he has made just 31.6% of his triples as his scoring average has dropped more than four points from last season. Cleveland has also struggled shooting from the perimeter, and while Rathan-Mayes has provided a spark off the bench, he has been a steady contributor rather than a dominant scorer. None of that is to say that any of Illawarra’s three imports have been bad — Harvey leads the league in steals, Cleveland has been a menace defensively, and Rathan-Mayes is a frontrunner to be named Best Sixth Man.
Those players are afforded more leeway, though, by the talent around them.
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