Last week, one of Australia's top junior basketball prospects, Josh Giddey, announced his decision to forego college offers and instead sign in the NBL.
While this is undoubtedly an exciting development, both as a vote of confidence for the NBL pathway for young prospects, and also for fans to see our best talent compete locally, Giddey's team of choice and opportunities in the league remains to be seen.
While the NCAA is an extremely flawed and corrupt system, the fundamental reason so many NBA prospects still choose the college route lies in the on-court opportunity and exposure it brings. Most draft worthy candidates play heavy minutes for their teams, and get to compete in a setting against fellow young players that are on a similar development curve, on both skill and physical development standpoints. It's an environment tailor-made for NBA candidates to produce big numbers and boost their draft stock. It's also a level of play where rawer prospects can still find roles in rotations and grow into larger roles. The success of the nations top college programs, to a large extent, is often judged on their ability to turn young players into successful NBA players.
The pro game, on the other hand, is a more merciless beast that demands immediate production and pits players against seasoned veterans week after week. For young players, it can be a difficult environment trying to match up with bigger, stronger players, often with storied college careers and lengthy professional resumes already to their name. There's no substitute for experience, and no matter how highly touted you are in your class, it can be an uphill battle to produce. On the other hand, it's a great chance to learn how to compete against grown men and develop professional habits.
What does Josh Giddey's decision to go down the NBL route mean for his draft stock and his development?
How much will Giddey play?
It's hard to project just how equipped Josh Giddey is to play a role for an NBL team as a 17 year old. He's certainly had a great run of form through top junior settings over the last 12-18 months, but there's a real jump in physicality that we haven't really seen him have to deal with so far on his basketball journey.
It can often be underestimated how big the jump to professional play is, and a large part is generally the ability to physically match up with grown men, and the refinement of core skills like shooting. We've seen him compete for the Australian Boomers against Hong Kong, though attempts to use his production in this contest as an indicator for NBL production should be negligible. Whilst Giddey certainly looked at home hitting the floor alongside a slew of NBL players, the game itself was a 63 point drubbing against a far inferior level of competition. For perspective, Giddey, a point guard, was as tall as Hong Kong's tallest player, 30 year old centre Duncan Reid.
It is also rare to see players under the age of 20 contribute consistently to an NBL rotation, even those with plenty of potential. Will Magnay, a player who at age 21 has come off a breakout season and is enjoying NBA attention, had to spend two seasons as a reserve averaging 6.0mpg and 4.4mpg to get to where he is now.
Currently, the Perth Wildcats boast two junior Australian representatives in Wani Swaka Lo Buluk and Luke Travers, both 18 years of age. Travers, who is considered himself to have NBA potential by many parties (though lacking the same level of hype as Giddey), only managed to amass a total of 28 minutes of play through the 19/20 NBL season, albeit on the deep and championship-contending Wildcats.
Giddey could be a league above his fellow youngsters. His skillset is further developed than the above names were at the same age, and he boasts a standout frame for his position that outshines the statures of even his professional counterparts.
If he is indeed a legitimate first round NBA prospect, it may be more pertinent to compare him to the recent Next Stars the NBL has showcased. If Giddey is compared to prospective top 5 pick LaMelo Ball, he could be a starting level NBL player, but not someone you want to revolve your offence around - especially if you want to win ball games. If he's a late lottery pick, like RJ Hampton, he should be ready to make an impact, but it might be too far to expect a positive contribution in a starting role. If we frame him around more nebulous 'potential 1st round pick' descriptors like Terry Armstrong, then perhaps he's not ready to contribute at all.
The reality is, it's a tough battle to carve out a significant role at the NBL level as a local point guard. It's a position that NBL teams prioritise for import slots year after year. With the starting spots taken, it's a battle for backup minutes, and the league boasts quality locals including Emmett Naar, Mitch Norton, Kyle Adnam, Shaun Bruce, Mitch McCarron, Shea Ili, Jason Cadee and more, as well as the possible return of Matthew Dellavedova, or even William McDowell-White next year. How many of those guys, without hesitation, could you say you'd happily demote to a third string role in favor of a 17 year old Giddey?
It might be the case that playing minutes isn't the most important thing for the young star - after all, he's here for the practice and development that will enable him to reach his ample long-term potential. It may also not be that detrimental to his draft stock - NBA evaluators are clued in to the relative level of competition of professional environments these days.
Projected top 5 pick Deni Ajdiva is playing a mere 13.8 minutes per game in the Euroleague this season. 2016 draft pick, Dragan Bender went fourth after playing 10.6 minutes for the same club. Even the NBL's own Terrance Ferguson managed to get picked up at 21st in 2017, after an underwhelming 15.3mpg in the NBL. To be on draft boards, Giddey will have to play at least some, and therefore it will be vital for him to find a team where opportunity is there for the taking.
While his size may allow some positional versatility to slide in to some minutes on the wing, his underdeveloped frame and on-ball skillset suggests his best chance at consistent minutes is finding a team that will take him on as a full-time, backup point guard.
Location, Location, Location
As mentioned, point guard rotation spots are few and far between on NBL rosters.
Between Cadee and Sobey's occasional spurts at the position, it's hard to see the Brisbane Bullets as a viable option.
Melbourne United only have three players under contract for next season, but two of those are guards Mitch McCarron and Shea Ili.
The New Zealand Breakers have Jarrod Weeks returning, and will likely look to bring back Sek Henry, if not a replacement import point guard.
The South East Melbourne Phoenix will likely do its best to bring back John Roberson, and already have a deep back court with Kyle Adnam, Adam Gibson, and a potentially returning Ben Madgen.
The Sydney Kings have NBL stalwart Casper Ware starting and struck gold with Shaun Bruce this season, as well as veteran combo Kevin Lisch.
The Perth Wildcats, who are already housing several young talents whilst trying to compete for a championship, have reportedly not even reached out to the youngster.
This leaves, as far as I see it, three realistic options for Giddey to choose from: the Illawarra Hawks, Cairns Taipans, and the Adelaide 36ers.
Adelaide, as of a week ago, seemed pretty viable - they have several contracted guards, but none were particularly good this season. Daniel Dillon, the main backup, shot 43.4% from 2 point range and 30.8% from 3. They also had Designated Players (DPs) Alex Mudronja and Bijan Johnson, though neither were able to jump Dillon in the rotation, playing a total of 21 minutes all season between them.
Now, opportunity is as ample as ever as Jerome Randle's options seems destined to be declined, but given the questionable culture issues that surrounded the club this season, it's tough to see Adelaide as an appealing destination for any player.
Illawarra hangs its hat on young player opportunity and development, but that development time might have to be shared between Emmett Naar and combo Angus Glover. If Naar scours the free agent market for a new destination, as Liam Santamaria projected to happen on NBL Overtime last week, there might be a substantial role available for Giddey, but if not, it might not be as appealing as things might seem, with the Hawks likely to look for an import to start at the position also.
That leaves, in my opinion, the best situation for Giddey's NBL 2020/21 campaign: the Cairns Taipans.
The Taipans have been a revelation this season. With elite import production and unselfish team play, and led by Coach of the Year Mike Kelly, the team forged a strong culture and identity to outperform all expectations this season. Such an environment seems like a good place to learn and develop on a competitive team.
Opportunity wise, there should be a clear cut role. Expect Machado back to start at point guard, and if not, a one for one import replacement at the position, but Giddey could slot right in to the backup spot ahead of a 35 year old Jarrod Kenny.
Cairns has also been a club that has had to rely heavily on budget depth and an extremely short rotation, particularly on the wing. Forward George Blagojevic failed to gain the confidence of coaches, playing only 56 minutes all season despite a clear need in the rotation, and starting forward Kouat Noi is also a free agent. There is, as it stands, minutes available at the three, or alternatively, if DJ Newbill slides up in some capacity, time available at the shooting guard spot.
It's a situation that intersects opportunity, both at backup point, and potentially on the wing, with a good culture and winning roster. As a point guard, he'll be surrounded by some elite offensive talent on a team that runs plenty of ball screens, and get to learn from the best passing point guard in the league (should Machado return).
The NBL is a bold choice for Giddey and certainly an exciting outcome for Australian fans. It may not provide the showcase environment that the NCAA provides, but it offers a great chance at developing against high level players, and NBA scouts know to take kids who can make an impact in professional leagues seriously.
Queensland's not exactly close to home, but it makes the most sense that the Cairns Taipans is Giddey's best destination for playing time and development. It may be an unlikely choice, with Giddey probably inclined to stay close to home, but it would be a fantastic opportunity and would make a lot of sense for the Taipans and their roster.
It will certainly be interesting to see what decision Giddey makes in the coming months. Let us hope it's on a team where we get to see one of our country's best young talents hit the floor.