Five sneaky-big questions surrounding the 2019/20 NBL season

We’re less than two months away from the start of the 2019/20 NBL season, and there’s still so much we don’t know.

As fans, all we can really do at this point is analyse rosters, make rubbish predictions, and ask as many questions as possible. The questions asked in this article are ‘sneaky-big’ rather than, say, ‘Nate Jawai big’, as they are all under the radar issues that not nearly enough people are talking about.

Nevertheless, the answers to these questions will get us that little bit closer to solving the puzzle of the 2019-20 NBL season.

1. Can Cam Oliver hold up at the 5?

Jawai is back, but Tom Jervis is suddenly gone, leaving the Taipans with just one centre on the 2019/20 squad list. Even if the Taipans can unearth a local big man to play backup minutes at the 5 (which, at this point in the NBL offseason, would be a miracle), Mike Kelly will be short-changed for quality at the position. The 6’8’’ Cameron Oliver being able to hold down the fort at the five – even for short periods – would be invaluable for the Taipans going forward.

Perhaps even more pressingly, if Oliver can’t slide up and play meaningful, effective minutes as a centre, Cairns won’t be able to find nearly as many minutes for the few high-upside players they have on the roster.

As of writing, the Taipans have just four primo building blocks: Oliver, Kouat Noi, Scott Machado, and Majok Deng. Add in their soon-to-be-announced import shooting guard, and you have precisely five players with tangible long-term upside as NBL players.

There's a certain amount of risk attached to playing youngsters like Noi and the inconsistent Deng over veterans like Jawai and Jarrod Kenny, but considering their lack of talent, Cairns’ only shot at being competitive this season is if their top prospects turn out to be golden. It’s possible that all of the aforementioned building blocks stink it up this season, but banking on potential and embracing the uncertainty of their young prospects is probably the only way the Taipans can hope to compete against the might of their rivals.

As an explosive, scoring forward, Oliver is blocking paths to minutes for both Deng and Noi – ultimately limiting the ceiling of this Taipans team. Oliver needs to be able to fill in as a five-man (preferably one who can act as a defensive anchor) for Cairns to even have a chance at unlocking their potential.

Oliver is just 6’8’’, but is equipped with a 7’1’’ wingspan. With his explosive leaping ability and length, he averaged over 3 blocks per 40 minutes in both of his collegiate seasons (and his last G League season), per Sport-Reference. Blocks, however, are never the best way to measure defensive impact (looking at you, Shawn Long). NBA draftniks, including the great Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer, believe he is best utilised on defence as simply a weak-side shot blocker who has the capability of switching on to guards. This all seems to suggest Oliver will be extremely limited in his ability to play as a centre regularly.

In the linked article above, you'll see that Tjarks had Oliver ranked as his 17th best prospect in the draft class of 2017. There is very little doubt over his talent as a player, but Cairns will need him to evolve into a centre who can match-up with the likes of Andrew Bogut, Josh Boone, and Shawn Long, if they are to have a shot at reaching their ceiling as a squad.

2. What’s up with Matt Walsh?

A brief summary of the last few months of Matt Walsh’s tenure as owner of the New Zealand Breakers:

At least Barstool Sports doesn’t sponsor the te – oh wait, nevermind.

Some of those moves could turn out to be absolutely ingenious, but there really doesn’t appear to be any coherent long-term plan in place for Walsh. Everything the Breakers do screams prioritising brand-building over winning.

I suppose that the sneaky-big question that arises is simple: am I right?

There seems to be a lot of talent in place for the upcoming season, but I remain unconvinced. I love the way the Bullets are looking because there has clearly been time, effort, and real thought put into the construction of the roster. Has this Breakers team been assembled with the same attention-to-detail?

Time will tell.

3. Will the 'Next Stars' contribute immediately?

The big story of the offseason remains the unabashed success of the ‘Next Stars’ initiative that has caused the NBL to make international headlines. RJ Hampton, LaMelo Ball, Didi Louzada, and Terry Armstrong, are all suiting up on our shores in just a couple of months.

Hampton, Ball, Louzada, and Armstrong aren’t just publicity stunts designed to draw eyeballs to TV screens either – each of them fill real needs on their respective teams. Asking for difference-making performances from teenagers isn't usually a recipe for success in basketball, but for the Breakers, Hawks, Phoenix, and Kings to reach their potential, their Next Stars have to be Now Stars.

The Breakers need by far the most out of their youngster. After letting Shea Ili join Melbourne , the only lead guards left on the roster are Jarrad Weeks and Hampton himself. Weeks found his niche last season as a sparkplug gunner off the pine, and Hampton was likely promised big minutes that will enable him to impress scouts. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, if Hampton starts come October. Should he assume that responsibility, he’ll have to fill a myriad of roles, including: defending at a high level to make up for the inactivity his backcourt mates show on that end, getting the ball moving on a team that posted the league’s worst assist percentage last season, while still being the dynamic off-the-dribble threat scouts promise us he is.

Ball's responsibility won't be nearly as heavy, with the Hawks being stacked with young guards and wings. However, he’ll be asked to do a lot more than just score the ball, which is clearly his favourite thing to do at this point in time. When Ball shares the floor with Aaron Brooks, LaMelo will have to both defend stronger wings and take on a large chunk of the ball-handling duties while Brooks runs around screens.

Louzada will likely come off the bench but will fill the vital third guard role. Will Weaver will almost certainly opt to stagger Casper Ware and Kevin Lisch’s minutes and force Louzada to fill in the gaps when one of them is off the court. Andrew Gaze adopted this strategy last season, using Kyle Adnam in the Louzada role - those minutes were an unmitigated disaster, with the Kings being outscored by 9.7 points per 100 possessions, according to HoopsDB. Louzada should perform far better than Adnam did in that role due to his length and malleability, but asking an unproven 20-year old to fill a critical role on a championship contender is still a risk – regardless of how awesome he looked during Summer League.

Like Louzada, Terry Armstrong will also ride the pine, and the assumption from most is that he’ll play a limited role. It should be noted that given South East Melbourne will presumably want to play Mitch Creek as a small-ball four for long stretches, the Phoenix' dearth of long, athletic wings you’d want in small-ball lineups may mean Armstrong gets far more run than expected.

The TL;DR - all four Next Stars are sneakily crucial to their respective squads. Whether or not they are ready to contribute right away, is going to go a long way towards their team’s success.

4. Who makes ‘the leap’?

This is entirely different from asking who the Most Improved Player will be. ‘The leap’ is when a legitimately good basketball player puts it all together and evolves into a legitimately great one; the Most Improved Player is simply the guy that makes the biggest improvement from one year to the next.

As an example, Reuben Te Rangi deserved to be awarded Most Improved last season, but the player who made ‘the leap’ was Nick Kay, who went from quality NBL starter to full-fledged superstar. Kay’s improvement wasn’t quite as pronounced as Te Rangi’s, but Kay’s evolution into an All-NBL First Teamer secured a championship for the Wildcats.

You can find evidence of ‘the leap’ in action pretty much every NBL season. Mitch Creek has always been good, but never put together a full season’s worth of superstar performances until his last season in Adelaide, when the Sixers made the Grand Final. Corey Webster went from sixth man to leading scorer on a championship team at age 26; it took Tai Wesley till his fourth year in the league to start consistently – that same year Melbourne United won the championship and the big man received All-NBL Second Team honours.

Even if you think I’m talking utter nonsense, given my examples, it is fairly obvious that players who make my described leap can completely alter the landscape of the league. Internally developed superstars are a huge advantage for any team – having any star-level player on a below-market contract allows for resource allocation across the roster to become a non-issue.

This season, the candidates are less obvious, but my best guesses for who could leap their way into stardom include Finn Delany, Anthony Drmic, and Majok Deng. Delany and Deng would seem to be fairly obvious choices, Drmic maybe not so much.

The 36ers are desperate for an offensive fulcrum after losing Jerome Randle, Mitch Creek, and Nathan Sobey in back-to-back-to-back seasons. With no obvious player ready to inherit said role, Drmic could be in for a huge season. (It also doesn’t hurt that Drmic is in the final year of his contract.)

Whether it’s Drmic, Delany, Deng, or someone else entirely, whoever makes ‘the leap’ will have an enormous impact on the upcoming campaign.

5. Are the Wildcats deep enough?

During their past decade of dominance, the Wildcats have been typified by their consistently remarkable depth. Whether it’s Jesse Wagstaff, Greg Hire, or any of the other super-subs they’ve had over the years, the Wildcats have always seemed dependent on their depth.

That trend appears to be stalling.

Last season’s Wildcats team was incredibly reliant on their core foursome of Damian Martin, Bryce Cotton, Terrico White, and Nick Kay. Per HoopsDB, in the 323 minutes those four shared the floor, Perth outscored opponents by 18.3 points per 100 possessions. In the over 800 remaining minutes, that number dropped to around 2.3 points per 100. It didn’t matter who the fifth guy playing with them was; Gleeson just had to ensure that all four of them were on the court for great success to occur.

Damian Martin will be 35 by the time the season starts, and Terrico White will be 30 by the end of the season. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that there will be some sort of regression for the grouping Gleeson was so reliant upon.

The troubling part for Gleeson is that the Perth bench may actually have weakened over the offseason. Hire, Tom Jervis, and Sunday Dech have been replaced by Majok Majok and Wani Swaka Lo Buluk (who has inherited Jordair Jett’s ‘coolest NBL name’ crown). Majok looked good during the China tour, but Jervis is the superior player; Swaka Lo Buluk is dripping with potential, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be particularly productive for another couple of years.

Wagstaff registered just 14 minutes per game last season (his lowest mark ever, per Spatial Jam) and looked off the pace all season long. Should his dip in form be a sign of things to come, Gleeson will need internal improvement from Mitch Norton, Clint Steindl, and Rhys Vague to sustain bench-laden units. All three of those guys are good, but each of them will need to step up big time as the primary cogs of a weakened bench-mob if the Wildcats are to repeat as champions.

BONUS: Will anyone find a roster spot for Nic Pozoglou or Ethan Rustbach?

To be perfectly honest,the answer to this question won’t really have much of an effect on the 2019/20 campaign at all. However, it will have a big impact on my heart, which both players have a firm grip on.

If you haven’t checked out Jordan McCallum’s Pozoglou profile, you should. To say that he doesn’t deserve, at the very least, a look-in from an NBL squad is absurd.

Update: Nic Pozoglou was signed as a development player (DP) for the Perth Wildcats, after this article was published.

Across the ditch, a rather large sect of Breakers fans have been left outraged by the lack of Ethan Rustbach in the 2019-20 squad. He’s already 27, but Rustbach just finished off an NZNBL campaign where he averaged 20 points with 49/43/82 shooting splits. It’s not a hot take to say that he’s the best shooter New Zealand has – that 43% mark from deep was registered whilst attempting over 8 threes per game, with a huge chunk of them being off-the-dribble looks.

He’s much more than just a shooter, as well - watch this and try to tell me that the Taipans couldn’t use him off the bench:

There are just 4 roster spots left for either of those two to occupy – one in Sydney (and that spot could still be filled by an import), one in Melbourne, and two in Cairns. It would be asinine to let both of these guys escape the 2019-20 season without a contract.