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Forde Vision: Here's how Taran Armstrong will strengthen the Taipans' youth movement
Armstrong will have ample opportunity to contribute to a winning team as a rookie.
The Cairns Taipans made the strategic decision to target youth last season, even putting together their youngest and most inexperienced roster in club history.
Adam Forde spoke about the philosophy recently with Chris Oliver on ‘The Basketball Podcast’:
“Discovering these young rookie players out of college who, [if on another team], could sit on the bench and take two to three years to blossom into their role, or they could just come here and be thrown straight into the spotlight… I want us to be a home for guys to come and expand their careers and use this as a launch pad. And guess what? We’re going to win games doing so… We want to get the third year in a row of [winning] ‘Most Improved’ and ‘Rookie of the Year’, and knowing that that can be our identity here is pretty important to not only myself but the entire organisation.”
Taran Armstrong is the newest name to fit this framework, with the 21 year old set to enter the league after two years in the college system. He’s set to be a fan favourite and make it immediately evident that he is the most gifted and creative passer in the entire league. As you would expect, Armstrong says that this aspect of his game has always come naturally:
“I think [my court vision] is something that I’ve always sort of had… I play pretty similar to the Ball brothers, Lonzo and Lamelo. They’re both bigger point guards that can pass the ball. Obviously Josh Giddey, who I often get compared to a lot, with the way he passes the ball and sees the floor.”
Forde will pair Armstrong with shooters that he can make skip passes to on the perimeter, as well as dynamic and skilled bigs out of pick and roll, where he can showcase his ability to dissect a defence and hit his teammates from every angle imaginable. Cairns were also third in transition frequency last season, another facet of the game where Armstrong should enjoy himself.
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All early indications are that Armstrong will be heavily involved in the rotation, and he may even start from day one or for most of the season. Like Sam Waardenburg last season (27 minutes per game), the move from college to the higher level of play in the NBL might not include a meaningful sacrifice in minutes and should position him to make a run at the Next Generation Award.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to had nothing but great things to say about [Adam Forde]. It was a pretty easy decision. The Taipans’ play style is something that I was attracted to right from the jump. The way they play fast, it’s really up and down… There was a lot to look at. I had really good options in the states and a few good opportunities back here, but I’d say the main reason for me coming back was honestly the competition. I think the NBL is as good as it’s ever been and it’s a top three league in the world.”
Armstrong’s ability to be the lead playmaker on the team will allow the Taipans to consider moving in a different direction with their import guard slot. Shannon Scott was more of a pure point guard, whereas a combo guard is now being contemplated for this season according to Forde’s recent comments:
“We want to make sure we don’t put any undue pressure on him by saying, ‘here’s the keys to the car’, but he’s fully capable, and again, his resume has already shown that. I think any expectations are not a burden to him, and he’s ready. He’s got big ambition, and we want to help provide the platform for him to achieve that.”
Forde’s Taipans are clearly about providing opportunities for players with upside and room to grow, but it’s a two-way relationship, as was particularly shown last season with their win-loss record. There will be some non-negotiables on defence that have to be met — Cairns ranked second in defensive rating last season — and Forde’s feedback will be aggressive at times alongside the nurturing in other moments to build a players confidence.
Forde speaking about his approach:
“I wanted them to be old men in twenty, thirty, forty years from now talking about their time here in Cairns, or with me, [and say] that was some of the best basketball… With that hard approach on the defensive end, the reward was, ‘hey, you guys are basketball players’… I wanted to allow a lot of creative freedom for these guys. The modern game is everybody loves to space and shoot it… Offence really became the reward for what we wanted to do defensively.”
On-ball defensive stud, Bul Kuol, as well as Tahjere McCall are excellent starting points for defence alongside Armstrong. D.J. Hogg’s elite defensive value was underrated by some last season and the loss of his versatility, together with the improved steadiness of Keanu Pinder, will need to be replaced with an import front court signing.
Offensively, both Sam Waardenburg and Sam Mennenga’s ability to shoot the three helps ease McCall’s fit on that end, as well as giving Armstrong space and a full range of passing options playing out of pick and roll. As a scorer, Armstrong does have a little bit of a point to prove, well known for his driving game and ability to hit floaters, but having knocked down only 53 college three-pointers at 30.6% in two seasons, on just three attempts per game.
Adam Jacobsen (Cal Baptist assistant) speaking with Michael Houben prior to Armstrong’s sophomore year:
“He’s worked really hard on his shooting. Because he’s such a good driver and passer, he’s going to need to score at times when teams force him to and take away some of his passes, and for him to be able to do that at a high clip will be good for our team.”
Armstrong’s outside shooting numbers were similar in year two to year one in both attempts and percentage made, but an area where growth was more evident was with his strength and finishing. Per hoop-math, Armstrong’s field goal percentage on shots at the rim jumped five percent, and included more attempts. Improving his body was another growth area that Jacobsen flagged, as well as others noted last season:
“I think one of the biggest things for him is number one, just getting stronger. He’s gained about 13 pounds since last year. As you go through a college season, just his body taking on all the things he’s going to need to do this year, he’s really worked hard at that, and we’re excited about how much stronger his body is.”
So what should our expectations be after another offseason for Armstrong, who will be turning 22 years old during the season? Here’s a quick look at the prominent young ball-handling guards from recent seasons:
Looking at this list, Armstrong’s skillset and likely role is most similar to that of McDowell-White and Giddey in the 2020/21 season. McDowell-White didn’t have the benefit of a training camp that first year with the New Zealand Breakers and was still discovering himself as a player, whilst Giddey was quickly ascending to be a lottery pick and had lesser talent in the backcourt next to him than Armstrong will.
Hampton’s game was very different, relying on his sensational speed rather than basketball craft, whilst Ball had unlimited rope on a bad team.
Armstrong’s college averages of almost 11 points and six assists fit in neatly with what you may expect of him this season as a Taipans fan, particularly with the confidence that Forde instills in his players on the offensive end.
There are key pieces still to be signed to fill out the roster, but whichever way you analyse it, Armstrong has translatable skills to help make his teammates better and play himself into considerable minutes from day one. As Forde stated after the signing, he’s one of those players who plays with maturity beyond his years:
“Taran’s résumé at 21 is vastly superior to some guys that are already in the league now. He’s represented Australia at every age group, including senior level. He’s been on NBA draft boards, and he will be on NBA draft boards when he’s playing here. There’s not too many 6’6” point guards with his [playmaking]… The intangibles he brings. He’s a super smart defender, off the ball and on the ball. For him to be so NBL ready at age 21, the ceiling is high.”
After Cairns’ team and individual player success stories last season, you’d be hard-pressed to bet against Forde’s predictions about Armstrong’s immediate impact, or his team not being right in the mix of the playoffs yet again.