From Australia to Tokyo: Nick Kay just gets shit done

The Australian Boomers are 3-0 and are edging ever closer to an elusive Olympic medal. Nick Kay is a big reason why, even if some continue to question him.

Credit: FIBA

Every time Nick Kay gets a chance to prove himself, he silences every doubter out there. 

Prior to the FIBA 2019 World Cup, few thought he was deserving of a spot on the team over guys like Brock Motum and Mitch Creek. (Not to be a ‘I liked him before it was cool’ guy, but I kept my receipts — I was on board with his selection!!!) After that breakout World Cup, he returned to the NBL, put up an MVP-level season with the Wildcats, won his second ring, and secured a spot in Europe. But after a down season in Europe, questions around his inclusion in this Olympics squad surfaced. 

There are obvious reasons as to why people keep doubting him. He’s not bouncy, doesn’t pop off the screen when you watch him and doesn’t put up gaudy counting stats. He also has no obvious elite skill that you can point to.

However, here’s a reason why you shouldn’t keep doubting him: Nick Kay is really bloody good at basketball. Nick Kay just gets shit done.

Kay’s incredibly well-rounded skill set makes him the perfect glue guy for any team, particularly at the international level and especially for this Boomers team.

To state the criminally obvious: at the international level, coaches and selectors don’t have a lot of wiggle room to get into the weeds of roster building and worry about team fit. Outside of the United States, no country has enough surplus talent to sacrifice pure ability in favour of a smoother fit. Few countries are ever going to take a glue guy over one of their best 12 players — the dropoff is usually too steep.

Kay helps to solve that riddle for the Boomers. He’s more than talented enough to be considered one of Australia’s best 12 players. Yet, his skills lend themselves perfectly to being the ultimate complementary piece, who helps to smooth over any potential fit issues with his all-around game. He allowed the Boomers’ brass to have their cake and eat it too when selecting the roster.

On top of being an insanely impactful two-way presence, Kay does all the little stuff with his workman-like approach. He hustles his ass off, is never out of position defensively, sets bulldozing screens, hardly ever misses a box out, and cuts with real purpose instead of going through the motions, among a litany of other winning characteristics. To me, Kay’s commitment to doing the small stuff and making 'winning plays' is strangely exemplified by this wide open layup during the Italy game.

Genuine question: what other big man at the Olympics is running the floor that hard at a completely inconsequential point in the game? He’s running as if he’s trying to save a loved one from impending doom. Where stars on Team USA dawdle from end to end, Kay, even as a big man, runs at full speed for a potential layup five minutes into the first quarter of a pool game.

With his unselfish, hardworking, well-rounded play style, he is the perfect player for Goorjian to slot in at the four as the glue guy between the Boomers’ set of talented perimeter creators and their centres.

More importantly, though, he’s needed in that spot. Without Ben Simmons, Goorjian doesn’t have another out and out four man on the roster. Even prior to Baynes’ injury, going big with Landale at the four wasn’t reaping the rewards Goorj would have liked to see. The fit between Baynes and Landale seemed a tad clunky on both ends — when both on the floor, the Boomers were a little slow defensively and not quite as dynamic on the other end. Goorjian seemed to agree with that assessment, playing the pair together for just a hair over 10 minutes in total across their opening two pool games.

Additionally, the Boomers also don’t really have any prototypical small ball four options — few of Goorjian’s perimeter options instil me with any confidence when asked to slide up a position in small ball units. Kay, as a result, is of paramount importance, especially now that Goorjian’s twin tower lineups are likely going by the wayside with Baynes out of the tournament. Kay will be seeing 30-35 minutes each game from here on out, with some small ball centre included in those minutes.

Outside of potential foul trouble issues, no Boomers fan should be fretting at that idea, especially after what we've seen thus far. Nothing Kay did during the pool games should result in anyone reaching a conclusion other than ‘Nick Kay is the perfect power forward for this team’.

On offence, he’s comfortable largely acting as a floor spacer that other teams have to respect. He had a down year from deep in Europe, but he made close to 50% of his threes during his two year stint in Perth. That shooting ability and willingness to play without the ball has given Landale the space to roll into a parade of dunks and layups, as well as giving the Boomers’ ball-handlers more than enough space to get into the teeth of the defence.

He’s also central to helping the Boomers exploit the ways teams will hope to defend (and have defended) Australia and Patty Mills specifically.

So far, the Boomers have seen opponents get fairly aggressive defensively against them. Teams are showing hard often on ball screens, if not just straight out blitzing, especially when Mills is the ball handler. Essentially, opposing teams are doing everything possible to get the ball out of Mills’ hands. The bet is that Australia’s secondary playmakers won’t hurt them nearly as much. This is a smart strategy — the gap between Mills and the Boomers’ next most dangerous off the dribble creative presence isn’t trivial, especially with Joe Ingles in a bit of a rut. Attempting to take him out and daring the Boomers to break down a halfcourt defence without him in the picture isn’t a bad gamble...

...except when Kay’s the screen setter.

Much like he did with the Bryce Cotton two-man game in Perth, Kay is acting as the perfect partner for the Boomers’ ball-handlers on the short roll. When opposing teams send a second defender at the ball-handler, Kay is a more than capable outlet at the top of the key with his playmaking ability. He’s an expert at navigating four on three scenarios, almost always creating a high-quality look for a teammate. On the below play, after Italy send two at Dellavedova, Kay looks off Landale, drawing in the Italian defence, and finds Matisse Thybulle for a wide open triple.

Having a power forward who can do all the dirty work and is also able to hurt hyperaggressive, blitzing defences with his playmaking is rare and invaluable.

Teams are also starting to show a willingness to switch against Australia’s offence. This, to me, against the wrong team, has the potential to unravel the Boomers. This squad isn’t really built to destroy switches. Mills can make big men look silly on a switch, but it isn't really his bread and butter. The rest of the Boomers’ perimeter playmakers aren’t quite the types of players who typically feast off mismatches from switches either. Meanwhile, Australia's bigs aren't huge post up threats who can squash munchkins on switches in the post. There's not a ton on this roster to deter longer, more versatile, and athletic teams (such as Team USA) from switching a ton and giving the Australian offence no room to breathe.

Kay again, is key to deterring teams from employing this defensive strategy as we progress deeper into the tournament. While Kay may not be an amazing post player, he is an excellent offensive rebounder who can punish defences who think they're safe placing a smaller body on him. Through three games, Kay has a whopping 11 offensive rebounds — the most of any player at the Olympics.

On top of all of that, with his defensive aptitude, he’s shown that he's perfectly capable of playing the five, allowing the Boomers to go with super small, highly dangerous five-out lineups. Those lineups have been devastating in transition and open up even more opportunities for Kay as a roll man. Goorj trusts those lineups, too — he deployed Kay as the lone big on the floor for more than 25 minutes in total across the pool games.

In those lineups, Goorjian doesn’t need to be worried about Kay being monstered by bigger players. He’s awesome at shoving behemoths out of good post position and holding his ground. Check out how he does here against Jahlil Okafor — an NBA player in the league solely because of his post up ability.

Kay initially forces him into an awful starting position, before getting into outstanding position to take a charge.

As an added bonus defensively, Kay is an excellent perimeter defender for a big, helping to unlock the Boomers’ switching schemes, which are coming to the fore more now with Baynes out. He almost never gets flustered by quicker, more athletic perimeter players. Here he is completely swallowing up KZ Okpala, a long, athletic NBA player who most would think would be able to blow by Kay with ease.

Simply put, with his versatility, role, and pure defensive talent, it’s arguable that he’s Australia’s most important defensive player. Without scoring or assisting a ton, he’s also one of Australia’s most important offensive players with his complementary skill set, value without the ball, and ability to unlock defensive schemes.

Nick Kay is really damn good. And more than that, he’s exactly who the Boomers need.

If the opening games haven’t already burned that thought into your brain, get ready because those pool games weren't an aberration.