Harry Froling might be the NBL's most fascinating free agent in 2020

COVID-19 has turned society on its head and has introduced us to a completely different way of living. For the next however long, we are going to have to go without a lot: our regular day-to-day social interaction, sports, road rage, and a whole lot more.

Nevertheless, there is one pastime that no pandemic can take away from us. That pastime, of course, is reckless free agency speculation!

While most of that speculation over the coming months will be focused on the studs of the league, I’ve got my eyes elsewhere. Harry Froling has got my full attention. Free agents like Chris Goulding, Scott Machado, and Andrew Bogut are all better and are bigger, flashier names. Yet, to me, none of their situations are quite as intriguing as Froling’s.

As reported by Olgun Uluc, Froling has been given permission to test the free agent market and will not be returning. To not even try to re-sign a 21 year old rotation player who was sniffing around the NBA just a year ago is a strange decision, to say the least.

Last year, Adelaide appeared to be a perfect spot for the big man to develop — the Sixers were stacked with up and comers and Joey Wright has a proven track record of maximising potential. After his Rookie of the Year campaign, this idea was given credence. His outstanding debut season culminated in NBA draft workouts and a Nikola Jokic comparison (albeit, a comparison that he came up with). The 2019/20 NBL season was shaping up to be a Harry Froling tour de force.

In reality, Froling saw his minutes decline and all sorts of criticism come his way. The narrative around his performances turned sour early and never truly recovered.

Be that as it may, the perceived disappointment stemming from his second year effort shouldn’t entirely be put down to Froling himself. There is zero chance that Joey Wright’s antics could’ve been a boon for his development, and Adelaide’s front court logjam meant that minutes were hard to come by. Between Daniel Johnson, Obi Kyei, and Eric Griffin, Froling struggled to carve out consistent game time.

Part of that disappointment also relates to us, the fans. The letdown we experienced was, in large part, a product of our expectations placed upon him because of his rookie season. When a young gun is awesome right out of the gate, we often expect linear development from there. It seems logical — if someone is good in year 1, why can’t they be even better in year two?

However, sports aren’t like MyLeague in 2K, where younglings like Froling increase their rating season in, season out. Development is different for every player.

Although the narrative was overblown, it is still important to mention that Froling did indeed decline from year one to year two. Even if you’re in the optimistic camp like me, Froling’s regression must scare you a tad.

Aside from a couple of offensive eruptions, Froling’s 2019/20 season was deathly quiet compared to his rookie year — he seemed lost from the NBL conversation all together at times. On the court, it didn’t seem like he was as involved, impactful, or efficient, as he was a season prior.

Don’t just take the anecdotal evidence, though. One look at his core statistics paints the picture (stats via Spatial Jam and jordanmcnbl.com):

Minutes Per GameTrue Shooting %Points Per 36Defensive Rebound %On/Off Differential Per 362018-1915.161.1%19.622.3%+4.12019-201457.9%18.913.5+2.1

Froling’s numbers clearly declined. But it should be noted that none of those declines are particularly worrying. His true shooting percentage remains efficient, around 19 points per 36 is a top 20 mark, and the 36ers were still better off when Froling was on the court.

Some sceptics may fret about his drastic defensive rebounding rate drop off, but I am not one of them. Froling’s defensive board percentage was bested by a long list of point guards last season, but the 36ers remained better on the glass with him on the court. Per Spatial Jam’s luck-adjusted on/off figures, Adelaide’s rebounding rates on both ends improved when Froling was on the hardwood. To me, this shows that Froling is a remarkably diligent boxer outerer.

If we discount his defensive rebounding rate, his statistical regression isn’t much to worry about at all. When you put them into perspective and realise that the numbers he’s posting now are still figures that any other sophomore in the NBL would love to have, there’s even less to fret about.

Instead of focusing on his incremental steps back, we should be focusing on the unique combination of skills that he has at his disposal. The stack of tools that Froling has in his offensive skill set at his age is genuinely frightening. Few possess his combination of shooting touch, offensive rebounding, and foul drawing prowess.

In 2019/20, Froling drained 41% of his threes, registered an offensive rebounding rate of 12.9% (good for sixth league-wide), and posted a top 10 free throw attempt rate. No player in the league managed to match all three of those marks. Just one (Majok Majok) managed to hit even two of the three.

So, when I say that “few possess his combination of shooting touch, offensive rebounding, and foul drawing prowess”, ‘few’ actually means zero. In the analytics-driven sport we see today, you could argue that there are no three skills more valuable to a big man on the offensive end of the court.

What makes Froling so interesting is that his bag of tricks is already this deep and he’s only 21. As His Airness would say…

One lost season in Adelaide without any significant steps forward isn’t going to hurt him too much. One thing it does do, is make his next destination crucial to his development and his chances of reaching his ceiling.

For Froling to have the best chance of realising that potential, his next destination needs to have two things: a stable coaching situation (looking at you, Sixers group chat) and a ton of minutes. The latter requirement is especially relevant considering how Froling’s minute total decreased from year one to year two. He needs a team that will give him as many reps as he needs — any club that invests in a star import centre is probably a no go.

That, though, is where Froling might run into a problem. For Froling to get those minutes, any possible suitor will need to have the right types of pieces around him to make sure that they don’t get killed with him on the floor. For all of his talent, he’s still far from a complete player. His next team may struggle if they rely on him for big minutes night-to-night and don't have the right players around him.

On offence, a team that features Froling should be fine — the defensive end is another story. With his lack of vertical athleticism, lateral quickness, or a freakish wingspan, Froling understandably struggles on that end. According to defensive box plus-minus, the big man was a huge negative. Looking at defensive PIPM makes for even worse reading, as Froling rated as the sixth-worst defensive player in NBL20.

Any Froling suitor will need to have as much versatility, athleticism, and length as possible on the roster to mask his weaknesses. Last year’s Cairns Taipans, with the likes of Kouat Noi, DJ Newbill, and Cam Oliver, would have been the ultimate lineup for Froling to slide into. Froling could have filled the Nate Jawai role on that team without any trouble.

An ideal Froling suitor won’t just be able to cover up his deficiencies on the defensive end either. They’ll also be able to unlock his full potential on offence. Froling has immense talent, but as a guy who will struggle to sustain an average level of defence during his career, he needs to be beyond great on offence to become a star.

The next step for Froling on that end will be figuring out how to generate his own offence. Per jordanmcnbl.com, Froling scored a ghastly 0.7 points per possession on post ups last season. However, that efficiency occurred on just 27 total possessions. Along with the tiny sample size, Adelaide under Joey Wright seemingly abandoned the concept of spacing, meaning that most Froling post ups occurred with a cramped floor.

Surrounding him with legitimately threatening three-point bombers would give Froling the greatest chance possible of becoming a post up weapon who can create shots for himself. With his bowling ball physique and feathery touch, he should be as good as any NBL player down low. Whoever ends up being his next coach should endeavour to find out.

To go along with unlocking his potential as a scorer, Froling’s next coach should try to unearth whatever playmaking ability he has hiding away. When Froling compared himself to Nikola Jokic, he called himself a “great passer”. Every now and then, he shows off some genuinely outstanding vision.

Strangely, in his NBL career to date, Froling has displayed little of that passing ability. One reason for that is that he has been in Wright’s system, which doesn’t really encourage big men to display their vision. For Froling to unleash whatever playmaking ability he has, his next destination needs to give him the freedom that Adelaide never did.

So, with all this in mind, what NBL team out there is the perfect destination for Froling?

The unfortunate but simple answer is that there really isn’t one. Every NBL team should be willing to sign up a 21 year old, uber-talented local, but none check all of the boxes I have laid out.

For starters, Froling needs minutes. South East Melbourne and Brisbane both have at least two good big men locked in for next year who will eat into Froling's minute totals, ruling them out. Additionally, I think it’s safe to assume that Melbourne United, Perth, and the Breakers will not be able to offer decent minutes, as all three will likely be back in the market for import centres.

This leaves just Cairns, Sydney, and Illawarra as feasible destinations.

Illawarra would be the obvious choice. He would be with his brother and also snag minutes on a roster with limited talent. The problem is that his fit on both ends of the court is questionable. Illawarra was already an awful defensive team who desperately needed an injection of length and athleticism — adding the elder Froling likely wouldn’t help. Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, neither AJ Ogilvy nor brother Sam, are great fits next to him. At this point in their respective careers, neither are good enough from long-range to open up space for him down low.

As mentioned, Cairns would have been the answer last season. However, unless the Taipans get a cash injection soon, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to bring back a lot of the pieces that would’ve allowed Froling to slide in seamlessly. Oliver, DJ Newbill, and Kouat Noi, are all going to be able to test the market — who knows if next year’s Taipans will look anything like this year’s?

To me, the best choice that could be on the table would be the Sydney Kings. If Daniel Kickert moves elsewhere in free agency or retires (both big ifs), Froling would be ideal as their second-unit centre. With Bogut’s load management, Froling’s minute totals wouldn’t be an issue. As an added plus, the Kings’ coaching staff offers the opportunity to develop with some of the smartest minds in league.

On defence, the Kings have a plethora of versatile defenders to mask Froling’s deficiencies. Additionally, at the five he would be utilised in Weaver’s drop-back scheme, enabling him to avoid defending in space and succeed defensively in a similar manner to Kickert last season. Offensively, Sydney shoot a ton of threes, which would allow for Froling to have the space he requires down low. On top of this, the Kings would likely encourage him to become a distributor in a similar manner to how Bogut is used in their offence, allowing Froling to fully explore this side of his game.

Even though Sydney feels like a natural landing spot, it does still assume a lot. Most pressingly, Kickert would have to leave, which seems unlikely at this point given how great he was throughout the course of the 2019/20 season.

Like I said, there really is no perfect fit.

The lack of a great fit is, to me, what makes Froling such an intriguing free agent. No one out there seems ideal for him, but he’s still so talented with so much upside. One of these teams will absolutely make a run at him with no regard for fit.

Over the next few weeks, though, as is always the case in free agency, stuff will unfold that we aren’t yet aware of. Players will get out of contracts, new signings will change the complexion of teams, and front offices will change their minds. Hopefully, for Froling’s sake, the moving and shaking that will occur in this period creates a faultless situation, whether that be in the NBL, or some other league entirely.

Wherever he lands, Froling will be good. He’s too talented not to be. But, with the right landing spot, he can become great. He just needs to find it.