Sitting courtside at Sydney's Qudos Bank Arena, David Griffin must have had some reservations at times. The New Orleans Pelicans executive had travelled more than 14,000 kilometres to watch to watch Sydney Kings swingman and Pelicans draftee Didi Louzada, as the Kings hosted Melbourne United in Game 1 of their semi-final series.
Through three quarters, Louzada was barely sighted. He had three missed shots and zero points to his name at the final break, and his team trailed by double digits. By the final buzzer, though, both Griffin and Louzada would have surely been ecstatic with what transpired. As the Kings overcame a 16-point deficit with less than seven minutes left, Louzada poured in eight final quarter points including the go-ahead three in the final minute.
In the end, that last term was the only one that really mattered. Melbourne dominated the first three periods but still couldn't close out a win on the road. Melo Trimble was electric throughout with a game-high 34 points, and he powered United to leads over the first three intervals. His inside-out chemistry with Shawn Long (23 points, 11 rebounds) left Sydney reeling, as coach Will Weaver's renowned drop defence was tested by some sharpshooting from the perimeter and within.
The Kings are the NBL's top-ranked defence for a reason, though, and they put on the clamps down the stretch as Melbourne's offence disintegrated. It must have been painful to watch for United coach Dean Vickerman; the last three minutes featured an eight-second violation, a pair of missed Long free throws, a bizarre long-range attempt from Chris Goulding and a sloppy turnover from Trimble. That all stemmed from the swarming energy of Sydney on both ends, led by Jae'Sean Tate's 23 points and trademark relentless effort. It was their defence that really turned the tide, though, as they held United to just two points in the final 6:25.
Louzada certainly played his role on that end, with Weaver praising his defence throughout, and his late scoring flourish was the icing that helped Sydney to take the cake. That game-clinching three-pointer encapsulated everything that has been great about his game this year-- patient, poised and willing to wait for his moment to arrive.
What can teams learn from Louzada's success?
On the surface, Louzada's impact might be a little surprising. Coming into the season, he found himself lumped in with fellow Next Stars LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton and Terry Armstrong. It was easy for the public to forget about him despite Sydney's dominance, as Ball racked up impressive counting stats and he and Hampton drew the eyes of NBA scouts and fans.
Contract status and Next Star label aside, Louzada was never like those players. They were all 18 and making the seismic leap from high school ball to the professional ranks. Louzada was only two years older, but his real advantage came in the experience he already had. At the age of 15 he joined Franca, a Brazilian club with Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa among its former players. After one season there he was playing in the Liga de Desenvolvimento de Basquete, an Under 22 competition; by 2017, he had made his debut in Brazil's top professional league, Novo Basquete Brasil. He arrived in the NBL with a swag of awards from his final season there, including Most Improved Player, Revelation Player and an All-Star selection.
In physicality and overall quality, the NBB is a much closer parallel to the NBL than high school basketball. With so much previous professional experience, Louzada was always more likely to contribute to winning than his Next Stars counterparts. It's hard to know how many similar draft-and-stash prospects will be part of the program moving forward, but the league's elite teams should be ready to jump at the chance to add them in the future. That's without even mentioning the fact that Louzada may spend a second season in the NBL --Next Stars contracts have a second season written in-- and there's no guarantee that the Pelicans will have him on their roster next season.
That's not the only lesson teams may take from Louzada's success either. Illawarra Hawks coach Matt Flinn has been positive overall when talking about his experience with Ball. However, he has made it clear that the Hawks will not look to add such a young point guard again.
"You've still got to come in and run the show and feed the fish and execute when the lights are on... it's a big ask for an 18-year-old to do it. I think positionally, we would look maybe towards the other end of the roster," Flinn told the Illawarra Mercury.
The New Zealand Breakers faced similar challenges with Hampton, and it's telling that both teams had records well in the negative with their youngsters playing. That has nothing to do with their ability, as both are projected lottery picks in the 2020 NBA draft. A team's point guard shoulders a lot of responsibility, and the reality is not many young players can carry that load for a winning team. While there were no big men in this year's Next Stars, they would likely find it similarly challenging, as they are generally slower to develop and would face a high physical toll in the NBL.
It's usually a much gentler transition for wings like Louzada, given they play mostly on the perimeter but without the ball in their hands. The numbers may not be quite as impressive, but it's easier to envisage young wing players succeeding on a winning team than young point guards. For struggling teams, a younger guard may still be a drawcard in the way that Ball was for Illawarra; for teams looking to contend, though, Louzada provides the perfect blueprint to get involved in the Next Stars program.
It would have been easy for Louzada to crumble under the pressure of a high-stakes final, but he stood up when it mattered and helped Sydney to a huge win. That moment was a result of years of experience and preparation; those are the things that Griffin and the Pelicans saw when they drafted him a year ago, and they're the same things that NBL teams should be looking for in the future.