How does the Will Magnay signing shake up the NBL?

Six months after turning a breakout NBL season into an NBA deal, Will Magnay is back in Australia. Only he’s with the two-time defending champions, instead of his hometown Bullets.

Credit: Russell Freeman Photography

A little over a month after becoming the 25th Australian to ever register NBA minutes, Will Magnay is back on our shores.

Once the Logue bomb hit our timelines, I’m sure we all felt a particularly bittersweet feeling. I’m beyond excited to see Magnay back in the NBL. Still, his return being down to his first attempt at the NBA falling flat certainly adds a touch of guilt to that excited feeling.

Magnay will get more shots at the NBA. His rare combination of supremely desirable attributes is far too tantalising for front offices in the association to not take a second look. That's without mentioning that Magnay turns just 23 next month, is only starting to blossom, and suffered injury setbacks during his first attempt at the big time. You just know that he'll be back there sooner rather than later.

As a result, maybe we shouldn’t feel too guilty about enjoying Magnay’s return. 

There is, however, a subset of fans who won’t enjoy Magnay’s return at all...

What should we make of Brisbane’s side in all of this?

A non-trivial amount of criticism has been directed in the Bullets’ direction after this signing. The Bullets held Magnay’s NBL contractual rights upon his exit from the NBA. Releasing him from that obligation to sign with the Wildcats, even if a buyout was involved, definitely feels like a wimpy decision.

I (obviously) have no inside information, but from reading the tea leaves already out there, it's clear that Magnay didn't want to rejoin the Bullets. After all, the alternate explanation is that the Bullets didn't want a guy who was on an NBA roster last month.

If that assumption is correct, Magnay not wanting to return to where it all started is likely a combination of a couple of different factors:

  • The lure of the Wildcats, a great developmental situation, and a real chance to win a championship. As Magnay said to ESPN: “There was a thought process, but, in my mind, Perth just seemed like the best fit for me. There's a definite role there for me. I guess the club's history with winning and the culture they have there is something I wanted to be a part of. I wasn't 1000 percent sure, but I was pretty certain.”

  • The credible rumours circulating that the Bullets didn’t make it easy for Magnay to depart to the NBA in the first place.

  • Potentially money.

Yet, the fact remains that the Bullets had his rights once he was released from the NBA. He signed a two-year contract extension in February of last year. Simply put, any team wanting to sign him had to obtain Brisbane's permission.

This likely means one of three things: The Bullets are being nice to both Magnay and his management (or attempting to make up for past wrongdoings); the Bullets wanted buyout dosh/were unwilling to add his salary back on to their books; or both. If Magnay indeed had no intention of returning to the Bullets, the only other option for Brisbane was playing hardball. In theory, they could have made Magnay wait at least until the offseason to join another NBL team.

For ultra-competitive and petty schmucks like me, this route seems ideal. Brisbane are still firmly in the playoff hunt — the Bullets are equal on losses with the Kings in third place. They could easily end up in a semi-final series with the Wildcats. Giving up Magnay to arguably the best team in the league seems like nothing more than waving the white flag. It’s a move that gift wraps a dynastic team, who they could very well play in the postseason, a highly likely Grand Final appearance. Why not sabotage the Wildcats for the remainder of the season, and boost your own (slim) title chances?

But looking at the bigger picture, Brisbane opting against that route isn’t as wimpy as it sounds. For starters, if we’re being real, even without Magnay on the Wildcats, the odds the Bullets making real postseason noise this season is pretty close to nil. Playing hardball doesn't offer a ton of upside in this situation.

Meanwhile, there is a ton of potential downside to that route. They would have lost out on any buyout cash headed their way, ruined relationships with anyone associated with Magnay, and likely lose a ton of trust with any prospective recruitment targets in the future. Not to mention, spoiling the future of a Brisbane boy who needs, more than anything, more basketball under his belt probably isn’t the image the Bullets want to craft for themselves. Facing those downsides isn’t really worth boosting your minimal title odds this season.

Brisbane didn’t screw this up — this is a calculated decision with the club's future in mind. I’m sure it’s annoying for Bullets fans who don’t want to see their club wave the white flag in the short term, but it’s probably the right decision.

What does Magnay bring to the Wildcats’ three-peat quest?

It's unlikely that we see an apex version of Magnay as he eases his way back into the NBL. He's reportedly dealing with bone spurs in his foot, is coming out of a 14-day quarantine, and has played just 225 minutes of basketball over the last 15 months.

Despite the likelihood that Magnay isn't going to be at his best from the get go, he adds clear, immediate value to the Wildcats' championship charge. It's this simple: the Wildcats have had to patch together a ragtag group of fringe NBLers to fill the front court spot next to John Mooney. Tom Jervis, Jarred Bairstow, and 19 year old Luke Travers have combined for nearly 27 minutes per night. Those three have done an admirable job with those minutes given their limitations but, realistically, it's unclear if anyone from that trio should be in the rotation of a title contending team. Even if Magnay isn't 100%, adding a guy of his calibre who can make sure Trevor Gleeson doesn't have to depend on lineups featuring that trio is invaluable.

The scary part is that those guys were doing a good enough job anyway. The Wildcats are 20-7 with those 27 minutes a night. Now they’re adding an NBA player to step into those minutes. This seems unfair. Besides replacing those minutes, Magnay is a seamless fit for the Wildcats both next to John Mooney and in minutes where Mooney is forced to rest.

Importantly, Perth have struggled big time without Mooney on the court this season. Per Spatial Jam, Perth are being outscored by around 6 points per 100 possessions with him riding the pine and get outscored even when Bryce Cotton is playing in those groupings. At the very least, the addition of Magnay means Gleeson will have at least one high-level frontcourt option on the floor at all times. 

Come playoff time, non-Mooney minutes shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate. As mentioned, lineups featuring Cotton without Mooney are being outscored, but only by around 2 points per 100 possessions, per Spatial Jam. Now, with Magnay able to fill any non-Mooney minutes, those lineups should produce positive results. Additionally, any minutes without both Cotton and Mooney should be eliminated come the postseason. Gleeson will be able to ramp up his stars’ minutes and ensure one of them is always on the floor.

In minutes he shares with Mooney, Magnay is a perfect fit. On offence, both can stretch the floor for the other's exceptional pick and roll threat. Mooney has registered 133 possessions finishing off a pick and roll/pop this season, scoring at an excellent rate of 1.13 points per possession, per Last season, Magnay converted those plays at a rate of 1.16 points per possession with his unstoppable athleticism. 

When one of them is utilised as Cotton’s pick and roll partner, the other can act as a serviceable floor spacer. Mooney is converting on a ridiculous 56.8% of his looks from deep this year. Magnay made just 18.8% of his looks last year but shot at 30% in the G-League bubble while dealing with the longer distance. It’s clearly a part of his game that he’s improving upon every day. It should shock no one if he becomes a league-average three-point shooter in Perth, especially given how open his looks will be.

More intriguingly, having both on the floor will make it impossible for defences to have a lead-footed big on the floor who struggles to contain pick and roll. Opponents have been able to hide defensively incompetent bigs on the likes of Bairstow, Jervis, and Travers, knowing full well that a Cotton pick and roll with one of those screen setters isn’t particularly dangerous. With Magnay alongside Mooney, there is no place to hide. Cotton will now be able to pick on any defensive liability opponents try to trot out against Perth’s premium lineups.

Defensively, the marriage is perhaps even more perfect. Mooney has been playing (and defending) as a full-time five-man. For good reason, too: Mooney is a tad too slow to be defending out on the perimeter regularly.

Once he fills out, Magnay’s best position will be at the five as a rim-protecting mismatch nightmare. For now, though, it’s arguable that he’s best suited to defending as a four at the NBL level. To my eye, he always seemed more comfortable defending next to a bulkier traditional big man in Brisbane than he did when attempting to be a defensive backbone. With Mooney occupied by opposing fives, Magnay will be free to do what he does best — fly around, come up with absurd weakside blocks, and generally wreak havoc.

“I try and pride myself on playing hard and playing the right way, at whatever level that is,” Magnay said to ESPN’s Olgun Uluc. “I'll find my role, whether it's to come in and shoot; I've been working on shooting a lot. So, whether it's to come in and shoot threes and stretch the floor a bit more, or to help out in the paint, rolling hard. I've never been a player to come in and take 20 shots a game and disrupt offence and stuff; I move the ball, swing the ball, set hard screens, play the right way. I'm gonna do what I have to to help win games, and that's it. I'm gonna play defence, I'm gonna try and block shots, as I do. I'm not gonna try and disrupt anything that they've got going already.”

On top of being a great fit next to Mooney, Magnay will help to patch up Perth’s main two defensive holes. Perth have the second-best defence in the league, according to Spatial Jam, but there are problematic areas that Magnay will help to patch up. Maybe the biggest hole in Perth’s defence thus far has been that they’re allowing opponents to shoot a ridiculous percentage at the rim. Per Spatial Jam, opponents are making 62% of their at-rim attempts, 5% above the league average. Magnay flying around, deterring anyone that comes near the hoop, and blocking everything in sight as he did in Brisbane will force that number to drop.

The other glaring hole Perth have got is that they are currently allowing a ton of three-point attempts. Opponents are taking over 40% of their shot attempts from deep against Perth, the third-highest mark in the league. Thus far, shooting luck has been in their favour — opponents are making just 31% of their above-the-break threes against Perth, a number 5% below the league average

Their shooting luck could easily turn in the other direction, though. We know that three-point shooting is incredibly variable and, at least in some part, luck-dependent. They need to allow fewer three-point attempts in case that luck starts to shift in the other direction.

The addition of Magnay definitely won’t hurt their quest to allow less threes. Magnay's lateral quickness and ability to close out on anyone from any distance will help prevent those attempts. Most pressingly, Magnay’s fearsome, all-encompassing shot blocking presence will enable Perth to send less help at players headed toward the rim, theoretically allowing defenders to stay home on shooters.

Matching up with Melbourne United

As much as these general benefits against the league at large are good for Perth, though, they mean nothing if they don’t help out against a potential matchup with Melbourne United. Until another club starts to separate themselves from the chasing pack, it's safe to treat Perth and Melbourne as the presumptive Grand Final participants.

Magnay not only helps with matching Melbourne’s sheer talent level, but he’ll help to match up with United’s newfound desire to go big. Since Jack White went down, Dean Vickerman has been trying to figure out who he wants to put next to Jock Landale. Mason Peatling has done an OK job, but you don’t want to have to depend on him for big minutes in a playoff series. David Barlow has clearly regressed and shouldn’t be relied upon for meaningful minutes.

For the time being, recent games suggest that Vickerman’s go-to answer in a high stakes game will be to go with a double big approach with Jo Lual-Acuil next to Landale. The signing of David Andersen as an injury replacement for White is another indication that he intends to go big come playoff time.

That Landale/Lual-Acuil duo has been exceptional this season. Per Spatial Jam, lineups featuring that duo are performing 7.3 points per 100 possessions better than United’s average net rating. Adding Magnay allows Perth the ability to match up with that double big approach and fight fire with fire. United won't be able to reap the same offensive benefits they gain against most teams with that duo against the Wildcats. At minimum, adding Magnay should minimise any minutes in which Landale gets to feast on the likes of Luke Travers or Jesse Wagstaff down low.

United, like the rest of league, should be worried. Unlike a lot of late-season star signings, Magnay won’t take anything away. He doesn’t need the ball to be effective — he can be a stud without infringing on anything that makes Perth the dominant force that they are. All he does is make them better.

For a franchise with a history of making game-changing mid-to-late season signings, this signing could go down as one of their best ever.