Recent history has shown us that budding prospects take time to develop in the NBL, regardless of talent level. It took Mitch Creek around 5 or 6 seasons to begin living up to his potential. Chris Goulding used 6 or so seasons to truly find his footing; for all Corey Webster’s promise in his younger years, it wasn’t until he turned 26 that he finally popped.
The fact of the matter is that the NBL isn’t catered to the development of youngsters, especially in comparison to the NBA. Due to the presence of 29 other teams, most NBA franchises have little-to-no chance at the title and are motivated to reap the rewards of the draft rather than compete.
On the other hand, four of the NBL’s eight (now, nine) teams make the playoffs and need to win a mere five games in the postseason to walk away with the championship. Because of this (and the lack of a draft system), teams have zero incentive to launch into any long-term rebuilding project. Why waste minutes developing young players, when the small sample size of a 28 game season means that you have a fairly good chance at winning the title anyway?
If anything, the NBL is rigged against young players. In fact, it's so rigged that any youngster who manages to shine under NBL lights deserves to receive extra special attention.
Enter Daniel Grida.
While Harry Froling deservedly dominated the Rookie of the Year race, the debut campaign Grida put forward was nothing to scoff at. At just 20 years of age, Grida was of fundamental importance to any success Illawarra had last season. The curious decision to put together a roster bereft of any real shooting made his presence vital.
If Grida didn’t catch the eye of casual fans, he certainly made plus/minus nerds drool. The Hawks were 8.9 points per 36 minutes better with Grida on the court, the best mark on the team, per Jordan McCallum. This was despite playing just 10 minutes total with the team’s best player, Todd Blanchfield, according to HoopsDB (minutes in which Illawarra smoked other teams by 29.7 points per 100 possessions).
Those excellent plus/minus numbers stem predominantly from his jump shot. Grida’s beautiful, quick-trigger stroke is easy on the eyes (basically the opposite of what Cedric Jackson has going on) and already lethal for opposition defences. With that dangerous stroke, Grida drilled 39.4% of his long-range efforts on 6.6 attempts per 36 minutes. Per Spatial Jam, just five players matched Grida’s efficiency and volume from downtown: Clint Steindl, Todd Blanchfield, Reuben Te Rangi, David Barlow, and Melo Trimble. That isn't bad company for a shooter at all.
The difficulty with talking about Grida as a great shooter, is that you risk understating the rest of his well-rounded game.
You shouldn’t expect 20-year old basketball players to do anything more than exist on defence, but Dan Grida seemingly did everything he could to disprove that narrative last season. His athleticism and 6’6’’ frame gives him a strong defensive foundation to work with, but it’s his work rate and activity which make him the defender he is. Unlike a lot of other guys who are paid a lot more, he actually gives a damn on that end of the court; there’s a reason why everything you read about Grida starts off by marvelling at his work ethic and competitiveness.
How many NBL players would dare even contesting this poster?
Grida’s bounce, quick feet, and relentless, tireless attitude have made him an above-average defender at the NBL level. Seeing as no Hawk posted a higher defensive rating than him last season, he may even be better than above-average. One can only imagine how good he’s going to be, after he fills out his frame and picks up more of the defensive nuances that come with defence at the professional level.
Even if you only take into account his shooting and defence, Grida is set up to be an excellent 3-and-D player for a long, long time. To be giving effective 3-and-D minutes in his debut campaign bodes incredibly well for his future development as well. Check out how his rookie year compares to some star wings during their first NBL seasons registering real minutes.
What makes this even more impressive, is that only Goulding and Blanchfield completed their seasons at Grida’s age. Madgen was 25, Gliddon was 24, and McCarron was 24, yet, Grida’s numbers hold up remarkably well.
The only issue that sticks out from those numbers is Grida’s low assist and free throw rates, which point to a lack of ball-handling. This is the only legitimate, identifiable weakness in his entire game, but unless he expands his off-the-dribble skills, his ceiling becomes rather limited.
However, during 2018-19, Grida never really got any chance to show off his ball-handling chops. Because of the dearth of shooting in Illawarra, the likes of Blanchfield and Grida had to play off-ball practically every possession for the Hawks to have any chance at providing adequate floor spacing. As a result, every time Grida did anything off-the-dribble he was contributing negative value, as Illawarra’s parade of bricklayers were tasked with spacing the floor.
As a result, a better representation of Grida’s potential as a ball-handler was seen during the NZNBL this year. Playing with the Nelson Giants, Grida was provided with the opportunity to do what he wanted with the ball in his hands and the results were promising. In the NZNBL, Grida was sharp and aggressive as a penetrator — nearly 40% of Grida’s shot attempts came at the rim, where he converted at a rate of 67%, per Spatial Jam. As a point of reference, his Giants teammate Jordair Jett made just 61% of his rim attempts.
Grida’s year in the NZNBL seems to show that his dribble-drive game could become formidable at NBL-level. If it’s a reliable indicator at all, it’s certainly possible that, at some point in the future, the youngster develops into a go-to scorer at NBL level. With this in mind, Grida could easily be thought of as the most tantalising local prospect in the NBL. The potential for a go-to scorer with a strong defensive game — who also has a tremendous work ethic that will allow him to improve all of it — should excite even the most pessimistic of fans.
Seeing as Illawarra loaded up on guards and wings in the form of LaMelo Ball, Aaron Brooks, and Sunday Dech, it’s unclear how many minutes Grida is in store for this season. Regardless, no one should be sleeping on the buckets of potential that he oozes.
Given Grida is off-contract in 2020, should Illawarra not find him the minutes he deserves, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he finds a new home for 2020-21. After all, every single one of the other eight clubs should be joining the queue for his signature at this very second. There is no team out there that couldn’t use a 6’6’’ sharpshooter who competes on defence, let alone one who has the potential to turn into a local megastar.
I’m nearly certain that Dan Grida’s time as that local megastar will come one day, the only question is when.