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Looking back on the NBL's greatest player debuts
First impressions can be everything. In round one of NBL24, a handful of players made a huge impact in their first NBL appearances. Where do they sit among the league’s best ever debuts?
Credit: JBC Studios
When Jordan Usher signed with the Perth Wildcats, he wasted no time in telling fans the type of player he was going to be. Spruiking his aspirations to win the NBL’s Best Defensive Player award, he wasn’t shy about his abilities at that end of the floor.
“If there’s one thing I do, it’s defend,” Usher said upon his arrival.
Well, it turns out the flamboyant guard can do more than one thing. After so much focus on his defence, his debut was an offensive explosion of ridiculous proportions. By the time the final buzzer sounded in their season-opening win over Tasmania, Usher had 35 points to his name; that broke Bryce Cotton’s record for the most by a Wildcat in their NBL debut, and it was the most in any player’s first game in the league’s 40-minute era.
Most points in NBL debut (40-minute era)
Jordan Usher, Perth Wildcats: 35 points vs Tasmania JackJumpers, September 29 2023
Melo Trimble, Cairns Taipans: 32 points vs Brisbane Bullets, October 13 2018
Derrick Walton Jr., Sydney Kings: 32 points vs Illawarra Hawks, October 1 2022
Brock Motum, Adelaide 36ers: 28 points vs Sydney Kings, November 9 2014
Patty Mills, Melbourne Tigers: 28 points vs Sydney Kings, October 7 2011
Two days later, it was his Perth teammate Ben Henshall that was making history. After not hitting the court at all against the JackJumpers, the 19-year-old was forced to wait until Sunday’s clash with the South East Melbourne Phoenix for his own debut.
“Yeah, he was pissed at me the other night because I didn’t play him,” Perth coach John Rillie said, “so he retaliated pretty well.”
The Wildcats fell short of a second win, but Henshall poured in a game-high 24 points off the bench in a strong message to his coach. As pointed out by NBLFacts on Twitter, he became the first Australian in NBL history to lead the game in scoring on his professional debut, while also joining Joe Ingles as the only Aussies to score 20-plus points before turning 20 years old.
Those were the two most impressive first-up efforts, but it hardly ended there. New Zealand guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright did everything in a win, finishing with 25 points, eight assists and six steals; Sydney’s Denzel Valentine flirted with a triple-double; and young guns Alex Sarr and Alex Toohey made strong first impressions as teenagers entering the league.
The opening round of the new season can throw up all sorts of surprises from players eager to make a strong start. Sometimes they’re a flash in the pan, and other times they’re a sign of things to come. After this year’s crop of newcomers showed out, it’s the perfect time to take a look at some of the NBL’s best debuts and the players that produced them.
A massive shout-out to Andrew Price at SpatialJam.com, who provided the statistics for every NBL player in their debut game. Put simply, this story wouldn’t have been possible without him! If you’re an NBL fan, it’s well worth signing up to SpatialJam+ and enjoying all of the advanced stats on offer this season.
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Calvin Talford, Hobart Tassie Devils
vs Brisbane, April 8 1994
50 PTS, 15-19 FG, 5-7 3PT, 15-19 FT, 8 REB, 2 BLK
Bobby Locke, Geelong Supercats
vs Wollongong Hawks, April 27 1990
50 PTS, 19-39 FG, 10-13 FT, 5 STL
In a league as strong as the NBL, a player scoring 50 points on debut seems ridiculous. That two players have done so in the league’s long history is even more remarkable, and with the shift to 40-minute games made in 2010, they share a record that will surely never be broken.
In 1994, Calvin Talford joined a club that was starving for success in the Hobart Tassie Devils. After 11 NBL seasons without a finals appearance, the fans in Hobart desperately needed something to cheer for. They got that in Talford, a high-flyer with unmatched athleticism and flair, and he put on a show for them from his very first game in the league.
Up against a more highly-fancied Brisbane team that would go on the feature in the finals, Talford was unstoppable from start to finish. His 50-piece was incredibly efficient, coming on 19 field goal attempts — he missed just four shots from the field, drained five triples, and got to the free throw line 19 times in the game. A well-rounded scorer able to punish the defence from all three levels, he dazzled the fans at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre but couldn’t quite lift his team to a win.
The Devils struggled mightily that season, winning just two games to finish dead last by a wide margin. It would be Talford’s only season in the league, and he averaged 22 points and six rebounds per game while cementing a reputation as one of the league’s best dunkers and a highlight machine. According to The Lebanon News in Virginia, that earned him a handful of votes in that season’s MVP race, despite his team’s struggles. While he couldn’t carry the Devils to any great heights, he certainly left his mark on the NBL and in the record books.
Bobby Locke was thrown into a similarly tough situation four years prior, with his debut coming a month into the 1990 season with a team that was already on the ropes. The Geelong Supercats started their campaign with four consecutive losses, leading them to cut ties with import forward Brian Vaughans. In came Locke, an explosive guard that the ‘Cats hoped could lift their ceiling to something more respectable.
As noted by Boti Nagy, it’s something of a legend among longtime NBL fans that Locke stepped off the plane in Melbourne, was driven straight to Geelong, and dropped 50 on debut. He certainly wasn’t shy that day against Wollongong, hoisting a whopping 39 field goals while also getting to the free throw line 13 times, but it’s hard to argue against the results. He also racked up five steals, which is the fifth-most for a player on debut since they were first recorded in 1982.
Standing at just 175 centimetres tall but still able to fly and dunk with the tall trees, Locke cemented his place as a star of the league less than 24 hours after arriving in the country. He carried that momentum right through the season, averaging 31.6 points per game to rank fourth in the league along with 4.6 assists and 2.4 steals. Playing alongside a 19-year-old Shane Heal, he led the Supercats to 11 wins, more than in their previous two campaigns combined. With more talent around him he helped Geelong to return to the finals the following year, before ultimately playing just one more season and departing the league.
Most points in NBL debut
Calvin Talford, Hobart Tassie Devils: 50 points vs Brisbane Bullets, April 8 1994
Bobby Locke, Geelong Supercats: 50 points vs Wollongong Hawks, April 27 1990
Derek Rucker, Brisbane Bullets: 48 points vs Adelaide, March 30 1990
Ricky Jones, Townsville Crocodiles: 47 points vs Newcastle Falcons, April 17 1993
Marlon Redmond, Wollongong Hawks: 45 points vs Perth Wildcats, March 30 1984
Winston Crite, Brisbane Bullets: 44 points vs Newcastle Falcons, April 21 1989
Jim Foster, Coburg Giants: 43 points vs Wollongong Hawks, April 27 1986
Paul Maley, Westside Saints: 40 points vs Perth Wildcats, March 31 1990
Jason Reese, Hobart Tassie Devils: 40 points vs Newcastle Falcons, April 12 1991
Greg May, Wollongong Hawks: 39 points vs Sydney Supersonics, April 14 1985
Joe Ingles, South Dragons
vs New Zealand, September 26 2006
29 PTS, 4-5 3PT, 7 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL
Video: NBL / Facebook
Joe Ingles stepped into the NBL as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, and as mentioned above, he took no time settling in. Henshall might have joined him in scoring more than 20 points as a teenager, but the Wildcats youngster has a long way to go to match his predecessor; after all, Ingles had 20 points nine times in his debut season, averaging 15.3 points per game and earning Rookie of the Year honours.
Even as he went from strength to strength through that season, Ingles never topped the mark set in his first ever professional game. His 29 points that day remains the record for an Australian on debut in the NBL, even with the more established stars that have come into the league in the years since. Even more impressively, he led a South Dragons team that was playing their first NBL game to the brink of a win on the road, before ultimately falling just short.
Looking back now, it’s remarkable that Ingles didn’t make it to the NBA sooner – there was a little more spring in the jump shot and some extra pop off the dribble 17 years ago, but it’s the same old Joe that we’ve come to know and love. He drained four triples off the catch, spotting up and firing with no hesitation; he snaked his way into the paint, patiently waiting for defenders to lose their shape before finishing at the rim; and he did it all with the poise and confidence that would later evolve into his trademark swagger.
The Dragons fell just short of a win, but Ingles stamped his papers as a star of the future. Of course, we all know the story from there – nine years in the NBA, the Utah Jazz records for three pointers made, an Olympic bronze medal with the Boomers, and plenty more memorable moments. A legend of Australian basketball was born in Auckland on that day in 2006, and Ingles’ debut was certainly one to remember.
Most points in NBL debut by a local player
Joe Ingles, South Dragons: 29 points vs New Zealand Breakers, September 26 2006
Patty Mills, Melbourne Tigers: 28 points vs Sydney Kings, October 7 2011
Danny Morseu, St. Kilda Saints: 28 points vs Newcastle Falcons, February 25 1979
Brock Motum, Adelaide 36ers: 28 points vs Sydney Kings, November 9 2014
David Leslie, City of Sydney Astronauts: 25 points vs Glenelg Tigers, February 24 1979
Ben Henshall, Perth Wildcats: 24 points vs South East Melbourne, October 1 2023
Yanni Wetzell, New Zealand Breakers: 24 points vs Adelaide 36ers, January 1 2021
Luke Kendall, Sydney Kings: 24 points vs New Zealand Breakers, October 10 2004
Ken McFadden, Hobart Tassie Devils
vs Brisbane Bullets, April 4 1992
13 AST, 37 PTS, 14-26 FG, 5 REB, 2 STL
Ken McFadden’s time in the NBL is just a footnote in the overall scope of the league, but he still holds a special place in the history books. He was signed by the Hobart Tassie Devils in 1992, with player-coach Cal Bruton bringing him in to run the team as they chased a first finals berth. After a brief period of competitiveness, winning 24 games across the 1987 and 1988 seasons, the Tassie Devils had slumped once again to record just eight wins in each of their next three campaigns.
In his first game for Hobart, McFadden looked to be a shrewd pickup. Facing a big challenge on the road against the Brisbane Bullets, he showed the ability to create shots for himself and others in an all-around display. His 37 points were impressive enough, but his 13 assists remain an NBL record for the most by a player in their debut game. Playing alongside Bruton, talented forward Wayne McDaniel, and veteran Andrew Svaldenis, he led the team in scoring while keeping everyone involved.
That wasn’t enough to get the Tassie Devils a win, though, with 33 points from Bullets superstar Leroy Loggins leading Brisbane to a blowout victory. From there, Hobart slumped to double-digit losses against Perth and Geelong, prompting Bruton to make sweeping changes. After struggling against Perth and reportedly injuring his back against the Supercats, McFadden was cut and replaced by Bruton’s close friend Donald Whiteside, with fellow American Anthony Welch also cut loose. Remarkably, Whiteside then had 12 assists in his first game for Hobart, placing him in a tie for second on the debutants leaderboard, and level with another Tassie Devil in Kelvin Scarborough.
McFadden’s NBL career ended after just three games, but that dubious distinction is offset by his historic debut. In the bleak history of the Hobart Tassie Devils, his place in the record books is a small but significant bright spot.
Most assists in NBL debut (since 1982)
Ken McFadden, Hobart Tassie Devils: 13 assists vs Brisbane Bullets, April 4 1992
Kelvin Scarborough, Hobart Tassie Devils: 12 assists vs Geelong Supercats, March 15 1988
Donald Whiteside, Hobart Tassie Devils: 12 assists vs Canberra Cannons, April 25 1992
Butch Hays, Adelaide 36ers: 11 assists vs Wollongong Hawks, April 12 1991
Greg Giddings, Geelong Supercats: 11 assists vs Hobart Tassie Devils, April 25 1987
Keifer Sykes, South East Melbourne Phoenix: 11 assists vs Adelaide 36ers, January 17 2021
Dillon Boucher, New Zealand Breakers
vs Adelaide 36ers, October 1 2003
8 STL, 8 REB, 7 AST, 6 PTS
October 1 2003 is a day that would be seared into the memories of plenty of Kiwi basketball fans. The New Zealand Breakers are now one of the most successful clubs in the NBL’s history, winners of four titles in a five-season span, and it all started 20 years ago in Auckland. They entered their debut season as underdogs, expected to struggle as they found their feet in the competition, but made a huge statement in their first game with a 111-110 win over the Adelaide 36ers.
There were plenty of standouts in that effort, with Ben Melmeth pouring in 29 points and Aaron Olsen and Philip Jones finishing with 20 apiece. Most impressive, though, might have been the performance of Dillon Boucher. Now the CEO of Basketball New Zealand, he joined the Breakers after making his name in the NZNBL, winning six titles there before taking the plunge into the Australian league.
You’ll hear commentators mention a player being on “triple-double watch” as they flirt with the milestone, but it’s not often that someone is on quadruple-double watch. That’s where Boucher found himself, though, as he did a little of everything in both his and his team’s NBL debut. He scored took just three shots and scored six points himself, but he created plenty of offence with seven assists, helping the Breakers to burst out of the blocks with a 44-point first term; he crashed the glass with purpose, with his eight rebounds featuring three offensive boards; and most notably, his trademark style of relentless and physical defence led to eight steals, a record for a player in their NBL debut since steals were first recorded in 1983.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for New Zealand that season, as they followed up that win by losing ten of their next 11 games. Still, a 12-win season exceeded the expectations of many, and the platform was set for a rapid rise up the ladder. Boucher would go on to play a big part in that, winning four NBL titles with the team, and he would also end his career as a nine-time NZNBL champion and one of the league’s all-time greats.
Most steals in NBL debut (since 1983)
Dillon Boucher, New Zealand Breakers: 8 steals vs Adelaide 36ers, October 1 2003
Darryl Johnson, Townsville Crocodiles: 7 steals vs Adelaide 36ers, May 13 1994
Butch Hays, Adelaide 36ers: 6 steals vs Wollongong Hawks, April 12 1991
Parker Jackson-Cartwright, New Zealand Breakers: 6 steals vs Cairns Taipans, September 30 2023
Bill Jones, Adelaide 36ers
vs Brisbane Bullets, April 13 1985
20 REB (14 ORB), 6 BLK, 24 PTS
The 1985 NBL season represented a big shift for basketball in Adelaide. The West Adelaide Bearcats, champions in the 1982 season, merged with the Adelaide 36ers to form one club for all South Australians to rally behind. Players from both former clubs came together to form the new roster, with Bearcats stars Al Green and Peter Ali joining forces with Adelaide holdover Darryl Pearce, while some fresh talent was recruited into the club.
That included American big man Bill Jones, who would become the team’s starting centre. While he wasn’t the known quantity that some of his teammates were, that didn’t stop him from wowing South Australians in their new-look team’s first outing with a spectacular display. In fact, his performance might be even more impressive than all of those detailed above — after all, Jones is the only player to hold records in multiple categories for players on debut.
Already a hulking figure standing at six-foot-ten, Jones’ high-end athleticism made him an exciting player to watch and a handful for opposing teams. That was on full display as Adelaide kick-started its new era of hoops with a thrilling win over Brisbane. Jones was unstoppable around the basket on both ends of the floor, scoring a team-high 24 points, pulling down 20 rebounds, swatting six blocks, and leading from the front in a team with plenty of star power.
His 20 rebounds are still the most by a player in their NBL debut, as are his 16 offensive boards, and six blocks also remains the benchmark. With the shift in the game to more versatile and perimeter-based bigs, it’s hard to see any of those records being broken any time soon.
Jones went on to become captain of the 36ers the following year, and he helped the team to a historic 24-2 record in the regular season and a title run in the finals. That team was dubbed “The Invincibles”, and they further enhanced Jones’ standing as one of the league’s elite bigs. He played four seasons with Adelaide, before bouncing between NBL stints with Newcastle and Geelong and time spent playing in Central and South America. As of 2016, he had been living in Melbourne for almost three decades, settling in the country where he made a big impact on the basketball landscape.
Most rebounds in NBL debut (since 1982)
Bill Jones, Adelaide 36ers: 20 rebounds vs Brisbane Bullets, April 13 1985
Ricky Jones, Townsville Crocodiles: 19 rebounds vs Newcastle Falcons, April 17 1993
Chuck Harmison, Nunawading Spectres: 19 rebounds vs Bankstown Bruins, February 13 1982
Dan Krebs, Hobart Tassie Devils: 18 rebounds vs North Melbourne Giants, March 30 1990
Ken McClary, Sydney Kings: 17 rebounds vs Melbourne Tigers, April 12 1991
Don Bickett, Wollongong Hawks: 17 rebounds vs Geelong Supercats, April 26 1986
James Crawford, Geelong Supercats: 17 rebounds vs Perth Wildcats, February 6 1982
Marlon Redmond, Wollongong Hawks: 17 rebounds vs Perth Wildcats, March 30 1984
Ollie Johnson, Hobart Tassie Devils: 17 rebounds vs Coburg Giants, April 13 1985
Most blocks in NBL debut (since 1983)
Bill Jones, Adelaide 36ers: 6 blocks vs Brisbane Bullets, April 13 1985
Greg Lazard, Newcastle Falcons: 5 blocks vs Eastside Melbourne, March 31 1990
Reggie Smith, Newcastle Falcons: 5 blocks vs Perth Wildcats, April 21 1995
Willie Simmons, Coburg Giants: 5 blocks vs Wollongong Hawks, April 27 1986
Andrew Ogilvy, Sydney Kings: 5 blocks vs Melbourne Tigers, October 13 2013
Simon Dwight, Canberra Cannons: 5 blocks vs Geelong Supercats, April 22 1995