1. What do we make of the strength of each conference?
The reshuffling of the conferences is interesting and if you’ve landed in the East then you’ve grabbed the early advantage. The first fact is that the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence team are in the East and are not eligible for the playoffs. The second key note is that both Grand Finalists from 2015 are in the South Conference, whilst the third obvious thought is that the incoming Melbourne Tigers (who are also in the East) are unlikely to be a title threat in their first season (although they have the talent to be competitive – especially if their Chinese import works out).
The winner of the East could be Dandenong (with Daequon Montreal and Lucas Walker returning) but how well the supporting cast plays will determine if they finish top or mid table in what is a very open conference. Both Mt Gambier and Albury-Wodonga have retained key personnel and recruited well for their needs and it’s obvious that the two best teams on paper (possibly three if Geelong’s core produce yet again alongside new import Demarcus Gatlin) are certainly in the South.
2. How have the Grand Finalists reloaded?
Last season’s Grand Final was a fantastic matchup and long-time Bandits reporter Steve Smith was courtside to cover it so I’ve reached out to him for his opinion on how Albury-Wodonga have positioned themselves. Steve is optimistic as expected:
“The Bandits have an excellent chance of repeating as conference champions despite the loss of ‘All SEABL’ nominee Cory Dixon. With the retention of stars Deba George and Donte Nicholas, along with key frontcourt player Clay McMath, the Border club still has plenty of offensive firepower. Throw in new import Greg Mays and Sydney King development players Ben Kearins and Madol Chol, along with the return of guard Jack Duck from Geelong, and the Bandits have a solid 7-8 man rotation. If Darcy Harding and Sawyer Dearborn can provide some help off the bench, coach Brad Chalmers will have gone a long way to solving last season’s depth issues, which were largely papered over by the outstanding talent of the starting five”
Damian Johnson’s ability to defend any position on the floor was an enormous luxury for the Pioneers last season (he was also a contributor offensively), and with the late release of Angus Brandt from his contract, there’s potentially a couple of question marks on the champs. The core of Tom Daly, Erik Burdon, Brad Hill and Matt Sutton do remain though and with the addition of two new import bigs, as well as Luke Jamieson, they have more than enough talent and versatility to go into the season as title favourites again.
“The loss of Angus leaves a big hole to fill. I believe that whilst a very different player, Keaton’s size, athleticism and skill set will go a long way to doing that” - Coach Richard Hill on import Keaton Jackson
Hill speaking on import Desmond Simmons: “He is a great rebounder and defender with a good skill set who can shoot the ball and will fit into our system well”
3. Do Bendigo’s import combo have enough help (and what kind of reaction will Damian Johnson get in Mt Gambier)?
The Braves have mirrored their import recruiting blueprint of last season by nabbing a known SEABL star in defensive monster Damian Johnson and a state league MVP in Jeremy Kendle. With the unavailability of Kevin Probert and his steady hand at point guard, as well as the departure of Josh Wilcher, Kendle will have all of the ball handling duties that he can handle (and it wouldn’t surprise me if he led the league in usage). Bendigo have the easier conference and should be very competitive, but with the roster as it currently stands, their depth doesn’t look good enough to be a legit contender.
I reached out to Rod Anderson (QBL head coach of the Townsville Heat) to get his thoughts on Kendle from his time in Queensland.
“I think he’s pretty close to NBL quality, so if the NBL does go to a three import rule next season, then look for Kendle’s name to pop up in a few Internet forums. He’s a very talented offensive player with lightning quick moves to the basket as well as really deep range. His jump shot has a really high release, so defenders closing out don’t bother him too much, but he does have a little bit of trouble finishing at the rim against bigger guys”
Back onto Damian Johnson... there's one thing that is certain - I'm hoping the league ensures there is a live stream available for his return to the 'Ice House'. Richard Hill’s explanation for his star player’s departure at the time is certainly interesting reading now that we see him back in Australia.
“DJ has a career opportunity back home in Minnesota and felt the timing was right to commit to his family and next phase of his life”
4. Will Hobart fans enjoy the season?
If you read hoops.com.au and followed the SEABL thread last season then you would have certainly got an education about the Chargers and their supporters. Hobart dominated discussion, especially in relation to their coach and the playing style of the team, even though they probably overachieved by a couple of wins in the win-loss column. The club has sent the same constant message out with each signing over the off season, stressing a desire to play an exciting style of basketball with shooters, athleticism and a goal to eliminate the dour scoring affairs that they had last season.
The signing of Jarrad Weeks is a masterstroke and fits perfectly with their eagerness to change the perception of their playing style. He was the ultimate energiser in the NBL with his shot creation, speed and incredible athleticism, although one disappointing thing we’ve learnt is that ‘Agent 97’ will not be allowed to wear the number that he made famous in his Illawarra Hawks stint (#FreeAgent97?). One other noteworthy piece of information is that the club has indicated they will be looking to fly in some former NBL players for one or two game stints.
Size up front might be an issue, and whilst they won’t be back in the playoffs, the entertainment factor should be a winner. North West Tasmania appear likely to win the battle of the state and will probably have to edge out Kilsyth if they are to make the playoffs. The Cobras look to have an upgrade in the import slot and have great depth in the backcourt and on the wing (welcome back Joel Naburgs!) to help compensate the loss of Auryn MacMillan.
5. Which top prospects should we be watching?
I spoke with Fox Sports Olgun Uluc to get his thoughts on who we should be keeping an eye on from the Centre of Excellence team.
“Angus Glover (coming off an ACL tear) and Matt Kenyon will more than likely carry the scoring load. For younger guys playing against older ones, they’re the two whose skill-sets will translate best. Both have legitimate range and they can also both play as the lead guard. Glover is the sharpshooter of the team, although I don’t know if he’ll be 100% healthy by the season’s start. Kenyon has really developed a solid basketball body and is a super versatile guard. He’s been stuck in the whole ‘too good for his state, but not quite a national player’ mould"
“From a future perspective: Tom Fullarton is the one to watch. He looks to be the top guy from the next U17s crop. At 6’5, he’s an athletic wing who has solid guard skills. Right now, he can make an impact in spurts, but looks to have the potential to turn into a really solid player"
Brisbane look like the big improvers on paper if they can have better player availability than last season. The Spartans have NBL experience (even CJ Bruton is lacing them up as playing coach), two new imports and star prospect William McDowell-White. Olgun on Will’s ceiling:
“McDowell-White is a legitimate NBA talent. He will probably do 2 or 3 years in college, but I think he'll end up as a first rounder. Other than a consistent jumper, he's got all the skills"
Frankston were cellar dwellers last year and the draw-cards this season, in what will probably be a difficult one again, appear to be Bennie Lewis and Tom Wilson. Melbourne's Jock Perry was another that I was keen to ask Olgun about considering the little I had seen of him (Perry has had some injuries).
“Tom Wilson will be a 4 year college kid and could end up NBA bound (2nd rounder) but it's still too early to tell. He's got the talent to go far. As for Perry, I'd be interested to see how the injuries affect his college career. I don't think he'll be too productive. He's an NBL guy"
6. Is an All Australian line-up good enough for Nunawading?
Delwyn Graham’s athleticism was a decent fit next to either Simon Conn or Adam Ballinger but import guard Breland Hogan finished 2015 coming off the bench for the Spectres. Just 19 made threes next to the playmaking of Shane McDonald meant that he just didn’t work out with a need for the ball to be in his hands (and his inefficiency when he did have it).
Enter Robbie Linton. The Frankston sharpshooter knocked down 60 triples at an elite rate for the Blues last season and pairing him on the wing with the deadly Matt O’Hea (I was lucky enough to be in the stands for his 7-9 effort from range against Canberra last season) should help create space for a peak condition McDonald, the still efficient Conn, and the newly acquired Nathan Wilson to operate in allowing them to post some formidable offensive numbers as a five man unit. How they go on the boards and on defense is probably the true question for them
Canberra also appear to be trotting out an all local roster with some NBL experience mixed in with young talent. Indiana Faithful could be set for a season of big production after gaining some court time for the Sydney Kings in the back half of the season whilst Bul Kuol is an interesting prospect with his work inside the paint. Nunawading will certainly win the battle of the ‘All Aussie’ teams though and could finish anywhere from first to fifth in a difficult to peg conference.
7. Can Tohi Smith-Milner and Jordan Vandenberg make a significant impact?
One Sandringham signing that has piqued my interest is Kiwi Tohi Smith-Milner who was a development player with Melbourne United this past season. Niall Anderson at NZ Hoops wrote a great piece over twelve months ago that is well worth a read for those not familiar with him. Anderson described him as one of the next big New Zealand prospects that was being slept on and certainly an Australian NBL calibre player. I also had a brief chat with NZ Hoops’ Sam Garriock to get his take on Smith-Milner’s game:
“He can really score it from anywhere and mixes in a decent proportion of steals and blocks too, though I haven’t seen him in extended minutes in roughly a year-plus”
We should certainly see him in extended minutes this season and I wouldn't be surprised at all if he logged significantly more minutes than Jordan Vandenberg who failed to inspire me last season. The big center logged only 13.5 minutes per game for Bendigo, he looked out of shape getting up and down the floor, and even appeared disinterested at a couple of the games that I was in attendance for. Despite his form, Sydney threw him an NBL lifeline and it remains to be seen if that will be a turning point or not. Canberra Gunner Daniel Jackson chimed in with his thoughts on Vandenberg's Bendigo form during a Kings game this year:
8. Can Earnest Ross earn an NBL contract? Who else?
His time with Perth was wildly entertaining to think about, although that rarely translated to actual on court production. His Perth signing sent twitter into a frenzy with his controversial eligibility as a local player, and then there was also just the realisation of the sheer size of the guard, as well as a hilariously timed muscle flex after scoring a bucket. Of course, he unfortunately tore his Achilles which cut his stay short but now he’s back and taking on Everard Bartlett's minutes for the Miners (and he’s certainly got me intrigued). Ballarat are a definite playoff hope but how they navigate the first few weeks without big James Hunter could decide how their record finishes in the regular season.
A quick (and I’m sure incomplete) list of some of the current SEABL players who have been on an NBL roster (whether full time or development): Indiana Faithful, Bennie Lewis, Matt Andronicos, Shane McDonald, Ash Constable, Daequon Montreal, Darryl Corletto, Daniel Joyce, Daniel Jackson, Ben Allen, Tom Daly, Erik Burdon, Matt Sutton, Dean Brebner, Deba George, Madol Chol, Ben Kearins, Claybrin McMath, Tim Lang, Atem Atem, Nathan Herbert, Alister MacDonald, Nathan Crosswell, Earnest Ross, Mathiang Muo, Garrett Jackson, Luke Jamieson, Lucas Walker, Rhys Carter, CJ Bruton, Brad Hill, Kyle Adnam, Jarrad Weeks, Tohi Smith-Milner and Jordan Vandenberg.
Finally … Ladder predictions:
South 1. Mt Gambier 2. Albury-Wodonga 3. Geelong 4. Kilsyth 5. North West Tasmania 6. Hobart 7. Sandringham 8. Frankston
East 1. Dandenong 2. Nunawading 3. Bendigo 4. Brisbane 5. Ballarat 6. Melbourne 7. Canberra 8. BA Centre of Excellence
The Men's season tips off on April 1st with Melbourne visiting Nunawading. Check out the SEABL website for more.
Any questions/feedback? Find me on twitter @crunchtimeshots.