NBL free agency: Biggest priority for bottom-four teams
After finding themselves at the foot of the table last season, what can the NBL's stragglers do to improve in free agency?
Credit: JBC Studios
New Zealand Breakers
Contracted: Will McDowell-White, Dan Fotu, Tom Abercrombie, Rob Loe, Sam Timmins, Tom Vodanovich, Ousmane Dieng (Next Star — second-year option)
Departures: Yanni Wetzell, Kyrin Galloway
Free agents: Finn Delany, Peyton Siva, Hugo Besson, Chasson Randle, Rasmus Bach, Isaac Davidson, Geremy McKay, Sam Short
Biggest priority: … everything?
The last two seasons have been an unmitigated disaster for the New Zealand Breakers. During that time they have amassed a combined 17-47 record, finishing second-to-last two seasons ago and dead last in NBL22.
Their struggles are hardly surprising, though, given they spent almost the entirety of those two seasons on the road. The continuing effects of COVID-19 kept the team stranded in Australia, with many players stuck away from their families for long periods. With travel restrictions in New Zealand slowly easing, a return to regular home games is a long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly likely that the team that takes the floor in their homecoming will be almost unrecognisable. Last season’s standout, Kiwi big man Yanni Wetzell, departed before the end of the season for an opportunity in Europe. It’s looking increasingly likely that 2021 club MVP Finn Delany will do the same, with ESPN’s Liam Santamaria reporting that he has already knocked back offers from NBL clubs with an eye towards Europe.
The turnover doesn’t stop there, with Frenchmen Hugo Besson and Ousmane Dieng both near-locks to be taken in the NBA draft. Last, but certainly not least, head coach Dan Shamir stepped down with a year remaining on his contract to return home to Israel, leaving assistant Mody Maor left to take the reins.
With their two star locals on the way out and no imports currently signed, the Breakers have very few pieces to play with. On the flipside, this could be the perfect opportunity to start an overhaul that could reinvigorate the club. Maor’s promotion will bring a fresh outlook on the sidelines while maintaining some consistency in staff. With a reputation for player development, he could be the perfect coach to lead a new-look roster.
“Ask the players; they will tell you Mody has been the driving force behind the development of Finn Delany, Will McDowell-White, Yanni Wetzell, Ousmane Dieng, Hugo Besson and RJ Hampton,” Breakers owner Matt Walsh said.
The re-signing of McDowell-White suggests that Maor may be willing to take the team in a different direction. The point guard spent the bulk of the last two seasons without a clear role, stuck behind Tai Webster, Peyton Siva and Chasson Randle at different times. His best performances came when those players were absent and he was handed the keys to the offence.
That seems likely to happen more often next season, as he turned down offers from other clubs to remain with the Breakers. Based on his comments after re-signing, he certainly seems to have trust in his new head coach, saying that “Mody being the head coach was the No 1 factor for me coming back”.
If McDowell-White can be New Zealand’s starting point guard, then the team can move away from the guard-heavy rotation of imports they held last season. All of Besson, Siva and Randle needed minutes of the perimeter, with Next Star Dieng another. The Breakers should take this offseason’s mass departures as a chance to find a better balance for their roster.
With a relatively thin local free-agent market, an import big to replace Wetzell is a must. Saint Mary’s forward Dan Fotu will either help to offset the loss of Delany if he leaves or complement him well if he stays, as will returning Kiwi Tom Vodanovich, but an overseas wing to add depth either way could also be on the cards. McDowell-White is a great start in the backcourt, but as the only guard currently contracted there is still plenty of space alongside him.
With so few concrete pieces in place, the Breakers should be looking to add talent in every single position on the court. Maor seems to be held in high regard, and with a return to New Zealand on the cards they should be able to attract players more easily.
Contracted: Majok Deng, Mirko Djeric, Bul Kuol, Keanu Pinder
Free agents: Scott Machado, Tahjere McCall, Stephen Zimmerman, Nate Jawai, Kouat Noi, Jarrod Kenny, Jordan Ngatai, Brayden Inger, Marshall Nelson, Robbie Heath, Ben Ayre
Biggest priority: Nail all three imports
The top priority for the Taipans might have been retaining their local talent, but they have already made a good start on that front. Both Bul Kuol and Keanu Pinder accepted their mutual options for next season, meaning Cairns were able to retain the NBL’s current Rookie of the Year and Most Improved Player without the need to re-negotiate. That’s a big coup for a club that has struggled at times with player retention.
Both Kuol and Pinder proved themselves to be starting-calibre players with some impressive play last season. Kuol broke the record for made threes by a rookie at a 35% clip, while Pinder averaged 15.1 points and 9.5 rebounds over his last 12 games. With a pair of starters already locked in on local contracts, the Taipans can turn towards filling out the rest of their starting five.
They will still need to lean heavily on their imports, making how they fill those three slots crucial. All three of last season’s overseas players are out of contract, with Scott Machado’s previous two-year deal expiring and both Tahjere McCall and Stephen Zimmerman both on one-year commitments. While all three were effective players in a vacuum, they couldn’t lift the Taipans out of the bottom two on the table.
McCall was an obvious hit in his first NBL season, leading the team in scoring, assists and steals per game and single-handedly winning a handful of games for the Taipans. It wasn’t all perfect, as he struggled at times with efficiency (41% FG, 25.8% 3PT) and turnovers (3.5 per game, 1st in NBL), but that was largely a product of his unsustainable workload for long stretches of the season.
McCall is the kind of high-upside player that the Taipans need, and with a more stable supporting cast and more injury luck he seems like a guaranteed plus. The fact that he is spending his offseason playing in New Zealand’s NBL is a good sign for his staying in the ANBL next season, but Cairns will need to get a deal done and make sure he’s playing for them.
Bigger questions surround their other two imports, with the futures of Machado and Zimmerman more up in the air. There are pros and cons for both players, but after a 9-19 season it seems likely that something will have to change.
Machado has proven himself to be an elite NBL player in the past, but his 2021-22 season was derailed by injury. An Achilles tendon issue kept him sidelined for two months, and he ended the season on the inactive list with an ankle injury. In between those two ailments, he set NBL career-lows in points (10.2 per game), field goal percentage (30.3%) and three point percentage (22.8%).
There were signs, though, that the old Machado was still there. Over a five-game stretch before that ankle injury, he averaged 14.4 points and 7.8 assists per game while leading Cairns to a 4-1 record. That indicates that this could be a decision based on health — if the Taipans believe that Machado can stay healthy for a full season, then he could still be the playmaker they need. If not, they should look elsewhere for a point guard to allow McCall to stay as that secondary ball handler.
Zimmerman had his own health issues, missing 12 of the team’s 28 games through injury. There was nothing wrong with his production when he was on the court, though, as he averaged a near-double-double while shooting over 50% from the field.
The problem is, the Taipans need more from their overseas players. Zimmerman certainly helped to bolster a defence that ranked in the middle of the pack, but as a low-usage player reliant on others to create his shots, he did very little to boost an offence that was comfortably the worst in the league, per Spatial Jam.
With Keanu Pinder’s emergence and re-signing, Zimmerman’s strengths become less needed. Cairns should look for someone with some more scoring chops to play alongside Pinder in the frontcourt, and to give the team more shot creation when McCall and Machado sit. It seems unlikely that they would be able to poach from their cross-town rivals, but Bullets free agent Robert Franks would certainly fit the mould. A similar type of scoring forward could be the best-case scenario for the Taipans.
Contracted: Nathan Sobey, Jason Cadee, Tyrell Harrison, Harry Froling, Kody Stattman, Tom Digbeu (Next Star — second-year option)
Departures: Anthony Drmic
Free agents: Robert Franks, Lamar Patterson, Isaiah Moss, Deng Deng, Jack Salt, Tanner Krebs, Tamuri Wigness, Taane Samuel, Max Mackinnon, Chuanxing Liu, Harry Rouhliadeff
Biggest priority: Fortify the bench
There is an argument to be made that Brisbane had the most talented “big three” in the NBL last season. There was Nathan Sobey, a three-time All-NBL selection; Lamar Patterson, previously an MVP finalist; and Robert Franks, a fringe-NBA talent that would become a top-five scorer in the league.
While Sobey missed more than half of the season through injury, all three stars did their jobs when on the court as they combined to average 50.4 points per game. Despite that, the Bullets finished the season with a 10-18 record, well outside of the finals race and well below expectations.
That’s because there was a steep dropoff across the rest of the roster. The remaining 12 players to appear for the Bullets combined to average just 55.5 points per game, with only Jason Cadee hit a double-figure scoring average. That’s part of the reason why, despite having three of the league’s premier offensive threats on their roster, Brisbane ranked seventh in offensive rating across the season, per Spatial Jam.
That lack of depth showed itself in more than just their scoring output, too, with almost every metric illustrating the top-heavy nature of their roster. Take a catch-all stat like box plus-minus, where Franks (+3.4), Sobey (+1.8) and Patterson (+1.8) were the only Bullets to end the season with a positive mark. Their next highest player? Backup big man Chuanxing Liu (-1.1), who played just six minutes per game and struggled to make a meaningful impact.
Brisbane still have some work to do in keeping their top group of players. Sobey has signed a multi-year extension, but Franks and Patterson are both free agents and will undoubtedly attract plenty of offers from the NBL and overseas. Retaining Franks seems like a no-brainer after his hugely impressive debut campaign, and Patterson enjoyed a strong bounce-back season after a tough year prior.
Regardless of whether they return or are replaced, Brisbane’s stars will need a stronger supporting cast. Cadee was thrust into a starting role during Sobey’s absence and showed that he is still a very effective player, but Brisbane’s coaches struggled to nail down a steady rotation with the rest of their bench. The likes of Tanner Krebs, Deng Deng, Isaiah Moss and Jack Salt all cycled through at various times and flashed their potential, but the Bullets will need to figure out who can continue to grow into a more consistent role.
Moss was always signed as a “budget” import in Brisbane’s second unit, but a pre-season hamstring injury disrupted his start to the year and negated his impact throughout. Even if they do follow a similar plan and look for a complementary piece in that third import slot, they would hope to find a more impactful player this time around. The theory of the signing was sound, with Moss a high-impact shooter and scorer in the NZNBL, so they may look overseas for a similar type of player again.
It has been a mixed bag in the local market to start free agency, with Anthony Drmic departing to return to the Adelaide 36ers. While he never quite hit his straps as a shooter in Brisbane (32.1% 3PT over two seasons), he was an important and versatile wing defender on a team that lacked options in that spot.
New signing Harry Froling is far from a one-for-one swap, but the former Illawarra Hawk will help to fortify Brisbane’s front line and and stretch the floor for their stars on the perimeter. They have also added college returnee Kody Stattmann, though it’s hard to see him making a huge impact immediately after struggling to lock down a consistent role over four years with Virginia in the NCAA.
It’s obvious that Brisbane will need to focus first on retaining their stars, but if that’s where they end their work this offseason they could easily find themselves near the foot of the ladder once again. With so many of their bench pieces out of contract and a fairly thin local market, some shrewd signings will be needed to boost their overall depth.
Contracted: Mitch McCarron, Daniel Johnson, Sunday Dech, Hyrum Harris, Kai Sotto, Nick Marshall, Kyrin Galloway
Free agents: Isaac Humphries, Todd Withers, Dusty Hannahs, Cam Bairstow, Tad Dufelmeier, Mojave King, Emmanuel Malou, Zac Gattorna, Lachlan Olbrich
Biggest priority: Complementing local stars
On paper, Adelaide had one of the best local cores in the NBL last season. Mitch McCarron and Sunday Dech are perennial DPOY contenders, Daniel Johnson is still a walking bucket at age 34, and Isaac Humphries is a dominant force around the basket. Throw in a resurgent year from veteran Cam Bairstow, and the Sixers had an enviable amount of Aussie talent.
Of course, the game isn’t played on paper, and injuries played a big part in a campaign that ended with a 10-18 record and a distant seventh-place finish. A persistent knee injury restricted Humphries to just six games, and after starting the season in red-hot form Bairstow was forced to play restricted minutes and ultimately missed the team’s last nine games.
Both big men are free agents, and Adelaide will have to make a call on their futures with the team. Those decisions will be largely dependent on health moving forward, and if the 36ers are confident that they can stay on the court then there should be little debate. Humphries has proven himself to be an MVP-calibre player when healthy, and Bairstow could thrive in a reserve role even if his minutes continue to be limited.
The 36ers have shown the ability to unearth local talent, with Hyrum Harris making a big leap last season and development player Nick Marshall showing flashes of his potential. They will need to find that same success in the international market, with their imports both struggling to make an impact for the bulk of the season.
Todd Withers was a signing that made sense on paper, with the American brought in as a versatile forward to fit around Adelaide’s deep stable of bigs. He struggled for consistency, though, averaging 8.3 points and 3.8 rebounds in 24.4 minutes per game. He was shuffled between the starting lineup and the bench, and he topped 30 minutes in a game just once in 26 appearances.
Fellow import Dusty Hannahs struggled even more to lock down a role in the rotation, with coach CJ Bruton keeping him handcuffed to the bench for long stretches. His 22.4 points per 36 minutes ranked fifth in the NBL (min. 10 games), but he struggled to find his shooting touchand made just 29% of his threes, per Spatial Jam. Much like Withers, he was a logical signing for the 36ers; after all, he was a former All-NBA G League selection and a career 43.3% three-point shooter at that level.
Both imports entered a situation of flux in Adelaide, with Bruton installed as head coach just two weeks ahead of the season. They were signed in the months beforehand and would have been expecting to play under Conner Henry, who was released from his contract shortly ahead of the start of pre-season training camp. That goes some way to explaining why Adelaide were one of two teams, and the only with multiple imports, to have no overseas player play more than 25 minutes per game.
With Bruton inheriting a team that wasn’t his and the players adjusting to a coach they didn’t know, it was always likely to be a rocky season. With a year now under his belt and a full offseason to recruit, it will be interesting to see what changes the coach makes to the roster to mould it to his liking. It seems unlikely that Withers or Hannahs returns, and finding some more impactful players overseas will be crucial if Adelaide wants to fully utilise their strong local core.
Assuming that group is fully healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them target a similar style of player once again. With McCarron’s pass-first mentality, a strong off-ball scorer to play alongside him should be the top priority. With Dech entrenching himself as a starting-calibre player on the wing, they could have some flexibility with their remaining two import slots should they choose to use them.
The 36ers have already continued to bolster their local stocks, re-signing Marshall and adding promising New Zealand forward Kyrin Galloway on a two-year deal. Bruton has a reputation as a player’s coach and a good developer of talent, and both Marshall and Galloway are full of untapped potential in the early stages of their careers. If they can both be contributors next season, then Bruton will have even more flexibility when filling out the roster and building his rotations.