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The New Zealand Breakers are the NBL's biggest X-Factor this season
There's a lot of question marks lingering around the New Zealand Breakers this season.
After a tumultuous transition, following the team's acquisition by former pro Matt Walsh, we've seen a defection of local talent to rival clubs and a disappointing 2018/19 season, where the team missed finals. The organisation was looking disjointed - a far cry from the successful club that enjoyed four championships and a further Finals appearance during the 2000s, headed by a proven core of locally based talents and a grassroots organisational philosophy.
The drama continued this offseason, when coach Kevin Braswell was sacked in favour of 'Director of Basketball' Dan Shamir. Shea Ili, pushed out of minutes, requested release to Melbourne United, and fellow Tall Black Corey Webster also requested release to Turkish club Darüşşafaka (denied by the Breakers).
Upside so far
That's not to say there were no good news coming out of the Breakers camp - RJ Hampton's signing was a legitimate coup. They acquired quality imports including Sek Henry, 2018 Israeli League MVP, and Scotty Hopson, who in the eyes of Liam Santamaria is an All-NBL candidate, and Walsh claims is 'the best player in the NBL'.
There's a lot to like on paper. Beyond the quality American talent acquisition --hats off to his recruiting influence-- Walsh has assembled arguably the deepest roster in the league, with a bench projecting to consist of Henry, proven NBL veterans Thomas Abercrombie, Jarrad Weeks and Rob Loe, and local returnee Ater Majok. There's also Finn Delany starting at the four spot, coming off a highly successful NBA Summer League appearance.
Offensive firepower is there in abundance between so many scorers, and rim protection is at a premium between Ater Majok (who recorded 9 blocks over the teams four preseason outings) and Obekpa, who swatted a staggering 5.5 blocks per 40 over his college career and has continued the proclivity into his professional career.
The roster is shaping up nicely, but would all the smoke surrounding the club translate into a season of dysfunction and under-performance? Whilst the proof will be in the pudding this NBL season, the play of the team over this year's NBL Blitz has gone a long way to quell concerns.
A lot of things came together for the Breakers in the past week. Corey Webster seems at peace with remaining in New Zealand, and has brought his brilliant World Cup form (third top scorer in the tournament at 22.8ppg on 54.2% FG, 54.5% 3PT and 92.3% FT) with him, jumping straight out of the gates to score 24 points in 29 minutes in the Breakers' opening Blitz game. Back to the 'Webster of old', expect him to hold on to the starting two guard spot.
RJ Hampton was another big unknown that has displayed very positive signs over his Blitz games. With a modest but in-control debut of 11 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists in 21 minutes amidst foul trouble, followed by a breakout 20 point, 5 rebound, 2 assist performance against South East Melbourne, a team-high 19 points against Adelaide on Tuesday night, and a follow up game high of 18 points on Thursday night against Sydney, RJ looks ready to contribute on the offensive end. Despite looking lost at times on the defensive end (natural for a player of his youth at this level), Hampton has shown reassuring signs of having great defensive instincts, ending with nine steals and five blocks over his four preseason games. His size at the point guard position is going to cause issues for opposing one guards, be it clogging up passing lanes, disrupting ball handlers or contesting shots.
With Scotty Hopson living up to the hype with effortless 18 and 22 point performances in the Blitz, and Chris Obekpa providing solid minutes off the bench, New Zealand's import production is delivering. Sek Henry has also been lethal off the bench, with 16 and 17 point performances, going 8-11 from three across the Blitz. Perhaps an overlooked aspect of his signing is his facilitating, finishing second in assists in Israel at 6.2 a game. This has allowed him the ability to slide over to the point guard spot and allow for more flexible lineup variation.
With so many on-ball talents, a natural concern would be how the shots are distributed and how well the group would play as a team. The Breakers' major pieces all come from situations, where they have been the top offensive options for their teams. For Pinar Karsiyaka, Sek Henry led his team in FGA's with 12.1 a game. Scotty Hopson took a generous 12.7 shot attempts per game with the Oklahoma City Blue. Corey Webster led Tall Blacks with 14.4 attempts, and RJ Hampton was undoubtedly the #1 option as a high school junior, averaging 32 points for Little Elm. All of these sound great from a talent basis, but getting everyone to adapt their roles to play a piece in a greater puzzle is an unenviable task for coach Dan Shamir.
This issue was to be potentially compounded by the lack of proven point guard play. Hampton is widely considered a combo guard with a more scoring-oriented mentality, not to mention generally inexperienced at the position to be distributing the rock amongst a team of shot-hungry veteran. Backup Jarrod Weeks is more of the shot-maker variety, and Sek Henry, though capable as an initiator, is not a pure PG.
Fortunately, so far, we've seen a pretty even shot distribution, with selfless team play and pretty reasonable turnover counts (12 and 13 as a team in their Blitz games). Time will tell whether this holds up - in their latest preseason outing against Adelaide, their shot-making was stifled by the dogged defense of the 36er's, and the team's offence broke down, shooting 30% as a team and recording a mere 67 points. Do they have the poise and guard play to handle the added intensity of the regular season, when the sum of their individual talents can no longer be leaned upon?
Another major point of difference between the Breakers' two Blitz wins and the blowout loss to Adelaide on Tuesday was the disparity in 3-point shooting success. Whilst the team went 23/56 (41%) over the Blitz games, the team shot 8-44 from three for 18% against the 36ers, and, albeit while heavily undermanned, 4-25 (16%) against Sydney. It begs the question - was the team's Blitz success the result of unsustainable shooting numbers?
While Webster and Henry certainly have great career numbers from behind the arc, Hopson shot a mere 32.3% from 3 in 2018/19, and RJ Hampton's range is still a work in progress. The Achilles heel of the Breakers front court depth appears to be spacing. Finn Delany has never attempted more than 1.5 three point shots per game from the 4 spot in his NBL career, and bigs Ater Majok and Chris Obekpa are almost non-existent when it comes to jump shots. The one saving grace for front court spacing is NBL veteran and proven stretch threat Rob Loe, and it would appear smart to make room for him in their crowded front court rotation in order to address this need.
It may appear necessary down the line, especially due to the underwhelming performance of breakout candidate Finn Delaney over the course of the World Cup and NBL preseason, that Obekpa may best be let go in favor of a more modern power forward import that can space the floor and play both ends in a more '3 and D' role. The Breakers could pick up a steal as the NBA makes its roster cuts, and the centre position can still be manned by a rotation of Majok and Loe.
For Loe in particular, being shifted over to the five spot more may pay dividends for the Breakers, as pairing him with a 4 man who can shoot will maximize spacing for New Zealand's scoring guards to attack the rim. Last season, Cairns were -8.5 points per 100 possessions with Loe at the 4 next to Nate Jawai, but at the five, Loe was +4.3 points per 100 possessions (credit to Brad Winter for the stat).
While an import change down the line may help may cure the ills of some roster construction issues, there are plenty more question marks that will be in the hands of coach Dan Shamir and the playing group to navigate in order to have a successful 2019/20 season.
The Breakers certainly have the talent, and we saw plenty of glimpses of their ample potential this NBL Blitz. If they can translate that to regular season success, they may just mess around and cause some Finals noise.