The Pick and Roll 2017-18 NBL Half-time Roundtable Part I
When you’re more than halfway into an NBL season, questions are always flying around about what’s already happened on and off the court and what could take place the rest of the way. Who’s winning this thing? Who will take out the MVP? What have you thought about X so far? Why won't our team do...this?
Here at The Pick and Roll HQ, six of our expert writers take a moment to breathe from what’s been an incredible and chaotic season of hoops to provide an insight into the NBL season so far.
What has been the biggest surprise so far in #NBL18?
Steve Chalmers: One of two ways I can go with this one. New Zealand flying out of the gate with what was supposed to be a subpar roster - what was it 9-1 to start the season? Unbelievable! Great to see imports Edgar Sosa and DJ Newbill playing some great basketball after questions were asked about them before they even arrived. The other, which is the one I’m probably more surprised about, is the resurgence of Lucas Walker. The Australian basketball public knew what he could bring to the court physically, he was a specimen for the game. However, the fact that he could spend basically a whole year off (playing as a Perth training player) and can come back in the best form of his career is incredible. Hats off to Waxy.
Alex Robins: Lucas Walker. If you were to tell me at the start of the season that Lucas Walker was going to be a standout for the Perth Wildcats, I'd have given you a list of unfortunate circumstances that could make a player that logged a total of 16 minutes in the NBL last season a storyline. But the 'Cats are right back where we always find them and Walker has found himself in the mix of names that demand attention every single game. The grind and hustle are not what make a man playing out of his mind the biggest surprise of the season, it’s the aggressive rebounding (an NBL record 12 offensive boards in Round 9 vs. Adelaide) and career-best scoring production that Walker has brought from out of nowhere.
Jon Guarna: New Zealand has to be the biggest surprise of the season. The Breakers maintained their core group of players after missing out on the Finals in 2016-17 while adding imports at the guard positions to take the scoring pressure off of Kirk Penney and Tom Abercrombie. Those import guards, Edgar Sosa and DJ Newbill, form one of the top guard tandems in the competition while Shea Ili has emerged as a candidate for Most Improved Player. Add to that group the ageless Mika Vukona and a rejuvenated Penney and the Breakers are again battling Perth for the top spot on the NBL ladder to the surprise of many.
Matt Hickey: Mitch McCarron. Last season McCarron was just another role player for Cairns, however, in 2017/18 he has turned into a game changer and winner. It isn’t quite the Nathan Sobey-esque rise to fame but it is of very similar nature. He has also featured and performed well in the green and gold colours of the Boomers which is also a promising sight.
Jordan MC: New Zealand's nine game winning streak and offensive numbers from mid-October to mid-November.
I had modest expectations for this group (13-15 predicted win-loss) largely due to some age questions and the frontcourt being without an import.
Results have started to regress back towards preseason expectations with big dips in their play on both ends over their last six games (2-4 win-loss record) but their start puts them firmly in the playoff picture. Both import guards have had their moments but it's maybe the bench that is the most noteworthy with Shea Ili and Finn Delany contributing to winning alongside Kirk Penney and Rob Loe.
Matthew L Smith: There have been a number of events across the course of the season to date that have had me scratching my head in wonderment. New Zealand winning 9 straight games was certainly bemusing. Lucas Walker becoming a problem teams have to game plan for - without having a hair out of place at any time during the game - being another head turner.
For me, the biggest surprise has been the sometimes dominant play of the Cairns Taipans, minus the biggest towel soaker in the league Nate Jawai; not to mention the loss and subsequent parting of ways with the volatile Michael Carerra, and the often frustrating play of inconsistent import Scoochie Smith. Coach Aaron Fearne has an edgy and gruff appeal that resonates through the entire player group, particularly Mitch McCarron, his combative fulcrum on the floor. Fearne has prodded and squeezed every ounce of give from this roster and he deserves some credit for keeping them in the mix.
What has been the biggest disappointment so far in #NBL18?
SC: I’m going down the easy route here, but injuries have really taken a toll this season. We’ve lost imports before the season even started in Adelaide, as soon as the season started in Cairns and then mid-season in Melbourne. Mitch Creek has found the injury bug again and it’s impossible to have a fully healthy team on the floor it seems :(
AR: It has to be the Sydney Kings. Everyone is poised for a monstrous season: they’re taking on the Utah Jazz, former MVP Kevin Lisch is captain and Perry Ellis wants to prove himself to the (NBA) world. It’s no longer Andrew Gaze’s first season and there’s a plan. The Kings are going to play small with Ellis at the five and they are going to play with pace and space.
Except they can’t shoot. Their rotations include two towering seven-footers that slow their offense and cannot save their porous defense. Travis Leslie is a duplicate skillset. Lisch is injured. Now they’re starting one of those two centres and everyone thinks it’s just a publicity stunt. They collapse in close contests and blow big leads. They start the other centre and things don’t go any better. Oh, and now they’ve signed Jerome Randle and Jeremy Tyler but it’s too late.
JG: The Melbourne United super team is my pick for the biggest disappointment to this point of the season. It's funny to think that a team in 3rd with a record of 10 - 6 could be a disappointment but because of sky high pre-season expectations that is where United is at the moment. There is no question that Melbourne has the most talent in the competition although losing Casey Prather hurts them tremendously. Prather was great up until his injury but that did not translate into wins for United. I hate to say it, but it may be better for United without Prather as the loss will force players like Chris Goulding, Casper Ware and Josh Boone to up their play unless Carrick Felix steps onto the court and is a superstar. But let's be clear...anything less than an NBL championship for United will be a disappointment.
MH: Melbourne United – It may seem like a strange call considering they are just a few wins away from taking over top spot, however, Melbourne hasn’t lived up to expectations so far this season. They have one of the best rosters compiled on paper in the NBL history yet have been incredibly patchy and were extremely lucky to claim recent wins over Brisbane and Adelaide. David Andersen hasn’t played nearly enough minutes but that looks to have changed after he racked up the points in their latest match.
JMC: Sydney being the first team "eliminated" from playoff contention.
The Kings waited too long to fix their roster imbalances which is a shame considering the talent level on the roster was strong. Jeremy Tyler was added into the mix with the Kings desperate for some defense, rebounding and a big that could buy into a role. Tyler is not that... and you have to wonder why they would keep him around for the rest of the season. Travis Leslie was a victim of poor roster construction from management, Todd Blanchfield's signing has been completely underwhelming, Kevin Lisch has been injured, and that's just scratching the surface.
MLS: The Illawarra Hawks mistreatment of Cody Ellis will lead to this club being completely different come the winter. There's no doubting there will be a number of changes across all levels of the club and with Cody's play of late, it further solidifies the fact that management shouldn't be meddling.
Since his club enforced sabbatical (8 games), Cody has averaged 8 points per game, whilst playing just 13 minutes per game across the last four. He's too good to be sitting out complete games if healthy.
Ellis is out of contract at the end of the season and will have a number of suitors. He should play somewhere that values his skill set on and off the court. Rob Beveridge is micro-managed far too often for a coach of his ilk too. Bevo shouldn't have to deal with that and he too won't be without a date come prom night if he parts ways with the Hawks. 36 year old Oscar Forman just played his 500th game and his body is starting to tell him it's time. Tim Coenraad will be 33 in June, Rhys Martin will be 32 in February. Even the enigmatic and inconsistent AJ Ogilvy has aged suddenly and will be 30 in June.
Who's the MVP as of right now?
SC: Perry Ellis was my early favourite and was set to pick up the award in a cakewalk if Sydney were not to make any roster changes. Unfortunately for him, moves were made and he’s well and truly back down the pecking order.
Following him, I actually think Rotnei Clarke, via the voting system, has a big chance to be leading the vote at the end of eleven rounds. You'll look on and pause for a moment later down the track, thinking, hang on, he’s not even in your All Star Five. Nope!
If you look past Clarke, Perrin Buford is probably next in line for me - although he’ll lose votes to Travis Trice.
AR: Jean-Pierre Tokoto. Even before Casey Prather went down, Tokoto was my pick. Can you imagine having to play against this guy? Tokoto has managed to make defending the ball-inbounder the iconic moment of the season. He’s the long arm of the law, he’s jumping every passing lane and he stays low until he’s sky high. He’ll hover for a board better than anyone and the whole league is on notice: if you don’t box out, Air Pierre Tokoto is slamming one home. While his shooting range might never really improve, his work as a point-forward has shown improvement since the season started. That un-guardable mid-range pull-up is deadly, and his team will be the team to beat come finals time – case closed.
JG: This one is a tough call for me but since I have to pick one player I have to go with JP Tokoto. Tokoto and the Wildcats are again battling the Breakers for the top of the NBL ladder. The NBA G-League alum is averaging 16.3 PPG on 47.0% from the field to go along with 5.5 RPG, 3.1 APG and 2.0 SPG while playing stellar defense each and every game. I could have made a similar argument for Tokoto's Perth teammate Bryce Cotton as well as United's Casey Prather but Tokoto is the pick to this point. One smokey I'll also throw in is Brisbane's Perrin Buford. If the Bullets can get to the Finals expect Buford to be in the MVP conversation.
MH: This is a tough one but I have to lean towards Edgar Sosa. The Breakers guard has helped lead his team to an 11-5 record and has impressed while doing so. Sosa is averaging 15.2 points and 3.6 assists per game, whilst also recording close to a steal a game.
JMC: Perrin Buford. My guess would be that Buford would have the most votes at the moment but if I had a single vote to determine the winner right now I would take JP Tokoto. My opinion on the voting system used has changed over the years but I think I've settled on the view that game by game voting isn't how I would like the MVP decided. Regardless, I think it would be tight right now with those two, Casey Prather and a few more in the nearby chasing pack.
MLS: My pre-season pick was Demetrius Conger of the Illawarra Hawks. Although he will tally a heap of votes by the end of the year, I'd like a do-over on that selection. With the way the system currently is set-up - Perrin Buford has become my front runner for the league MVP.
Perrin is 6TH in the league for scoring -16.2 PPG, 2ND in rebounding - 8.2 RPG, 3RD in blocks - 1.1 BPG and tied for 8TH in steals - 1.2 SPG. He shoots at over 50% from the field and knocks down over 40% from behind the 3PT line. He is a unique blend of offensive and defensive force that has turned around Brisbane's fortunes of late.
He's hit buckets in the clutch and had a game saving block. What more can you ask of an MVP?
Who makes the All-NBL 1st team right now?
SC: Travis Trice, Mitch McCarron, JP Tokoto, Perrin Buford and Josh Boone
Demitrius Conger is probably the one who I feel gets a small snub, while Prather misses out due to injury now. Trice has been electric all season long and I have been a big believer in him in the NBL, despite many disagreeing with me. McCarron slots in as guard number two (in a two guard, three forward system) as I see him just sneaking past DJ Newbill from the Breakers. I’ve loved what McCarron has brought to his team this season despite the Snakes being down on numbers (Jawai/Carrera). Tokoto, Buford and Boone pick themselves right now.
AR: Outside: Bryce Cotton, DJ Newbill (in for Casey Prather) and JP Tokoto. Inside: Josh Boone and Daniel Johnson
JG: Bryce Cotton, JP Tokoto, Edgar Sosa, Chris Goulding, Mitch Creek
I think an argument could be made for including Damian Martin in the All-NBL team as we have seen the Wildcats struggle without their leader however it is clear that the two most talented players on the team and maybe the entire league are Cotton and Tokoto. Both guys are fringe NBA players and have shown to be head and shoulders above the rest of the NBL competition as the Wildcats head into the New Year as title favorites once again.
Sosa and DJ Newbill have the Breakers in title contention to the surprise of many particularly outside of New Zealand. I give Sosa the edge over Newbill here because it seems he has a greater influence on the outcome of games (both positively and negatively) plus he is a fellow New Yorker!
Goulding may be a surprising pick but he has really stepped up in the absence of Casey Prather as United is trending up over recent weeks. Creek has been nothing short of phenomenal for the 36ers this season. He has been the best Australian in the league so far. The only thing to slow him down has been injuries but I expect him to come back with a vengeance when he returns to the floor.
MH: Bryce Cotton, Demetrius Conger (in for Prather), JP Tokoto, Edgar Sosa, Daniel Johnson
JMC: Outside: JP Tokoto, Perrin Buford, Bryce Cotton. Inside: Josh Boone, Mitch Creek (Creek has logged more PF/C minutes than SF so far)
MLS: The Prather injury has thrown me for a loop because he was a lock for a starting gig. Conger's suspension works against him too. The three certainties are JP Tokoto, Bryce Cotton, Josh Boone. Add in my MVP favourite Perrin Buford and that leaves one final spot to fill.
Mitch McCarron doesn't get a lot of love outside of Cairns but we are witnessing a pint-sized tour-de-force this season. McCarron is 4th in offensive (2.4 per game) and overall rebounding (6.5 per game) in the league. He's 6th in the league for turnover%, 4th for steal% and is 4th in defensive rating at 103.8 points per 100 possessions. He would be a worthy pick but unfortunately he doesn't get the last spot.
That goes to former NBL MVP Rotnei Clarke, who is like an energizer bunny with no neck running around wreaking havoc. Clarke gives the Hawks 19.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG and 3.1 APG every night. He's shooting better behind the three point arc (43.9%) than he is from the field (43.5%) and he knocks in over three per game, best in the league. His numbers are remarkably similar if not better than his 2013-14 MVP year.
That's all for Part I.
Stay tuned for the upcoming Part II of The Pick and Roll’s NBL ‘Half Time Roundtable’ in the coming days.
In Part II, our stable of dedicated and knowledgeable writer’s will give their thought’s on who makes the playoffs, go out on a limb and share a bold prediction for the second part of the season and give a little insight into which current players should be any new teams number one and two target.