In an NBL season of unparalleled roster talent, Melbourne United is arguably the best on-paper team heading into the 2019/20 NBL season. Boasting three proven, elite imports in Shawn Long, Melo Trimble and Casey Prather, and a myriad of local talent (including five 2019 FIBA World Cup participants in Chris Goulding, David Barlow, Shea Ili, Alex Pledger and Tohi Smith-Milner) - United appeared to have the bulk of their rotation locked in and ready to go.
Until the rich got richer, when United signed South Sudanese-Australian 7 footer Jo Lual-Acuil. As the eleventh player announced to United's roster, Lual-Aquil appeared to be an afterthought to an already talent-laden squad, but those following the big man's exploits over his travels the last few years could recognise the significance of this acquisition.
Born in Wau, South Sudan, Lual-Aquil moved to Australia at the age of 6. It wasn't until 2013 that the big man made the move to the US, playing two seasons for Neosho County CC, before joining Baylor in 2015. After a red-shirt year, Lual-Acuil averaged 16.1 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per 40 minutes on a TS% of .554 over two college seasons, proving himself as a legitimate shot-blocker, rim finisher and rebounder.
Whilst his play earned him some murmurings of second-round stock in the 2018 NBA draft, the 24 year old Lual-Acuil ultimately went undrafted, with age and frame being concerns from NBA scouts. Per DraftExpress, the 7' big man was 102kg which did not project well for him to guard NBA centres.
Fast forwarding a season, Lual-Acuil finished his first professional season with Hapoel Jeursalem of the Isaeli Premier League, as well as playing on loan with Galil Elyon, with whom he averaged an impressive 16.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and a league leading 2.3 blocks per game.
In August, reports surfaced that the Australian big man had been released from his contract, and it wasn't soon after that Lual-Acuil was seen donning Melbourne United gear, suiting up for the club in early preseason hitouts against California Baptist and Zhejiang Guangsha Lions, quickly establishing himself with lines of 17 and 6, and 20 and 6, respectively.
It quickly became clear that Lual-Acuil, either through opportunity or development, was not the player we saw in the NCAA. Beyond the expected combination of athleticism, motor, and rim protection that made him an impact player at the college level, the big man has flashed an improved jumper, a face-up game, some crafty ball-handling, and some really impressive ball-handling that has expanded his offensive game and as a result, redefined his archetype as a player.
At 7'0" with a 7'3" wingspan, Lual-Aquil has understandably been pigeonholed as a 5 man throughout his career thus far. Whilst lateral mobility at his size will continue to limit his ability to defend smaller positions, his improved skillset and ability to play from the perimeter gives him the versatility to slide over to the 4 offensively and play off of a more interior-based big man such as teammates Shawn Long and Alex Pledger. We have already seen coach Dean Vickerman experiment with such lineups so far this preseason - against Cairns, he even started Lual-Acuil and Long together at the 4 and 5.
It will certainly depend on matchups, as Lual-Acuil is still far from your typical 4 man, but his acquisition provides United the valuable flexibility to shift from a more small-ball oriented PF option in David Barlow to a bigger, more imposing threat that will command the boards and interior defense alongside another C. With teams like Brisbane, Sydney and New Zealand projecting to go super small for extended periods this season, whilst others like Illawarra project to go for bigger front courts, United will have the luxury of going either route.
This newfound positional versatility also alleviates several of United's previous minor roster concerns, as general PF depth is now theoretically covered, and the utility of having Alex Pledger is improved. Whilst it appeared Lual-Acuil/Pledger was previously an either/or situation at backup C, Acuil can now shift down a spot and both players can get their deserved rotation minutes. Pledger will also be valuable in handling stronger 5 men whom Lual-Acuil would appear to struggle, with given his ongoing frame limitations.
At 25 years old, Lual-Acuil is a now polished product who appears to still be on the rise. Through an impressive preseason stint thus far, the big man has quickly established himself as a valuable NBL piece, and it'll be interesting to monitor how his minutes get distributed alongside United's many front court options. Lual-Acuil has already proven himself as a superior option to Alex Pledger at the 5, and a viable 4 man depending on the matchups.
Either way, we should be celebrating the return of a talented Australian to our local league, and yet another face at the professional level for Sudanese-Australian basketball in our country.