Stephen Dennis: The NBL’s most underrated import
It was July 2013 and the NBL off-season was in full swing, with all eight club rosters beginning to take shape ahead of the 2013/14 NBL season.
With the league on the rise, quality players from abroad had begun taking an interest in what the NBL had to offer. Every NBL team had explored the plethora of available talent in the United States and beyond, with each picking up a potential franchise player.
Melbourne United, then known as the Tigers, had concluded their team’s roster with the acquisition of 6 foot 6 Stephen Dennis. The 25-year-old American point guard was briefly tenured with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Brooklyn Nets during that year's NBA pre-season. An immense level of talent had created plenty of hype around Melbourne’s newest star upon arrival to Australian shores, with Dennis proving to be one of the game’s biggest assets when he took part in the now annual NBL Blitz pre-season tournament.
In a cruel twist of fate, Melbourne's star point guard had his season ended before it even had a chance to take flight. Dennis suffered an Achilles injury during a Tigers training session, the damage of what would be 12 months of physical and mental suffering away from the game he loved.
"To go down with an Achilles injury where you really didn’t do nothing, just running and cutting through the lane, it hurt.
Throughout the 2013/14 NBL season, Stephen Dennis just became a name. A name that was slowly disappearing from basketball fans minds due to his absence from the league. Despite being the second best player in pre-season games behind Perth’s (and now Miami Heat’s) James Ennis, Dennis faded from discussion as the season rolled on.
Dennis didn’t stay in Australia for long after going down with the Achilles injury, returning to the United States to conduct his rehabilitation back at home with his family. Contracted for the season, knowing he couldn’t help his team on the court, Dennis felt powerless having to watch the his team battle the league's best from another continent.
“I was stressed out, I’m a basketball junkie so I like to follow it hard-core, so I bought the NBL (.TV) subscription so I’m watching every single game, even the other teams.
We started off well; pre-season I was playing well, the team was playing well.
I’m home watching all the games and the first couple we struggled and I knew it was because of just the change without me being there.
It hurt a lot just watching ... being out with your first major injury, and then it being a full season injury it was tough ... me having my family there (in America), I needed that the most."
Now, in November 2014, Stephen Dennis is back on the hardwood, looking as fresh as ever, playing for the same team that signed him two years ago, except this time with a brand new identity and a brand new look. #458674064 / gettyimages.com Dennis isn’t constantly in the spotlight thanks to a number of contributing factors, most notably Melbourne’s latest import signing, NBA draftee Jordan McRae. However Dennis doesn’t mind that, instead continuing to be the major source of energy for the Melbourne United Basketball Club.
Due to his absence through the 2013/14 season, many NBL fans have not regained the hype surrounding Melbourne’s starting point guard. In fact, the fact that Dennis missed the opening game of the current season as he flew back to America to witness the birth of his first child only contributed to that further.
From there, Dennis was activated off the bench for his first two games before head coach Darryl McDonald inserted him into the starting line-up alongside Nate Tomlinson in favour of fellow import Jordan McRae.
It didn’t take long for Dennis and McRae to pair up as the starting backcourt for Melbourne, and from there the boys in blue haven’t looked back.
Dennis averaged 9ppg off the bench while Melbourne languished with a 1-2 record. It wasn't too long before both imports were given starting spots. Since then, a 4-3 record has elapsed with Dennis playing vital roles in wins against Wollongong (15 points, 7-12FG), Cairns (15 points, 8 assists) and Perth (17 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists).
Darryl McDonald made mention of Dennis’ energy and focus towards the team after Melbourne’s victory over the Wildcats in round 7:
“I told him (Dennis) everything we do, because you’re our starting point guard, starts with you.
Dennis has provided his team with plenty of advantages since checking in with a Melbourne United jersey, most notably his size at the point position. At 6’6’’, he stands head and shoulders above his opponents without losing any of his quickness or agility.
The ability to use his length as well as his height is a major plus for Melbourne, while coach D-Mac has different options available to him with back-up point guard Nate Tomlinson being a totally different style of player at the position.
Tomlinson allows the play to approach him, making smart decisions when the time comes in which, which saw him rewarded with leading the league in assists per game last season. Dennis on the other hand, likes to attack the defence and then become a passing point guard as the opponents collapse.
His ability to slash to the ring is one of his more valuable assets, most recently on display against one of the league's perennial defenders in Perth’s Damian Martin. In Melbourne’s 15-point victory over the Wildcats last weekend, Dennis found his way inside the restricted area with ease, whether it be cutting hard to the basket or coming off well placed screens.
On the defensive end, Dennis has the ability to play against either guard position and can even hold his own when he has to switch throughout the defensive rotation on small forwards. This is pure joy for a head coach, not having to stress about sizeable mismatches during stretches of games.
With Darryl McDonald being a legendary NBL point guard himself, the chemistry between the two is evident and the pair having a great connection and understanding with each other. Dennis is privileged to be able to work alongside such a mentor as D-Mac, and his level of play is only set to improve as time passes. #457093888 / gettyimages.com Dennis explained having McDonald as his coach was something that has improved his knowledge of the game.
“You have a guy who played at a high level in this league and so he gives me a lot of pointers on what to do.
It’s good for me because he’s tough on me, he knows I can (play at a high level). If it’s something simple like I don’t cut hard or don’t set a hard enough screen, he’s going to tell me.
I might be thinking I’m playing good defence, (but he’s telling me) no you can play better.
Teammate Tomlinson praised his ability coming back from injury.
“We have a pretty good chemistry obviously because we played a little bit together last (pre) season
I love playing with him ... he’s a hell of an athlete and we communicate things really well between each other.
Melbourne must continue to strive for the ultimate goal of an NBL championship and Stephen Dennis is one of the key pieces of the puzzle.
Looking into the future, the team will need to string a few wins together throughout December as January pits the team playing four of their six games on the road.
Melbourne also turns their attention to the State Netball and Hockey Centre throughout January as the Australian Open tennis Grand Slam takes precedence at Hisense Arena and Margaret Court Arena.
The continuous change that the team will endure means that mentally the team will have to stay together and locked in. If Melbourne can continue to show signs of improvement like they have as of late, they will be a feared outfit in the latter stages of the season.
For Dennis, it’s more of the same; let his actions speak louder than words. The humble point guard from West Chester, Pennsylvania proves his game is evolving with his actions rather than using words to quieten any doubters.
While he is currently averaging 10ppg, 3.9apg and 1.2spg, you can expect those numbers to rise as the season rolls on.
Stephen Dennis is United, and the next chapter is making an NBL finals debut.