Toughness, defence and bigs: How the Adelaide 36ers could outperform expectations this season

After head coach Joey Wright stressed defence and leadership as areas to target improvement, the Adelaide 36ers retooled significantly in the offseason by bringing five new signings on board.

Having given up the second-most points per 100 possessions in 2018/19, the 36ers made it a priority to strengthen their perimeter defence by signing bulldog guard (and vocal leader) Kevin White, the speedy Daniel Dillon, as well as import Deshon Taylor, an enthusiastic and close-checking guard on the defensive end.

Together with their returning mix of feisty characters and competitive defenders, Adelaide have a rugged group of perimeter options. There should be little problem in applying intense pressure on the ball-handler, or throwing different presses and traps at their opponents to take them out of rhythm.

“We wanted to bring in guys that are better defenders. We felt we weren’t tough enough and wanted guys that were a little more resilient,” explained Wright after the signings.

“We’ve always wanted to score 15–20 points from our defence, and last year we didn’t do that. With the guys we’ve brought in, we really think we can do that,” Wright reiterated.

Wright’s players have always been encouraged to play with pace and confidence and make the right reads. The players have licence to take shots, attack the rim, and get to the free throw line with regularity. But this offensive style has affected the 36ers' defence, with their defensive rating fluctuating between 2nd and 7th over the past five seasons.

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The team's goal is to elevate their defence, but whether they have enough of the right personnel to stay in the top third of teams offensively will be a litmus test for Wright’s system.

A positive for this current group is that the club locked in its full playing roster early. They were the first team to do so and had zero absentees during the FIBA World Cup. Adelaide will be hoping that this proves meaningful in the early stages of the season with the extra preparation time together allowing them to be more in sync with clearly defined roles.

Despite this additional time together, the perimeter rotation hasn’t been revealed completely yet, with Wright toggling through options in the preseason. He’s also a coach who isn’t afraid to go against common belief when picking his starters.

“I think we have 11 guys who can really start but some of those guys are going to be insurance for a rainy day. It’s really hard to get 11 guys comfortable and playing,” commented Wright back in August.

The frontcourt rotation is clear though, and the bigs promise to be a standout––and important––feature of this Adelaide team.

With projected top teams in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane expected to use shorter power forwards at times, the 36ers have a big man rotation that will make the tactical battle fascinating.

Daniel Johnson has been seen as overrated and underrated during his NBL career, but this year he'll be at the forefront of what Adelaide will do offensively and a problem that opponents will need to solve every game.

Elsewhere, the frontcourt options vary. Harry Froling's size and skill will be complemented by the athletic and hard-running Obi Kyei, while Eric Griffin, the Jacob Wiley replacement, will support the pair.

Wiley had the tools to be a difference maker, but he never quite evolved from a player with intrigue and highlights to someone who impacted games regularly enough to be considered for an All-NBL team.

Griffin has similar physical gifts to help fill gaps on defence and also to contribute offensively. He will have a meaningful impact on this teams win total (for better or worse).

One moment that stood out at the recent NBL Blitz was an extended run with Griffin at small forward, as his team cut into a double-digit deficit against Cairns. This even featured him guarding the opposing point guard before posting up on a clear mismatch at the other end.

This may well have simply been preseason experimentation and nothing of real note, but it was interesting nonetheless, given Adelaide perhaps might have a weakness in defending bigger wings.

Anthony Drmic is the team’s best two-way wing and, after playing through soreness in 2018/19, successfully completed offseason surgery. He’s a fiery competitor and capable of releasing the pressure valve at times on offense with his outside shooting. Now entering his prime, Drmic needs a career year.

Drmic, together with progression from both Froling and Jack McVeigh (who I remain high on), would help change the narrative around this team.

Somewhere in all of this is Ramone Moore.

Moore enters year four in the NBL, and year three with Adelaide, but he has some convincing to do to show that he provides clear value as an import on this particular team. Extra size and shooting on the wing in his spot would surely be advantageous.

Regardless, he’ll be tasked with defending different types and handling some shot-creation duties when Taylor and the team’s bigs are in need of help.

Taylor will be a barometer and driving force behind Wright’s playing style, given the significant responsibility he will have. Immediately finding consistent results on both ends of the floor straight out of college would be incredibly impressive.

The margins are shrinking each year in order to be a playoff team, but Wright is betting on his system producing another strong offence, whilst pairing that with an injection of toughness and leadership on the perimeter.

There are certainly questions with the 36ers, but they are built to compete each night. Don’t be surprised if they outperform expectations this season.