When LaMelo Ball got injured, it felt like the sky was falling for the Illawarra Hawks, and in a way, it was.
At 3-9 and with their season hanging by a thread, the Hawks lost their most marketable asset. With Ball on the court, they were still one of the most watchable, and most watched, teams in the league. Now, they were simply the league's cellar dwellers, a team with their only import coming off the bench and without any real star power.
Things still aren't looking great on paper, as they've gone 2-8 with Ball watching from the sidelines. Adding Americans Darington Hobson and, for a short time, Billy Preston hasn't helped the cause thus far. What has made things a little brighter for Illawarra and their fans has been the emergence of the young Australian talent on their roster. With a huge void left in the rotation by Ball's confirmed absence, players like Sunday Dech, Sam Froling and Angus Glover have seen their minutes increase, and their play has risen accordingly.
The brightest spot for Illawarra has been the play of Emmett Naar. After taking Ball's place in the starting lineup for one game, the 25 year old point guard was shifted back to the bench, and subsequently thrived with increased minutes. Over a six-game span starting with Illawarra's Round 11 clash with Melbourne United, Naar averaged 12.8 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He also shot 65.3% from the field and 66.7% from three during that same stretch.
After one quiet game, Naar's minutes were cut drastically in round 15, from 20-plus every night to 15 against the Perth Wildcats, and ten against the South East Melbourne Phoenix. Even when he was on the court, he had few opportunities to run the offence, as Dech and Hobson initiated most of the team's possessions. It was a curious decision from coach Matt Flinn and his staff, as the team's offence had been clicking under Naar's watch.
With Ball in the lineup before his injury, the Hawks were putting up a league-worst 86.5 points per game, per Spatial Jam. In the eight games since and with Naar playing more than 20 minutes, they jumped to 90 points per game. In round 15, that dropped all the way to 79.5 points per game as Naar spent more time on the bench.
With all of that in mind, why have the Hawks suddenly soured on Naar as a big-minutes player? After a string of strong performances, why did they suddenly cut his minutes? And with Ball now ruled out for the rest of the season, what should they do next?
What does Naar bring to the table?
The last two months have been the biggest of Naar's brief professional career. After signing with the Hawks straight out of college his rookie year was fairly subdued, as he averaged 4.2 points and 3.1 assists in just 16.4 minutes per game. That was still enough for him to lead the NBL in assists per 36 minutes, and he was also in the top 20 for three point percentage (min. 30 attempts), per Spatial Jam.
Neither fact should have come as a surprise, at least for those that followed his career in the NCAA. Over his four years at Saint Mary's, Naar averaged 9.9 points and 6 assists per game while knocking down 42.2% of his shots from deep. He quickly proved himself as one of the best playmakers in the country, and along with fellow Aussie Jock Landale, Naar led the Gaels to the NCAA tournament in 2017. During his three years as a full-time starter, he showed the versatility to fill a number of roles in the offence. In his sophomore year he led the Gaels in scoring, putting up 14 points per game while posting the highest effective field goal percentage of his career, per Sports Reference. Once Landale emerged as the team's go-to scorer, Naar settled into his niche as a playmaker and finished second in the nation in assists per game in his senior year.
Even more impressive, though, was Saint Mary's consistently excellent offence with Naar at the point. During his freshman year, when he played less than 30 minutes per game and largely came off the bench, the Gaels ranked 55th in the nation in offensive rating. Once he moved into the starting unit they made a drastic jump to third, fourth and second in the country over the next three years, per Sports Reference. That kind of jump doesn't just happen overnight without a very capable floor general leading the way.
Fit with the Hawks
Naar has proven that he can be the focal point of a high-level offence. So why aren't the Hawks willing to hand him the reins, even when Ball is out?
Another look back at his time at Saint Mary's provides one possible answer. While the Gaels had one of the NCAA's best offences during Naar's career, they also adapted to his style of play. Pace measures the number of possessions a team has during a game, and essentially shows how fast or slow an offence is run. During his three years as a starter, the Gaels ranked third, second and fourth for the slowest pace in the country, per Sports Reference. While the bulk of their possessions ended with Landale in the post, Naar's presence was still a major factor.
Naar is a methodical playmaker, someone at his best when given time to break down his man or use screens on the perimeter. It's a similar play style to Chris Paul in the NBA - while he's an elite passer with the ability to set up others, he actually needs the ball in his hands a lot for that to happen. Those types of players can be electric when passing into a fast break, giving the impression of being a "fast" style of player, a la Paul with the Lob City Clippers. In the half court, though, things tend to slow down a whole lot more.
The Hawks are not a team suited to patience in the half court - they have the fourth most transition possessions in the league, per Jordan McCallum, and they're fifth in pace. They're largely built to support a fast, athletic point guard like Ball, with athletes such as Dech, Glover and Dan Grida more suited to playing alongside him.
That explains why Naar didn't play huge minutes with Ball in the lineup, as he certainly doesn't fit that mould. It still doesn't fully explain why that is now the case with the Next Star sidelined. Despite a shaky fit with the rest of the roster, there is proof of the potential success in Illawarra's elevated play in rounds 12-14.
What should the Hawks do?
On the surface, the loss of Ball for the season simply clears the path for Naar to play more. In reality, though, that news might make this decision even more difficult for the Hawks. The return of Ball would have offered an easy explanation for Naar's already reduced minutes; now, Flinn will have to make some tough decisions around which of his young brigade to prioritise.
Illawarra's rotation certainly isn't set in stone. Angus Glover and Sunday Dech were barely sighted early in the season, and both have quickly become regulars in crunch time. The balance could just as readily swing back towards Naar as the season winds down.
Ultimately, though, there's no right answer. Illawarra's focus should be on testing all of their young talent to find out who is worth keeping next season, when they will hopefully be pushing for a finals berth. Of their young guards, only Dan Grida is out of contract at the end of the year. With a history of losing talent in free agency, most notably Nick Kay and Mitch Norton in recent years, keeping him settled and content in Wollongong may be the first priority.
If the NBA has taught us anything, it's that the free agency clock is always ticking. Even with one more year under contract, the Hawks should be doing everything they can to keep Naar on board. He's not your stereotypical superstar prospect, but he has shown the capability to be a starting-level NBL point guard right now. Still in just his second professional season, there's no saying how much growth may be left in his game.
Cairns Taipans point guard, Scott Machado is showing that superstars aren't necessarily go-to scorers. Naar's ceiling may not be quite that high, but given more opportunities, he may prove to be closer than most think.