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The curious case of Terry Armstrong, and what his season could mean for future NBL Next Stars
In July 2019, following the exciting announcements of LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton to the NBL's Next Stars program, Terry Armstrong was announced with much fanfare as the South East Melbourne Phoenix's own Next Star recruit. Alongside Ball, Hampton as well as draft-and-stash Sydney Kings guard Didi Louzada, 'Scary Terry' added to a group of highly touted young players expected to make an impact on the NBL stage for the 2019/20 season.
Whilst Armstrong's stock was never as high as Ball or Hampton's, his athletic profile, four-star recruitment ranking and "potential first round prospect" assessment by DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony made him sound like a probable contributor. He resembled seemingly similar rated prospects Terrence Ferguson and Brian Bowen, who played a role for their teams in past NBL seasons. Fast forward to the end of Phoenix's season, and the young, potential-laden wing finished his first professional campaign with a meagre 10 minutes of playing time to his name.
It seemed clear from preseason expectations that Terry would play. When asked by Liam Santamaria at NBA Summer League back when they made the announcement, GM Tommy Greer said, "I think [Armstrong] will [play minutes]. He gives us a different look a that two spot. We'll be able to run and gun with him a whole lot more, and that's something we're trying to do next year.
"[He gives us] that athleticism on the wing. We think with Terry he's going to be able to open up the floor and speed things up. We think he's going to be really influential."
In the Phoenix's press release, Greer also said that it was "important for us to identify a Next Star that could come in and contribute right away."
And technically, he did play right away. Armstrong hit the court for the Phoenix during the preseason Blitz in Tasmania. While he looked predictably lost on the floor making the jump from high school to the pro level, Armstrong demonstrated an ability to trouble defences with his athleticism, getting to the line and occasionally finishing at the rim. But the speed of the game did appear to trouble him. He didn't look for his outside shot, and he looked challenged on defence. As soon as the regular season hit however, he was glued to the bench.
It's difficult to speculate on why Terry Armstrong didn't play. While his tiny on-court sample has been ineffectual, a greater indictment to Armstrong's lack of playing time is the fact that Simon Mitchell and the rest of the coaching staff will have watched Armstrong every day at practice and have decided to omit him from the rotation, even through numerous injuries and adversities the team faced in its inaugural season.
On paper, Armstrong is a factor. He's 6'6 with a 6'9 wingspan, an NBA level high flier athlete, and had a great deal of success at the high school level.
Those on the other side of the pond may also use Armstrong's season as a case against the Next Stars program as a pathway, but such conclusions put far too much onus on team situations and far less on individuals. In the same way highly touted high school players come into college and have underwhelming freshman seasons, so too will recruits come to the NBL and not pan out.
Let's dive into the 2019 ESPN recruiting class as an example: Armstrong sits at #41 on the site's top 100. Of the 58 recruits that follow, only one is popping up on 2020 NBA draft boards - Arizona's Zeke Nnaji.
If we were to include the 20 names preceding him, only four are on draft boards - Isaac Okoro (potential top 10 pick), Cassius Stanley (potential late first/early second rounder), Jahmius Ramsey (potential late first rounder), and, courtesy of the NBL's development, LaMelo Ball (likely top five lottery pick).
While many of the players outside of the top 10-15 or so high school rankings have what is deemed as 'NBA potential', the vast majority either take multiple years to turn into productive players or do not put it together at all. Recruitment rankings at the high school level are highly inefficient, even by the best evaluators.
Armstrong was a top 60 recruit for his class, but we often neglect --due to the skew of one and done prospects at the top of draft boards-- the demographics for drafted NBA athletes who go through multi-year college, or turn professional early. In 2019, only 14 of the 60 drafted players were college one and done players (as well as Darius Bazley, who skipped his freshman season and declared). Many of these players were drafted for theoretical long-term potential, as opposed to any expectations for immediate production.
Statistically, the chance of Armstrong coming in and making enough of an impact to even be a second rounder, for instance, were very slim. With this context in mind, it's important to re-evaluate the expectations that many had for Armstrong heading into this NBL season. If Terrance Ferguson, ranked 11th in the class of 2016, could only contribute 4.7 points a game on 37.8% from the field, perhaps it was unreasonable to believe that Terry Armstrong could be a valuable contributor in year one of his professional career.
Does that mean Armstrong's season was a failure? Absolutely not. Like the vast majority of prospects in his class who had quiet freshman seasons, Armstrong remains loaded with plenty of long-term potential, but requires development.
It's very easy to take for granted, top 10 recruits like RJ Hampton and LaMelo Ball coming in and making dynamic contributions for their NBL teams - those guys are elite NBA prospects. It's also easy to take for granted the age difference players like Brian Bowen and Didi Louzada had during their NBL tenures, and how that impacted their ability to contribute. (It should also help us appreciate how good our own young players are, especially the ones that are contributing to NBL teams right now.)
While we didn't see him on the court, Armstrong spent a year training and learning in a professional setting, alongside seasoned veterans and a leader with NBA experience in Mitch Creek, and got paid in the process.
Per GM Tommy Greer in an interview with Liam Santamaria: "In all of our conversations with Terry and his people right from the beginning, it was really clear what the situation would be this season. It was never about minutes for Terry. It was always about spending a year with a professional club, learning how to be a pro, getting stronger, competing against men every day at practice, etc. It was never about starting or playing big minutes.
"So, whilst Terry hasn’t been playing much on game nights, we’re really pleased with the progress he has made since the start of the season."
It can be assumed that Terry Armstrong will not be considered for the 2020 NBA draft. With that in mind, it appears that so long as both sides are content to continue with his development here, Armstrong could return as a Next Star for the NBL 2020/21 season (Per The Athletic, Next Stars players sign two-year contracts with opt-out language to leave for the NBA). While this season didn't provide any dividends, a year working on physical strength and defensive awareness - two areas head coach Simon Mitchell highlighted as areas Armstrong needed to develop - could result in Armstrong getting to a point where he can be a valuable piece for the club this time next year.
Mitch Creek had similar thoughts on Armstrong's development, during our chat earlier this season.
"The hardest thing for Terry at the moment is he's in a developmental stage, where his body needs the time. Jae Crockett was another guy who needed time, like his body has been taking an absolute beating, and it's something he has to manage, because it's a hard, physical, tough league and we train our asses off every single day.
"I do see glimpses of [Terrance Ferguson] in Terry. I think if Terry continues to work on his body and he's bought in 100%, he's made changes and he's made really good leaps and bounds forward.. I'm really excited to see where he goes and gets to by the end of the year."
We will see whether the Phoenix retains Armstrong in due course. Whether they do will likely speak volumes to whether they trust his character, work ethic, and on-court potential.
If he goes, perhaps it adds another pertinent layer to the ongoing discussions about just the kind of prospect teams should target through the Next Stars program. With the New Zealand Breakers' success after RJ Hampton's departure, and Illawarra Hawks head coach Matt Flinn reflecting that "positionally, we would look maybe towards the other end of the roster" (suggesting a focus on bigs or forwards not tasked with the responsibility of running a team), it seems some teams could be dissuaded from picking up lead guard prospects moving forward. Armstrong's season may also scare off teams looking at mid-tier recruits.
The issue, it seems, appears not in positions or even capabilities, but in relying on players for certain roles, or guaranteeing certain opportunities. Next Star players were paid for through the league and did not count towards roster numbers - they are the definition of a luxury acquisition. It is only when you unnecessarily try to build around them and treat them like cornerstones, that their youth and inconsistency becomes a burden that opens the doors to critics.
Maybe Armstrong amounts to nothing, whether that be by leaving this offseason, or by not contributing next year either. But as far as the Phoenix's on court performance went, their depth at the wing spots between Ben Madgen, Adam Gibson, Mitch Creek, Kendall Stephens --and later Devondrick Walker-- didn't suffer for it.
Overall, it still seems like a crack at a potential quality contributor, with zero risk. Imagine if South East Melbourne picked up the #40 recruit instead of the #41 recruit - they'd have top 10 pick Isaac Okoro wrecking havoc on teams. The possibility keeps the Next Stars program a handy option that is remains well worth exploring.
Top high school recruits may be inconsistent, but have the highest on-court potential outcome and draw the biggest exposure. It is also true that if you want a sure-fire NBL contributor, the best bet is to try and find draft-and-stash candidates, though these situations are few and far between. Given the nature of the Next Stars program, an argument can be made that Next Star recruits from a variety of different avenues all have their own successful space in the league.
For mid-tier prospects like Armstrong that might not ultimately get drafted in the NBA, you still get a free shot at developing someone with potential outside of the cap over two years. As for Armstrong, it would be good to see him back, and come in to camp proving a professional and mature approach. He also needs to come in having put on some strength and having made ground in his defensive potential. If he does that, he has every reason to get minutes on the court and help the Phoenix next season - an off-season in the NBL1 wouldn't go astray for his development, either.
It's hard to imagine this result was what Armstrong or the Phoenix had envisioned for his first professional season, but it's a reality that it's really hard for 18 or 19 year olds to come into a professional league and contribute, unless they're definitely top 10 NBA draft prospects - and even then, LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton have not necessarily worked out to both Illawarra and New Zealand's success.
That said, the situation can still be salvaged. Whether it can be, might prove to be the ultimate litmus test for mid-tier prep to pro Next Star prospects going forward.