The unlikely heroes stepping up in NBL22
In a season full of disruptions, three players on the fringes of their teams have taken advantage and taken centre stage.
Credit: Russell Freeman Photography
The NBL landscape, like most things in the world today, has never been more unstable. The schedule is in a constant state of flux. Teams and players could be sidelined by COVID-19 protocols at the drop of a hat, and two clubs are stuck on the road indefinitely. The league has done everything possible to keep the season running smoothly, but there are unavoidable issues.
While there are negatives aplenty in the current environment, a select few players have benefited from the carnage. There has never been a better time to be a fringe player in the league, with everyone just one unavailability away from being thrust into the spotlight. Add in the league’s newest expansion team in Tasmania, and the opportunities for players have grown even further.
It could be argued that the talent in the league has never been deeper, and that idea is now regularly being put to the test. In the early stages of the season, three players have seized their unexpected chances and made the most of them. Seen largely as afterthoughts on their team’s rosters during preseason, they are now key pieces to the puzzle as the finals race heats up.
All stats correct as of February 18.
Credit: May Bailey Photography
Matt Kenyon, Tasmania JackJumpers
At just 24 years of age, Matt Kenyon has already walked an unusual path in his basketball career. A talented junior player in the NSW state pathways and the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence, he took the logical next step when he signed with the Brisbane Bullets in 2016. If his career had stayed on that upward trajectory, he could have easily been an NBL veteran by now rather than a surprise contributor.
Instead, a dislocated knee suffered late in his second season forced him to change course. Out of contract and not yet established in the NBL, he spent a season in the SEABL before shifting his focus overseas with a year in the NBA G League. A return to Australia after just one season still didn’t bring immediate NBL reward, as he found himself first in the Waratah League and then in the NBL1 South.
That made it five seasons out of the NBL when he was finally signed by the Tasmania JackJumpers, filling the last fully contracted spot on their inaugural roster. After an NBL1 season with Ballarat where he flashed his elite defensive skillset, and after captaining a young and understrength Australian Boomers team to a win over New Zealand, he presented as the type of high-upside player that the NBL’s newest team should take a flyer on.
Still, with the likes of imports Josh Magette and Josh Adams, veterans Clint Steindl and Jarrad Weeks, and Next Star Nikita Mikhailovskii all seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order, it was hard to envision an immediate role for Kenyon. On a team lacking shot creators and shot makers, Kenyon — a non-threat from the perimeter and limited offensive player throughout his career — seemed likely to spend plenty of time on the bench.
Instead, JackJumpers coach Scott Roth’s emphasis on the defensive end has seen Kenyon emerge as one of the team’s most important players. Already in the rotation from opening night, he was moved into the starting lineup in round nine and has remained there ever since. That shift coincided with a four-game winning streak that has lifted Tasmania into finals calculations for the first time.
Already a good defensive team early in the season, the JackJumpers have been elite since increasing Kenyon’s role. They have allowed just 97.2 points per 100 possessions, the best mark over that span, and they now have the second-best defence across the entire season, per Spatial Jam. That could easily be written off as a coincidence, but watching Kenyon play is enough to allay any doubts about his impact on that end of the floor.
An oversized guard at six foot five, Kenyon has shown the ability to defend any position from one through four when called upon. That versatility has been crucial on a JackJumpers roster that is severely undersized in almost any matchup. Without perfect one-on-one matchups around the basket, they have instead pressed at every opportunity and scrambled constantly. Kenyon has unlocked even more options in that scheme — Roth will never open a possession with him defending in the post, but he is a one of the few guard that is able to switch onto a big and hold his own.
His on-ball defence is just as impressive, and he has become one of the biggest pests in the league (in the best way possible). Kenyon is a rare player that is worth watching away from the play, as his ball denial and positioning relative to his man is something close to an art form. He thrives on the visible frustration of the league’s best guards as they are jostled and bumped out of their rhythm.
Perhaps most impressive, and certainly most surprising, has been Kenyon’s offensive growth. Yes, he’s averaging just 3.8 points and 1.1 assists per game, but everything is relative for a player that has previously been a complete non-threat at the top level. After shooting 18.8% from deep on less than one attempt per game with the Bullets, and 14% on even less attempts in the G League, he is knocking down 33.3% on almost two threes per game.
Importantly, he has done enough to be playable late in games without being an offensive liability. In fact, he has even stepped up in those big moments and caught everyone by surprise.
All of this has made Kenyon one of Tasmania’s most impactful players during their early season success. He has the best adjusted net rating of the team’s rotational players, per Spatial Jam, and the raw numbers are even more kind to him. When he has been on the court, Tasmania have outscored their opposition by 47 points; when he has sat, they have been outscored by 43. Nothing Kenyon does has been flashy, but he has certainly been making winning plays for the JackJumpers this season.
Credit: Russell Freeman Photography
Bul Kuol, Cairns Taipans
Like Kenyon with Tasmania, Bul Kuol was the last player signed by the Cairns Taipans ahead of the season. After a strong senior year with the University at Detroit Mercy, he impressed with Knox in the NBL1 South to earn his first shot at the NBL. Joining a rebuilt Taipans roster that housed plenty of perimeter talent, his path to regular minutes looked unclear.
In fact, new Taipans coach Adam Forde told him as much in the preseason. According to Chris Pike of nbl.com.au, Forde was typically blunt ahead of the season, telling Kuol that he sat behind all of Scott Machado, Mirko Djeric, Kouat Noi, Jarrod Kenny, Jordan Ngatai and Tahjere McCall in the pecking order.
Forde’s hand was forced, though, as that group was decimated by injuries in the opening rounds. Kuol stepped into the starting lineup in round three when Machado went down, stayed there as McCall missed games, and has remained there ever since in Noi’s absence. After playing 26 total minutes over Cairns’ first two games, he hasn’t played less than 20 in any single game since and has topped 30 minutes four times.
While that’s partly a matter of necessity, Kuol has well and truly earned a larger role even once the Taipans are finally healthy. His defensive energy made him an immediate asset, but he truly announced himself with an offensive explosion against the Brisbane Bullets.
Right throughout his NCAA career and into his first NBL1 season, Kuol has been a knockdown shooter. Across three college seasons, he drained 41.5% of his triples on more than 200 total attempts; with Knox, he led his team in scoring while taking almost seven threes per game, making 41.9% of them. It seemed a safe bet that his shooting would be his most translatable skill as he stepped up into the NBL.
That wasn’t immediately the case, as he struggled to knock down shots early in the season. Over his first four games he shot 6-22 (27.3%) from three and averaged just 6.8 points per game, and yet, he was still able to have a positive impact. That’s because he was willing and able to take on tough defensive assignments, particularly while McCall was out. “I love playing defence, that's how I got into basketball,” he told NBL.com.au. “I know why I'm out there and coach has me out there to play defence.”
Already earning minutes with his defence, it wasn’t long before Kuol’s offensive game returned to its baseline level. The return of McCall and Machado, two players adept at creating shots for others, has been a huge factor, allowing Kuol to slide back into his niche as a catch-and-shoot threat. In the five games since McCall returned to the lineup, Kuol shot 19-39 (48.7%) from deep while scoring 13.4 points per contest. That has his overall three-point percentage sitting above 40% across the season,
That number only scratches the surface of Kuol’s overall impact on the offence of the Taipans. As suggested by his scorching shooting percentage, he has been one of the most efficient spot-up scorers in the NBL this season. He is currently scoring 1.27 points per possession on these plays, ranked eighth in the league (min. 20 possessions), and he sits comfortably inside the top ten in spot-up frequency, per Jordan McCallum. Prior to round 12, that placed him as the league leader in spot-up points per game.
That has provided a much-needed boost to a Cairns team that has struggled to score this season. They rank eighth in the league in offensive rating, producing just 103 points per 100 possessions, with their fast-paced offence generating the most turnovers in the league, per Spatial Jam. The only saving grace has been their ability to shoot the ball — 18.3% of their total possessions have come in spot up situations, and they led the league in efficiency on those plays with 1.16 points per possession, per Jordan McCallum.
Given he is far and away their most effective player in their most frequent play type, it should be no surprise that Kuol has been one of Cairns’ most impactful offensive players overall. He ranks second on their roster with an offensive box plus-minus of +1.3, per Spatial Jam, and he is one of only two Taipans that rates positively in the metric. Forde might not have seen a role for him before the season, but it’s hard to imagine him without one now.
Credit: May Bailey Photography
Wani Swaka Lo Buluk, Sydney Kings
From a very young age, Wani Swaka Lo Buluk was seemingly destined for a successful NBL career. After becoming the youngest player to appear in a game for the Perth Wildcats at 17 years of age, he spent three years with the league’s most successful franchise. That meant learning from legendary coach Trevor Gleeson, practicing alongside the likes of Bryce Cotton, and winning two championships along the way. It’s hard to imagine a better basketball internship for a player with the potential and physical tools of Swaka Lo Buluk.
Unfortunately, it ended as many internships do — with no permanent job and no solid leads towards one. The Wildcats chose not to pick up the team option on his contract for this season, and a five-game stint in the NBL1 South with Albury Wodonga failed to impress the rest of the league enough to earn a full contract. The Sydney Kings saw some untapped potential, though, and signed him as an injury replacement player as Dejan Vasiljevic continued his recovery from a torn Achilles.
Speaking as that signing was confirmed, Sydney Kings CEO Chris Pongrass described Swaka Lo Buluk as an “intriguing prospect” and made it clear that, despite his injury replacement status, the team planned for him to remain through the entire season. That was likely true at the time, and it was confirmed when he was upgraded to a full contract in late January. What the Kings might not have expected is that, by that stage, Swaka Lo Buluk would be entrenched in their starting lineup and one of their most important contributors.
Initially, that role was largely due to injuries. The Kings were decimated throughout last season, and in the early rounds of this season they faced injuries to imports RJ Hunter and Jaylen Adams, young guards Biwali Bayles and Angus Glover, and the still-rehabbing Vasiljevic. With all of those missing pieces perimeter players, there was a gaping hole for Swaka Lo Buluk to fill.
Even with Vasiljevic, Glover and Adams now back in the lineup, Swaka Lo Buluk has remained in that starting five and continues to play big minutes. In fact, his workload this season has already dwarfed that of his time in the west. Across three years with the Wildcats, he played a total of 254 minutes; in just 15 games this season he has already played 396 minutes, an average of 26.4 per game. That is the third-most total minutes for the Kings this year, and the fourth-most minutes per game.
That’s because he brings a defensive edge that the rest of Sydney’s wings can’t match. At six foot six with good mobility, he has the physical tools to guard most perimeter players and even some of the league’s smaller fours. Add in a high defensive IQ, nurtured by Perth’s culture and the tutelage of Gleeson, and he has become Chase Buford’s go-to stopper on the perimeter.
That was never clearer than in Sydney’s round nine win against Perth, where he was given the near-impossible task of slowing down former teammate Bryce Cotton. With his new side holding a ten-point lead in the fourth quarter, Swaka Lo Buluk helped to hold the MVP scoreless over the final eight minutes and seal a big win for the Kings. That small sample doesn’t say much alone, but his ability to defend one-on-one has been on display throughout the entire season.
It’s a delicate balancing act, but the offensive struggles of the Kings have meant that any defensive slips could be fatal. They have posted the league’s third-best defence across the season, which has propped up their second-worst offence and kept them in the finals race. To a degree, Swaka Lo Buluk embodies that lopsided production — while he is somewhat limited offensively, Buford has continued to play him big minutes for his defence.
Still, he’s flashed enough scoring ability to avoid becoming a complete non-threat at that end of the floor. He is averaging a career-high 5.9 points per game, shooting 42% from the field and knocking down a third of his three-point attempts. That has been enough to stop defenders from sagging off him on the perimeter, and his athleticism alone makes him a threat on cuts and lobs. Playing alongside Jaylen Adams, Jarrell Martin and Xavier Cooks, that’s all he needs to bring to the table offensively.
With Ian Clark’s arrival into their vacant third import slot, Swaka Lo Buluk may eventually step out of Sydney’s starting lineup. That won’t make him any less important to their finals hopes, though, and he will continue to terrorise plenty of the league’s top scorers. At just 20 years of age, there could still be plenty of growth in his game for the Kings to enjoy.