The NBL's Next Stars program brought plenty of discussion this past NBL season.
Being able to watch top draft picks such as LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton produce exciting highlight reel plays on a weekly basis, brought a whole new layer of interest to both casual fans and hardcore draft pundits. The big names brought unprecedented online engagement, international exposure, and NBA scouts to our shores.
Despite the positives, there were certainly criticisms aimed at the program. Did perceived entitlement minutes detract from team results and opportunities for local talent? Is the inclusion of draft and stash picks just a 'fourth import' loophole? Was the NBL's newfound attention aiding the league in any lasting way that would facilitate financial prosperity and league growth, or was it just a fleeting and meaningless surge in social media numbers? Would future changes to draft eligibility render the initiative worthless after this season? There are certainly kinks to work out, but there are positive answers to all of it.
Ball and Hampton: Emboldened expectations
While top NBA prospects are bound for greater achievements in their basketball careers, it's easy to forget that very few NBA rookies are able to make net positive contributions in their rookie seasons. They may show flashes of brilliance, but often require several years of physical development, skill refinement, and adjustment to the greater level and pace of play, before they contribute to meaningful NBA wins.
With that in mind, it would sound like an unreasonable ask for a high schooler to jump in to a key role for an NBL franchise and immediately play with the poise and consistency of an NBL starter. But that's what happened in the case of LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, who were thrust into key roles for the Illawarra Hawks and New Zealand Breakers respectively.
For what it's worth, Ball passed the test. Averaging 17 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game, Ball was a walking triple-double threat that boasted an incredible assist to turnover ratio given his usage and propensity for flair. Detractors will point to the inefficient scoring (37.5% from the field, 25% from three), but that level of inefficiency stemmed from an even greater level of responsibility placed on the teenager, who was tasked to play as their number one option.
It's one thing starting at point, it's another to ask him to be the start and end of your offence. Flanked by one other double-digit scorer in Todd Blanchfield (who had a down year, shooting only 31.9% from three and averaging 13.3 points a game), Ball was thrust into an unreasonable level of usage, resulting in a heavy diet of forced shots and off the dribble three-point attempts.
In Hampton's case, the slow end to his season skewed his numbers. Whilst the final stats read 40% on field goals and 29.5% from three, Hampton went 8/29 from the field over his last four games, including 2/12 from three. For the majority of the season, RJ was relatively efficient, playing within himself and taking good shots, and making them at a decent clip. Whilst the team certainly hit its stride after his absence, there were a lot of factors at play for a team that had a season full of adversity.
What was true is that the team had a superior player on the bench in Sek Henry. Henry should have been starting from the get go, and it's understandable that a seasoned import would be more equipped to take the lead on a team than an 18 year old. That adjustment certainly benefited the Breakers, but that's not to say that Hampton was not a handy piece for the Breakers, and had numerous quality contributions throughout the year.
Maybe Hampton and Ball were stretched beyond what was a realistic role during their NBL seasons, but that's on the teams and their expectations. Both players were still more than capable of playing at the NBL level, and they came in and competed as well as could have been expected. It's easy to get caught up in high school mixtapes and NBA potential, but potential doesn't always equal production in the present. The jump from junior basketball to any pro league is real, and any belief that even a top prospect can come in and tear up the NBL's best is far-fetched (though at his best, Ball managed to achieve it to a certain degree).
Now that the NBL has a precedent to judge expectations of one and done prospects from, it will be easier for teams to assess what roles are best suited for Next Star prospects, and how best to build around them.
In many ways, New Zealand did it right. They left a sizeable role for Hampton at the point guard spot, but built in a contingency of sorts by picking up Henry as a combo guard that could both play alongside Hampton or replace his minutes if he was struggling. Perhaps the error was in gifting Hampton the starting role from day dot and having to face 'demoting' him in favour of the better option. Then again, compromises have to be made when you're trying to lure potential college players from the other side of the world.
Illawarra it seems, could have planned better. The balance of the Hawks roster was off from day one. It felt like the team had lucked in to Ball, doubled up with Brooks, and decided neither signing was worth passing up, despite fit issues. The Hawks probably would have had a passable season if Brooks, the team's leading scorer, did not succumb to injury. His loss, and the subsequent failure to immediately replace him with quality import talent, defined the Hawks' abysmal season and put Ball under a greater level of scrutiny.
What is consistent between the two situations are that both players played an important position - running the team from the point guard spot. As Illawarra's Matt Flinn reflected later on, "it's a big ask for an 18 year old [to play point guard], so I think, positionally, we would look towards the other end of the roster [regarding future Next Stars]".
It's an important perspective, and one that may point towards the type of players teams prioritise heading into next season, Illawarra in particular. For all the responsibility of balanced guard play required from the one spot, it could also be perceived as a position requiring the least physicality, and is arguably the easiest to cover for, from a defensive perspective.
Looking forward to next year, it's easy to imagine most NBL teams being more tentative to pencil in even the best Next Star candidates as bona fide starters. While top prospects like Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green are can't miss guys that likely would shine in such roles, anything less, even projected first rounders like Jalen Suggs or Isaiah Todd, would probably be looking at key bench roles as sixth or seventh men - this may be their sweet spot in a rotation. To every practical extent, at least per the rule this season, Next Star additions are a luxury. It's unfair on all parties involved to rely or expect top end production. Whilst it's likely a prerequisite to afford certain minutes or roles to top recruits, ideally, they should function more as an 'X-factor' on a roster than an integral piece.
The Louzada factor: Experience is paramount
If there's one consistent conclusion that was made throughout this season, it was that getting older, more experienced prospects through draft and stash opportunities was the most effective way to utilise the program.
Perhaps that's true. Didi Louzada had a couple of years on the other Next Stars, and he certainly looked less raw and more physically ready to contribute, despite being a comparatively much lesser prospect than the lottery projected Ball and Hampton.
Those few years of development make a world of difference, but the perception is also skewed by their roles. Whilst Hampton and Ball were thrust into large roles with decision making expectations, the Brazilian swingman has been a bench player and occasional spot starter on an experienced, successful team. With lower expectations, comes less scrutiny. While Louzada might have under-delivered relative to some of the preseason hype surrounding him, he was largely considered to be a useful rotation player on the best team in the league.
In reality, Louzada's efficiency was similarly inconsistent. He has a 50.8% True Shooting percentage (better, but not exceptionally so, than Hampton's 45.6% and Ball's 46.2%, especially considering offensive volume and role), and his more cerebral 'three and D' game would have struggled with expectations of a bigger offensive role. Nevertheless, his more developed frame helped a great deal, particularly on defence. Being a wing certainly makes for an easier transition, as he's been asked to spot up and make only basic decisions on the offensive end. Louzada also peaking right now as a key piece during the Kings' finals run.
There's always an extremely wide variety of outcomes for players however, and it's an extremely small sample of players we have on hand, while trying to make broad conclusions for how young players can come over to the NBL and perform. To help broaden that sample, it helps to look at draft and stash players before the Next Stars program officially came into existence.
Marcus Thornton joined the Sydney Kings in 2015, after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. Thornton averaged 12.8 points a game, but on only 37.7% from the field and 28.1% from three. In 2018, Devon Hall joined the NBL as a draft and stash, and his production was disappointing. Hall averaged 9.2 points a game on 36.3% from the field and 33.9% from three. As imports, these guys did not cut it, but as 'Next Stars', they would have still been handy second unit rotation players. Both players went on to have much more productive seasons in their career beyond that point, which suggests greater contributions should they have returned for a second stashed season, as Louzada might do next NBL season.
Based on those examples, it paints an underwhelming picture for stashed players to come in and make a major contribution. There's also one other major case study that has not been discussed: James Ennis.
Ennis, after being drafted 50th in the 2013 NBA draft, joined the Perth Wildcats, and what resulted was a near-MVP season. Averaging 21.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game on a blistering 46.4% from the field and 37.1% from three, Ennis came in and lit up the league as one of the most exciting players we've seen in the last decade. That, is ultimately the difference between a 'draft bust' and a 'second round sleeper', and Ennis went on to a successful NBA career that continues to this day. Perhaps chances to land another Ennis are few and far between, but amidst the many fringe prospects who never amount to anything meaningful in the NBA, like Hall and Thornton, there are also many talented enough to carve out an NBA niche or highly successful international career, and the Next Stars program is our opportunity to attract them.
For this reason, I'm for keeping the Next Star rules as they are, in spite of the complaints that the Sydney Kings played the system and acquired an 'extra import'. The opportunity to acquire a draft and stash prospect is available to every NBL team. Without that opportunity, we would not have had Didi Louzada in the league this season, and he has been a joy to watch play.
Armstrong thoughts: Are all prospects worth taking?
His season was so uneventful, it would be easy to go this whole piece without mentioning his name, but Terry Armstrong's year will probably have as much impact on future candidates as anyone's.
I broke Armstrong's season down and discussed why it may not have been reasonable to expect him to contribute last month, but that's not to say his signing was without merit. Like the many college players who spend multiple college seasons improving their game before declaring, it may be the case that many prospective Next Star candidates may also require multiple pro seasons before putting their name in the draft.
While it would be easy to label a season without play a failure, a year of professional development and getting paid is an attractive option to many young players, and the two year length of Next Star contracts allows teams to develop their players and acquire greater year two contributions.
The question then becomes, at what point does a Next Star become just another development player, but an overseas one taking away opportunities from a local of the same caliber? It's at that point in the evaluation that the returns might not be worth it for an NBL team, and ultimately damaging for the league as a whole, as it neglects local player development that may actually stay in the league for the long haul.
Obviously the Phoenix had greater expectations for Armstrong, and whether they bring him back remains to be seen. His quiet season, however, might make non-five star prospects, as well as the teams that would potentially take them on, reconsider the value of such a move.
Next Star program's long-term sustainability
There are two NBA trends that have threatened the viability of the Next Stars program.
The first is the introduction of two-way contracts. This new wrinkle (though already existing before the implementation of the Next Stars program) in NBA team building has minimised the need to stash players overseas, and pays them decent remuneration.
The second, is the imminent changes to draft eligibility. Opening the prep to pro doors has often been considered the death of the Next Star initiative. There should still be several years before the eligibility rules actually come in to effect. While long discussed, these changes often take a long time to be formally agreed upon and put in to effect. The NBA Players Association seems inclined to support the move, but the current Collective Bargaining Agreement runs through to the 2023/24 season (with a mutual opt-out clause after the 2022/23 season), and such changes are usually withheld until these windows.
If the Next Stars program lasts with a similar level of success to this season, up to that point in time, Larry Kestelman would likely rest easy knowing the initiative had been run to great success. With that said, eligibility rule changes should not affect the opportunity to attract draft and stash options, or players with eligibility issues that still need to prove themselves to garner some draft stock.
For example, Sudanese-Australian forward, Makur Maker expressed his intentions to skip both pro and college options and go straight to the draft this season. However, with his draft stock currently much lower than it was this time last year, it could make him re-evaluate his options. As guardian Edward Smith wrote on Twitter last month: "... the decision lies with Makur Maker and his family. If they are satisfied with his position then he remains in the NBA Draft. He has until June 16 to make an informed decision. I believe that Makur is 100% lottery talent". If Maker's stock doesn't rise to that hoped lottery projection, then the pro door may again open, as it may for many other prep to pro hopefuls down the track.
The only players that would likely go straight from prep to pro are can't-miss, generational prospects bound to go one and done, and even then, it may not be a foregone conclusion that said player feels they're ready to head to the pro league, as opposed to spending a year in college or overseas to sharpen their game in hopes of a higher draft position. If the program has been a success up to that point, then perhaps the NBL has enough capital as a pathway to continue luring guys over.
Next Stars: Big picture impact
It's hard to assess just what impact the Next Stars program has had on the league. Social media and live stream numbers have been immensely high, but it's difficult to pinpoint whether the added interest has translated to added revenue streams.
What it looks to have achieved, beyond the immediate benefit of bringing exciting young talents to our league this season and beyond, is help build the credibility and relevance of the league in Australia, not just overseas.
The barrier for so many Australian fans is the concept that the NBA is simply a superior league. Basketball is an immensely popular sport in this country - per Ausplay, it's the second most popular organised team sport behind AFL - and there's plenty of NBA interest. Having internationally renowned names with links to the NBA has acted as a conduit to attract and gain the respect of this demographic, as they tune in to see the young stars, and in turn are exposed to the league as a whole.
Its burgeoning exposure is not lost on young prospects, and it appears the program has had a part to play in luring exciting local talent like Josh Giddey on to NBL rosters next season. As a light continues to be shone on the flaws of the college system and the legitimacy of alternative pathways like the NBL continue to be demonstrated by each year's latest crop of trailblazers, it assures local talent that they don't need to go through the NCAA system to reach their NBA dreams.
It has been an adventurous year for the NBL, on the back of a development program that has ascended to new heights this season. While it provided the league with plenty of benefits, there was also plenty to learn from, and the league will learn through its assessment of this years returns how the program is best utilised for team success, as well as league-wide benefit.
There are plenty of young candidates with pro rumors circling heading into the next recruiting cycle. Who gets picked up, who stays from last year, and just what type of impact they'll manage to have will be one of the exciting narratives to follow this upcoming offseason.