When it comes to Mitch Creek, nothing has come easy.
After signing his first NBA contract last month with the Brooklyn Nets, Creek is one step closer to realising his dream of playing in the NBA.
The terms of Creek’s deal were not disclosed, although it has been widely reported that Creek signed a one-year, non-guaranteed Exhibit 10 pact. Brooklyn has already filled all 15 guaranteed spots on their roster, so Creek was already competing for one of the franchise's two, two-way contracts. The Nets two-way contracts were eventually taken up by Alan Williams and Theo Pinson, which means Creek will likely compete in the G-League before getting an opportunity with the Nets. Roster movement, injuries and training camp battles will dictate whether Creek gets an opportunity to realize his dream this season.
Only one thing is guaranteed with Creek’s foray into America: there are greater obstacles and challenges ahead, before a sustained NBA career is secured. Ironically, that path might be a place of comfort for Creek. Slim odds and hearty obstacles? It’s another day in Creek’s basketball journey.
Growing up in Horsham, a regional town 300 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, Creek dreamed of visiting America, but an international basketball career was beyond the realm of possibility. As Creek explained in July, there has never been a kid from Horsham play in the biggest basketball league in the world. Such reservations have followed Creek during his career.
"A lot people said that I was never going to be good enough," Creek told Warren Yiu of ESPN Australia, back in March. “I couldn't do this. I couldn't do that,” he added.
Much has changed since those formative years. An almost decade of playing professionally in the National Basketball League, coupled with outstanding contributions to the Australian National team and multiple appearances at Las Vegas Summer League, have positioned Creek for his moment of vulnerability as he launches away from his safety nest.
Basketball Australia Junior Athlete of the Year
While Creek is just entering the consciousness of global basketball fans and beginning his NBA journey, he has been a central figure in Australian basketball’s emergence since bursting on the scene in 2011. The present day minutiae of the NBA shouldn’t mask the enthralling journey that has led Creek to this point.
Creek’s breakthrough moment within Australian basketball circles came in 2011, when he was named Basketball Australia Junior Athlete of the Year, an accolade that was previously awarded to the likes of Andrew Bogut and Patty Mills. Such a noteworthy acknowledgement punctuated Creek’s graduation from junior to senior athlete.
It also concluded a whirlwind 12 months, one that saw Creek leave the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) – the nation’s premier training program for junior athletes - to sign a maiden professional contract with NBL franchise Adelaide 36ers, while also representing Australia at the 2011 FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Latvia.
Creek was a standout performer at the World Championships. He was one of the three best Australian players in all five major statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He finished as the team leader in rebounds (6.9 per game) and steals (1.7), while he was the third best scorer (14.4), and the second-best in assists (2.3) and blocks (0.6). The Australian Emus finished sixth after falling to United States of America in the fifth-place play-off.
Keeping his talents in Australia
After validating credentials on the international stage, Creek returned to Adelaide to build his professional career. It has been his home ever since. Notwithstanding seven games with BG Göttingen in the German Bundesliga earlier this year, the 36ers are the only professional basketball franchise Creek has represented.
While the Australian Boomers would eventually bear the fruits of Creek’s development, the 36ers were the incubator for his talents. Adelaide is where Creek grew into a basketballer that is now capable of competing with NBA athletes. It is where he matured from a pugnacious baller, known solely for a hardnosed style of physical play, into a skilled wing, with nuance that matches unquestioned ferocity.
In recent Asian Qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup, Creek has the highest two-point field goal percentage (68.5%) among all guards. Such marksmanship is testament to Creek’s dedication and his desire to improve. And to those who had a first hand account of his career, seeing Creek perform with such aplomb wasn’t the least bit surprising.
Mitch Creek dunks all over Chinese Taipei | Credit: FIBA
Creek could have easily ventured overseas much earlier in his career. Instead, he chose to keep his talents in Australia. With the 36ers providing a sense of stability, Creek grew within the domestic infrastructure and became one of the NBL’s leading performers. In 2016, he was named captain of the 36ers and lead the franchise to their first regular season championship in 17 years. The 2016-17 NBL season was the best of his career, with Creek recording career highs in points, assists, steals and minutes.
Yet despite all the progress, and all the accolades that had come his way, Creek was still at somewhat of a basketball crossroads just 18 months ago.
In March 2017, Creek hadn’t yet stepped foot into an NBA program. He was just an Australian basketballer, reeling from an NBL playoff collapse self diagnosed as maddening. Despite finishing the NBL regular season with the best record, Adelaide broke down in the playoffs and lost their first round series, one which culminated in a disparaging performance during the home elimination game that ended their season.
A rookie again
Within FIBA basketball, Creek was suddenly a rookie again. A senior national team debut for the Boomers debut came in 2016, but Creek was battling on the fringes of an Australian program suddenly flush with booming NBA athletes. To sustain his dream – both within national and club basketball – Creek would be forced to rise again. Another obstacle and another challenge awaited.
In hindsight, these have been conquered mightily. Equipped with a full understanding of what has transpired over the past 18 months, the tangible illustrations of Creek’s recent career explosion lie within two festivals of basketball in 2017.
On the back of his career season with the 36ers, Creek secured an invite to participate in Las Vegas Summer League with the Utah Jazz. The imagery of Creek taking his first basketball leap outside of Australia with the Jazz – a franchise that offered Joe Ingles his golden opportunity, after Ingles took a strikingly similar career path to Creek – was a twist of fate that grows stronger the further 2017 fades into the ether.
Image Credit: NBL
Witnessing Creek tear up and down the hardwood within Las Vegas’ Cox Pavilion was a frantic phenomenon. He looked every bit like the panicky neophyte experiencing it all for the first time – highly touted opponents, basketball icons and swarming media types, not to mention the temptation of Las Vegas – were all thrust upon Creek in an instant. With each passing game, Creek found his footing and showed glimpses of the basketball he had shown within an Australian uniform. Zach Guthrie, head coach of Utah’s 2017 Summer League team, even likened Creek’s impact and tenacity to that routinely shown by Ingles.
Just like Ingles before him, Creek lacked the polish in his mid-twenties to truly survive within an NBA world. He played like a crazed bundle of energy during his Summer League debut. Creek’s output was more than sufficient for someone experiencing NBA gluttony for the first time, but dreams of an international club career were still a step too far.
“I managed to calm down and play to a level I was satisfied with, Creek later explained, of his 2017 Summer League performance. “But I also knew I had more to give. The feedback from Utah was that they loved my effort and the way I played, especially on defence, and how I communicated.
“They indicated I had the athleticism that could translate to the NBA but needed to work on my shot consistency and to continue to get rebounds and create scoring options.
“For me, everything in life is an audition, and on this occasion, I didn’t get the role. But I learned. Everything I’d absorbed was going to lead to something else.”
That “something else” commenced with the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup. Australia claimed their maiden Asia Cup gold medal and Creek was a vital reason why. In fact, there is a strong argument that he was the Boomers’ best player in Lebanon.
Creek led the Boomers in scoring with 14.7 points per game, while also averaging 5.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 assists on 23.7 minutes a contest. He led the tournament in field goal percentage (68.5%) and was the only Australian player to score in double-digits across every game of the competition. As Australian claimed their biggest international accolade in senior men’s basketball, Creek enjoyed his coming out party on a FIBA stage. Six weeks after replicating a similar phenomenon in Las Vegas, the Horsham native once again showed his potential, all the while reaffirming his worth to Australian basketball.
That is why the past 12 months of Creek’s basketball career don’t surprise the Australian basketball community. There was a tangibly different demeanour emanating out of Creek when he returned to Australia for 2017-18 NBL season last September. The natural progression, of an athlete harnessing lessons from an elite education provided the NBA infrastructure, was striking.
Image Credit: NBL
Creek remains a belligerent force of nature on the hardwood, albeit with a refined edge expertly harnessed from time with the international basketball community.
“I walked away from [2017 Las Vegas Summer League] with the IQ I needed to get better,” Creek explained in July. “With the mental strength to become more resilient.”
Creek calls it resilience. Many will label it experience, affirmation or simply a case of maturity. Label it what you will, Creek’s progression is unimpeachable, and paints an accurate picture of his standing in global basketball.
With his newfound resiliency riding shotgun, Creek led the 36ers to Game 5 of the NBL Grand Final Series – Australian basketball’s equivalent to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. This was one game for all the marbles.
Unfortunately for Creek, his side was defeated by a more fancied Melbourne United franchise. Succumbing at the final hurdle was a disappointing end to what Creek hopes will be his last domestic Australian basketball campaign for the immediate future, but it will never detract from his performance over the season. Creek was voted onto the All-NBL Second Team and was named the Adelaide 36ers’ MVP. He has publically labelled the latter as, one of the proudest moments of his career and life.
Creek’s importance to the national team is now at an all time high. He has been leading Australia’s charge through Asian Qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup. The Boomers are undefeated in the four games Creek has played, with the former 36er averaging 13.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. His campaign is highlighted by a near flawless performance against Chinese Taipei in February, where Creek recorded 18 points and 9 rebounds on a perfect 9-9 shooting from the field.
Part of the Golden Age
Creek’s preparations for the Brooklyn Nets’ training camp will preclude him from competing in the Boomers’ upcoming qualifiers against Qatar and Kazakhstan. Although, this is a worthwhile price to pay, for both player and country. As Creek has already illustrated, time spent away from the Australian set-up will invariably make him a more deadly resource on the court.
A place on the Boomers roster for the 2019 World Cup in China, along with two highly touted games against Team USA in Melbourne next August, is firmly within Creek’s grasp. Beyond that, a prolonged Olympic campaign, and possible Olympic medal, is conceivable for all involved. Significant goals, sure, but as Creek has shown over and over, challenges are made to be triumphed over.
Australian basketball is living through a golden age of pioneers exploding onto the global stage. Transcendent athletes, from wide and far across, are leaving the continent to chase their sporting dreams at a rapid rate, having seen their imaginations come true within contemporaries.
Patty Mills is an indigenous Australia who found a home in the middle of Texas. Matthew Dellavedova is from Maryborough, a regional minnow in country Victoria, and won an NBA Championship alongside LeBron James. Thon Maker is a Sudanese Australian, who now calls Dellavedova a teammate, both in the NBA for Milwaukee and within the Boomers establishment.
The list of Australian success stories is endless, as too is the potential for the latest man to chase his NBA dream.
Mitch Creek now has the opportunity to venture off, and chase his own dream.
His importance to Australian basketball has never been greater. The challenges facing him in Brooklyn are equally weighty. And yet, there is a sense of familiarity in looking at what awaits Creek. A sense of confidence, too, that just as he has done many times before, he will find a way to overcome the odds and chase down what he truly desires.
This feature was first published on FIBA as How the Boomers helped Creek land an NBA opportunity, and is republished with FIBA's consent.