Ranking Australia's top 5 NBA player seasons of all time
Once upon a time, Australians in the NBA were a novelty. 1991 draftee Luc Longley was the first, and he flew the flag alone for many years. Six more Aussies – including Chris Anstey, Shane Heal and Andrew Gaze – would join Longley at times throughout the 90s, but not for long. It wasn’t until Milwaukee drafted Andrew Bogut in 2005, that Australia produced another NBA mainstay. Bogut’s selection truly opened the floodgates, as a further eighteen Aussies have appeared in the NBA since then.
Looking back on the 26 Australians who have played in the NBA, here are the top five, ranked by their best season. Forget about longevity, as this is not your typical list. Each player is ranked only once, reflecting their peak year. For instance, Andrew Bogut and Ben Simmons have produced several seasons worthy of this list, but we are only taking the best one. This allows us to compare apples with apples, rather than entering a convoluted discussion about longevity versus peak.
Note: Kyrie Irving is excluded as he represents the United States in international play.
5. Joe Ingles, 2017/18
During the 2017 NBA off-season, the Utah Jazz signed Joe Ingles to a deal worth $US 52 million over four years. This was a curious decision, considering Jinglin’ Joe was a role player who started just 26 regular season games the previous year. However, after Gordon Hayward left Utah for Boston just days later, Ingles would turn out to be an absolute bargain for the Jazz. The 6’7 swingman averaged 11.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists during the 2017/18 season – all career highs at that point. He even ranked fourth in the league for three-point efficiency, draining 204 treys at a 44% clip.
Regular season stats are nice, but Slow Mo Joe elevated his game when it mattered, during the playoffs. The Jazz were no certainty to make it out of the first round, facing a fourth-seeded OKC Thunder side led by triple-double machine Russell Westbrook and sharpshooter Paul George. Ingles played a major role in Utah’s 4-2 series victory, and acquired a reputation as a “Paul George stopper.” The Aussie was living rent free inside the All-Star’s head, schooling him on both ends of the floor.
According to NBA.com, George shot just 28% from the field when guarded by Ingles. Not only that, but the Adelaide native was doing some damage at the other end. He averaged 14.2 points and 3.2 assists per game, while shooting 47% from deep. The stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story, as Ingles was really able to get under George’s skin. Jinglin’ Joe’s sledging clearly agitated the OKC star, and he cultivated a reputation as one of the league’s premier trash talkers. Although the Aussie went on to post similar regular season numbers the following year, he couldn’t quite replicate the same playoff impact, and that’s why his 2017-18 season makes this list.
4. Luc Longley, 1997/98
Honours: NBA champion
Luc Longley had a front row seat to Michael Jordan’s last dance in the 1997/98 season. The Bulls’ starting centre also enjoyed his best individual year, averaging 11.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game – all of which were career-highs. Longley had some added motivation in the form of a contract year, but also credited coach Phil Jackson for bringing out the best in him.
“Phil [Jackson] had a very different command of a group of young men’s minds to anything I’d ever experienced before,” Longley told ESPN in 2017. “I immediately felt accepted, and it pumped up my tires. It got me feeling confident, and when you’re confident you play better, and when you play better you feel [more] confident.”
To say that Jordan was a ruthless taskmaster would be a gross understatement. ‘His Airness’ spoke with no filter, and routinely chastised less talented teammates who got on his nerves. Longley was no exception to this, as Jordan saved some scathing barbs for his Aussie teammate. In 1998 for example, the Bulls had Joe Kleine, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington as their three centers. “You know what I have to play with?” Jordan once said in the training room, looking right at them. “Twenty-one feet of s—.”
On another occasion, Scottie Pippen was trying to pump up Longley during one of the Bulls’ championship runs. “Need you to bring your A game,” Scottie said to the Perth native. According to Tim Grover’s book “Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable”, Jordan interjected before the big man had a chance to reply, and left him for dead with a brutal line of trash talk. “Bring your A game? Bring a game,” Jordan quipped.
A testament to his mental fortitude, Longley remained undeterred and fulfilled his role in the Bulls’ second three-peat. Some may argue he should be higher on this list, but the big man had to settle for a reduced role come playoff time. As a result, his regular season numbers didn’t translate to the playoffs in 1998 – the Aussie averaged just 7.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists during the Bulls’ sixth title run.
Nevertheless, Longley stands alone in the history books, as the only Australian to hold multiple NBA championship rings. It will be a long time before another player comes along and wins three titles. Longley’s performances throughout the 1997/98 regular season subsequently earned him a 5-year, $US 30 million contract, to see out the remainder of his career. Although the 7’2 centre never quite recaptured his contract year form, he had already cemented his legacy as a pioneer for Australian basketball. 25 Aussies have since followed in his footsteps to the NBA.
3. Patty Mills, 2013/14
Honours: NBA champion
Today Patty Mills is the longest tenured San Antonio Spur, having been with the team since 2012. He is a relic of the Parker-Ginobili-Duncan era, when there were three certainties in life: death, taxes and San Antonio making the playoffs. In his early days with the Spurs however, Mills was best known for waving towels on the bench. The 6’0 point guard averaged less than four minutes per game throughout San Antonio’s playoff runs in 2012 and 2013.
When the Spurs suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Miami in the 2013 finals, Mills only appeared in two out of seven games, playing garbage time minutes on both occasions. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith had previously mocked the Aussie on air, at the suggestion that he might help the Spurs win a title. “Some dude named Patty is gonna help the Spurs get to the finals? Are you just trying to make me laugh? Is this ESPN or Comedy Central?”
Mills spent the 2013 offseason working tirelessly on his conditioning and decision making, in order to earn a larger role. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was impressed, and gave the Canberra native a longer leash throughout the 2013/14 season. After averaging a career high 10.3 points per game in the regular season, with 43% shooting from downtown, Mills appeared in all 23 of San Antonio’s playoff games.
“He was a little fat ass,” Popovich said in 2014. “He had too much junk in the trunk. His decision making wasn’t great, and he wasn’t in great shape. He changed his entire body. He came back svelte and cut and understood you have to make better decisions, point-guard type decisions. He did all those things better and he earned it. He’s been real important to us, obviously.”
Mills was no longer there to make up the numbers. The sharp-shooting point guard put an exclamation mark on the Spurs’ 2014 championship, which was secured in just five games. The Miami Heat had no answer for San Antonio’s ball movement, losing four games by 15 points or more. Mills rubbed salt in the wound when he came off the bench in game 5, exploding for 17 points. There is no bigger stage in basketball than an elimination game in the NBA finals, and the Aussie was up to the challenge.
The 2013/14 season set the tone for the remainder of Mills’ NBA career. He remains a Spur to this day, and has seen his role gradually increase over time. It wasn’t until the 2019/20 season that Mills eclipsed his scoring average from 2013/14, although he plays more minutes now than he did back then. The 31 year old is now an elder statesman on the Spurs, bridging the gap between the old generation and the new brigade. He would be a fine choice to follow in the footsteps of Andrew Gaze and Lauren Jackson, as Australia’s flag bearer at the next Olympic Games.
2. Ben Simmons, 2019/20
Honours: NBA All-Star
Note: The 2019/20 NBA regular season was suspended on March 11 due to the coronavirus outbreak. Simmons will be ranked based on his performances up until that point.
NBA fans have spent four years waiting for Ben Simmons to develop a jump shot. The former #1 draft pick has been a nightly triple double threat since his debut, and earned comparisons to the likes of Magic Johnson, but he continues to be dogged by one question: When will his offensive game reach a new level? Simmons’ statistical output has remained stationary since 2017, and fans are beginning to question whether he will ever become the transcendent superstar that many were hoping to see.
However, despite the unrelenting scrutiny over his jump shot, the 23 year old has found other ways to improve. A renewed commitment to defence saw him become a two-way monster in the 2019-20 season. When asked about his goals during the pre-season, Simmons gave the usual cliche – putting the team above himself, and shunning individual accolades. The 6’10 point guard made one exception though, saying he wasn’t interested “unless it’s Defensive Player of the Year.”
Simmons’ defensive efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. He averaged a league-leading 2.1 steals per game, while ranking third in the NBA for deflections. Players guarded by the Aussie also shot a paltry 41.3% from the field, as per NBA player tracking. While he probably won’t steal the Defensive Player of the Year award from Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo, an All-Defensive selection is on the cards for Simmons.
Simmons maintained his usual offensive output throughout the 2019/20 season, averaging 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game. The 76er also shot a career-high 58.5% from the field, but his propensity to live in the paint has a lot to do with that. Simmons was ultimately rewarded with a second All-Star selection, and he remains the only Australian player to receive this honour (not counting Kyrie Irving).
1. Andrew Bogut, 2009/10
Honours: All-NBA Third Team
It’s a close call between 2019/20 Simmons and 2009/10 Bogut for the top spot, but Bogut gets the nod. Funnily enough, both of their teams finished with the sixth seed in the East, but Simmons’ 76ers were stronger on paper. The next best player on Bogut’s Bucks was a rookie Brandon Jennings, and it’s safe to say that Joel Embiid has him covered. Also, Bogut’s All-NBA Third Team selection is a slightly more exclusive honour than Simmons’ All-Star berth.
The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Andrew Bogut with the first overall pick in 2005, and for good reason. He lived up to the hype in the 2009/10 season, earning an All-NBA Third Team selection. To date, the towering Victorian remains the only Aussie to ever make an All-NBA team, and it’s a tragedy that he was snubbed for the All-Star game that year. Bogut averaged a career-high 15.9 points per game that season, as well as 10.2 rebounds. He also blocked 2.5 shots per game, ranking second in the league behind Dwight Howard.
The 7-foot centre led Milwaukee to a 46-36 record and an unlikely playoff berth. Michael Redd, who had averaged over 20 points in each of the previous six seasons, missed 64 games due to injury. In Redd’s absence, all eyes were on Bogut, as the Melbourne native put the team on his back. The Bucks had no business winning 46 games, with a rookie Brandon Jennings as the team’s second best player, but Bogut had other ideas. Post-All-Star break acquisition John Salmons was also instrumental in Milwaukee’s playoff push, but he only played 30 games in a Bucks uniform that season.
Bogut’s career reached its apex in 2010. The big man would later win a championship with the Golden State Warriors, but this was the last time he led a playoff team. In a cruel twist of fate however, Bogut never got to see the fruits of his labour. He suffered a devastating arm injury just two weeks out from the playoffs, and the Bucks were beaten in the first round without him. This injury unfortunately meant that Bogut would never again reach the heights of his 2009/10 season. The big man was robbed of his prior flexibility and scoring touch with his shooting hand.
“It was a demoralising injury. I finally lived up to that number 1 pick and averaged 16 and 10 a night. I really felt like it was all coming together. I felt confident out there and consistency [started to develop],” Bogut shared, in a 2019 interview for the Locked on Bucks podcast. “I lost all of my shooting touch and any kind of potency with my right arm. I was told by some doctors that I probably wouldn’t regain that touch for a number of years.”
Nevertheless, Bogut will go down in history as the first Aussie to earn All-NBA honours, and he stands alone to this day. Ben Simmons may unseat him on this list in the years to come, as the 23 year old is yet to hit his prime.
Thank you for loving Aussie hoops! From Kein, Damian and #TeamPnR