Versatility is the next evolution in NBL big men

Image Credit: Sydney Kings

Versatility is a key trait scouts look for in prospects.

With professional basketball trending towards a game built on athleticism as much as skill, the ability to do multiple things on both ends of the floor is becoming necessary. It’s why old timers complain about the death of the big man, when in reality, the big man spot is undergoing an evolution.

In the NBA, it’s clear to pick out these types of players. No longer do teams rely on their bigs to play bully-ball in the low post. Instead, the likes of Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are taking over – guys who can shoot, pass, dribble and defend on the perimeter.

Despite the recent wave of small-ball line-ups implemented by the types of past NBA champions the Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the trend isn’t continuing. Like Mike D’Antoni put it, dubbing this era of basketball “small-ball” is wrong – instead, “skilled-ball” is the more appropriate term. This is made true due to the colourful and youthful bigs spreading their wings.

A similar phenomenon is sweeping the NBL landscape; teams with multifaceted big men are enjoying success on the court.

These players are sprinkled across the entire league –including Nnanna Egwu in Cairns and Majok Deng in Adelaide– but it’s the trio of Greg Whittington, Akil Mitchell and Jameel McKay that are leading the charge.

Despite playing a style of glitzy basketball that looks more like entertainment than anything else, the triplet are undoubtedly making winning influences for their respective teams.

According to data provided to The Pick and Roll (courtesy of Spatial Jam), Mitchell is an integral part of not only New Zealand, but the league’s most effective line-up (measured with NET rating). McKay’s impact is just as important for the Wildcats, as he is in their best-three line-ups, while Whittington makes up the Kings’ two-best five-man crews.

With numerous NBA scouts in Australia watching Terrance Ferguson, the true beneficiaries could be Whittington, Mitchell and McKay. It’s these skills that NBA teams are looking for: guys who can space the floor on offence, switch on defence and can hold their own on the perimeter.

Defensively, the length these bigs have are crucial in disrupting smaller players.

Whittington’s lengthy wingspan allows him to contest Chris Goulding’s corner three-ball in this possession. It’s almost impossible to get an effective shot over a player who covers as much ground as he does in a single contest. Additionally, notice how Goulding doesn’t attempt to drive on Whittington. With the way the Kings’ defender is positioned, Goulding’s only driving lane is the baseline, which can serve as a secondary defender. This subtle kink in Whittington’s game shows he has the defensive intelligence to match his natural athletic abilities.

“I can definitely provide (a lot) with my versatility,” Whittington said in 2015, via Surya Fernandez of Hot Hot Hoops.

“I can defend one through four, possibly five as long as he’s not too big, but I’ll still guard him anyway. My versatility definitely shows up a lot.”

As Jarrod Kenny goes into his shooting motion, Whittington finds himself located just behind the free-throw line. However, thanks to his large strides, quickness and length, Whittington is able to explode to Kenny’s shot, forcing the turnover.

“He is a rare talent,” Kings’ coach Andrew Gaze said of Whittington, after Sydney’s win over Melbourne United in Round 6.

“It’s the blocked shots, the ability to defend a two, a three, a four or occasionally a five. Even though he is light, his movement and the way in which he can defend and use his feet to get around is great. For a while, he was leading the league in steals. He has those long arms and he is just a great athlete.

“He has a great basketball IQ and he is a great player for us.”

Not only is Whittington making a positive impact on the Kings, but his defensive expertise is being felt across the entire league. Whittington is third in the NBL for defensive rating, showing how he impacts winning on that end.

Having players who can switch on the defensive end is a valuable commodity in the modern game. It makes rotations a lot tighter and limits the chance of having a breakdown while defending the pick and roll.

On this play, Mitchell gets switched onto Travis Trice, one of the fastest and craftiest scorers in the league. At first, Trice seems to be thankful the Breakers switched, as he plans to attack Mitchell. However, Mitchell’s ability to move his feet quickly, square his chest to a driving Trice and then leap for the block forces the offensive player into a travelling violation.

The NBL is dominated by scoring guards such as Trice, Goulding, Jerome Randle, Kevin Lisch, Casper Ware and Casey Prather, just to name a few. This makes having someone like Mitchell who can corral these players on their way to the basket is vital in slowing them down.

Mitchell does the same thing to Cedric Jackson here. His strong defensive effort allows Rob Loe to deflect the pass, which eventually leads to a game-clinching Thomas Abercrombie dunk.

“Akil is growing in confidence and knowledge of the league,” coach Paul Henare said earlier in the season.

Even if he is still learning, Mitchell has already made a huge defensive impact for the Breakers, leading the team in defensive rating out of qualified players, while ranking 11th in the entire league.

Just in front of Mitchell is McKay, who sits seventh in defensive rating. Where McKay’s true defensive influence is felt, though, is the blocked shot department. Not only does McKay lead the league in blocks per game with 1.9, but he also reigns supreme in block percentage, with an 8.1 percent rate.

On this possession, McKay’s defence makes a substantial effect twice. Firstly, his immense length when switched out on Randle doesn’t let the 36ers’ guard drive to the rim, which allows Kenny to get back in the play. Then, when Randle gets into the lane, McKay is waiting, swatting his shot, which gives Perth a transition scoring opportunity.

Another area where McKay makes his presence felt is on the offensive glass. The 24-year-old is first in the league for offensive rebounds per game and second in offensive rebound percentage, using his length to his advantage to sky over opposing players.

On the offensive end, these three bigs all bring something different to the table. McKay is an offensive rebounding specialist, while Whittington can space the floor and Mitchell picks his spots.

Whittington is shooting a highly efficient 40.0 percent from the three-point line, equal-seventh  in the league. The floor spacing ability of the Maryland native not only gives the Kings an offensive weapon on the perimeter, but it opens up driving lanes for the rest of the roster.

It makes Sydney so hard to defend. On a roster that has the offensive talents of Lisch, Brad Newley and Jason Cadee, it’s easy to bypass Whittington. However, forget about him on the perimeter, and he’ll make you pay.

Mitchell is a solid contributor on the offensive end, averaging 10.8 points on an incredible 57.5 percent shooting clip. He also has the ability to go on scoring sprees, evident by his 10-point fourth quarter in a Round 8 contest against Cairns.

In that outing, Mitchell did a great job at reading the defence and taking what it gives him. Look here, as Mitchell smartly takes advantage of the two distracted Taipans defenders, on his way to an easy bucket.

It isn’t the first time Mitchell has shown his capability to read a defence and move to the open area, where his teammates often find him.

In an NBL that becoming more competitive than ever, every edge counts. Possessing one of Whittington, Mitchell or McKay, or players of a similar vein, gives your squad an unmatchable option, and the means to exploiting mismatches, things that could become keys to victories.

The NBL has been slowly moving towards a brand of basketball resembling the current NBA, featuring three-pointers and fast-paced offence. This new wave of ultra-talented, multi-positional imports is undeniably accelerating the transformation, with Whittington, Mitchell and McKay representing how devastating these players can be.

Luke Sicari

Written by

Writer, producer at 1116 SEN | Media assistant at the West Coast Eagles | Sport Journalism Student at La Trobe

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