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Adelaide to Oklahoma
How Australia is building a pipeline to the NBA.
Basketball in Australia has, for the most part, been an afterthought among the national population. A sport most enjoyed on the most casual basis but one which only a small part took seriously.
I’m not talking about wearing an Allen Iverson jersey you found in a charity shop for $25, or playing NBA 2K a couple of times on the weekend at your mate’s house.
Accessibility has always been the biggest obstacle to basketball’s growth in Australia in terms of fans invested in the professional leagues, both domestic and abroad. You’ll hear tales of fans in the 90s waiting until the weekend for a weekly roundup, hunting newspaper clippings and watching grainy footage sent across the Pacific by carrier pigeon.
Nowadays, everything is paywalled with the advent of NBA League Pass, and the NBL primarily being on Foxtel-ESPN. That, plus the timezone, make it difficult for anyone to invest the appropriate amount of time to properly follow the league beyond casual status.
There was the beginnings of a paradigm shift though, starting way back in 2005 with the drafting of Andrew Bogut #1 overall to the Milwaukee Bucks, the effects of which we’d begin to properly see a decade later. As more Australians entered the league, like Patty Mills in 2009, Aron Baynes and Matthew Dellavedova in 2013 and Joe Ingles in 2014, there began to form a solid foundational core around which Australian basketball fans could rally.
Ok, this is all well and good, but what does this have to do with the draft and how Australia is building an NBA pipeline? I’m getting to it, patience. I’m about to highlight two landmark turning points in Australian basketball, in my opinion.
While basketball was gaining influence and interest in Australia, NBA representation was still somewhat scarce, but those seeds that were planted a decade earlier by Bogut’s drafting began to come to fruition in 2014 with the drafting of Dante Exum 5th overall, followed by Ben Simmons going 1st overall in 2016.
Whatever you think of Simmons the player and Simmons the Australian nowadays is irrelevant, because his drafting signified a major turning point for Australian basketball in this highly digital age we live in with impressionable minds forming the next generation.
Simmons attracted a whole new generation of fans both young and old, because as we all know too well, Australians are a parochial bunch. But more than that, it also garnered the sport national attention from media it had previously lacked and craved so much.
Not since the 90s and the halcyon days of the NBL, the era of Andrew Gaze and friends had basketball been a front and back page staple, a discussion point around watercoolers and dinner tables across the country.
That was one landmark event for Australian basketball. The second one may be somewhat left field.
The second landmark turning point for Australian basketball is…Terrance Ferguson choosing to play in the NBL instead of going to the NCAA.
Ferguson’s actual play and numbers in the NBL were underwhelming, but his decision signified a shift. Here you had a highly sought after high school basketball prospect, who had informally committed to the University of Arizona, a basketball powerhouse, choosing to forgo college to play professionally.
Ferguson’s decision presented the NBL with a unique opportunity to position itself as a viable alternative to American college basketball to hungry prospects looking to capitalise on their NBA-mandated gap year (you have to be a year out of high school before becoming draft eligible) by playing in a competitive league and earning money, which the NCAA famously prohibited.
Ferguson ended up being drafted 21st in 2017 by the OKC Thunder, proof his gamble had worked. His bold move inspired what is now the NBL Next Stars program.
For those who don’t know, the Next Stars program is essentially a league-funded scheme designed to lure talented young American prospects to the NBL with the promise of playing in a professional environment to prepare for the NBA Draft whilst earning decent money.
The program was introduced in the 2018-19 season with mild success, but it really took off the year after with the double coup of LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, two glittering jewels in the American prospects crown, who had been stolen from the NCAA by a punk upstart league a million miles away.
By building this connection and placing guys like Ferguson, Ball and Hampton (and Brian Bowen before them) in the league, not only has it elevated the level of the NBL, it’s elevated the reputation of the NBL, so much so that, and I’ll get to this in a second, the league is getting players drafted more than the players themselves are.
Now the Next Stars program has been ultimately very successful. It has even pivoted approach to being exclusively for pre-draft prospects to being a place NBA teams can send already-drafted prospects to develop for a year or two, like Didi Louzada and Justinian Jessup. It has also provided opportunity for one of Australia’s brightest home grown talents in Josh Giddey to grow and play against men before being drafted in 2021, 6th overall.
Now with the success of the program comes a unique set of challenges. Obviously, the program is designed to steal prospects from the American college system, by offering, above all else, money. The NCAA has been widely panned for its archaic approach to amateur athletes and likenesses, and the NBL smartly leveraged that into a strong negotiating position with prospects.
I should be really clear here. The NCAA is absolutely against ANY income based off an athlete’s name, image and likeness. I’m talking endorsement deals, sponsored content on social media, podcasts, anything. Nada. Zilch. No money for you.
That all came crashing down in September of last year, where the Supreme Court ruled the NCAA could not, in essence, place limitations on an athlete’s earning potential. Suddenly, the NBL’s strongest bargaining chip, salary, was gone.
I commend the quick and agile pivot in strategy from the NBL with their Next Stars from the past season. While they will still be able to play ball and get some prospects, their American talent pool just got a lot more crowded, so what did they do?
Well we’ll just pilfer Europe then, and stay closer to home too.
The 2021-22 Next Stars featured Tom Digbeu and Ousmane Dieng (both France), Ariel Hukporti (Germany), Nikita Mikhailovskii (Russia) and Makur Maker (South Sudan-Australia). Quite a United Colours of Benneton of basketball prospects. To add to this, young Frenchman Hugo Besson also signed with the league, although technically as an import due to the NZ Breakers using their Next Star slot on Dieng.
Three NBL players got drafted to the NBA this past week. Ousmane Dieng 11th, Luke Travers 56th, and Hugo Besson 58th. Dieng’s case in particular is interesting. He had a pretty rough opening to the season as he struggled with the pace and the physicality of the league, while suffering through some pretty horrid shooting splits.
By the end though, he was beginning to show the intriguing flashes of length and athleticism coupled with fluid movement and shooting touch, as well as the odd nice bit of playmaking. Still though, they were just flashes.
Did Dieng do enough to be drafted 11th? In my opinion, on play alone, no probably not, although NBA GMs love a mystery box talent, but that’s what I spoke about earlier regarding the league getting players drafted. The reputation of the league has grown to such a level that young prospects that perform are now being taken seriously and treated on par with top NCAA performers.
The NBL, through careful strategy and capitalising on a boom in Australian basketball (shoutout Dyson Daniels too), has created a direct basketball pipeline to the NBA. From where the league was less than 15 years ago, that’s an unthinkable leap, and one that will hopefully continue to grow moving forward.
Just one question in this week.
The Pelicans had an awesome end to the season last year with the spectre of Zion hanging over them, but that’s what makes their ceiling hard to predict in my opinion. Assuming Zion comes back (surely right?) as he was pre-2021, this team could literally be anything.
I look up and down the Pelicans roster and I don’t see a single guy I view as “unplayable”, save maybe Kira Lewis Jr coming off his torn ACL, plus you add in two NBA-ready rookies in Dyson Daniels and EJ Liddell, and you have a 15 man rotation with the sort of depth that most NBA coaching staffs would salivate at uncontrollably.
The Pelicans were rooted by their awful start to the season last year, and obviously that shouldn’t be a problem this year with the established talent of Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and CJ McCollum all together from the start.
Add to that a bevy of playable, defensive minded wings like Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, Naji Marshall and Dyson Daniels, good guard depth in Devonte Graham and Jose Alvarado, and the X factor of Zion, and this team could push for a win total in the 46-48 win range.
The way I look at it is this. Jaxson Hayes and Devonte Graham were in the playoff rotation vs. Phoenix, right? Graham has proven to be a good NBA point guard but he doesn’t really fit this team, so you swap his minutes for someone like Daniels, and then you return Zion to starting PF in place of Hayes, and that lineup can absolutely take it to last year’s Phoenix team over a series.
The Pelicans win total last year was set at 38.5 over/under. I don’t think the line is set yet, but I reckon they’ll hover around that 40-41 win range, and I’d have no trouble taking the over on that. I think this team still might be one year away and a slight retool away from true contention, but I would not be at all surprised to see them in a 5-6 seed and a first round playoff series win.
Hope that’s enough Pelicans Kool-Aid to tide you over.