21 thoughts going into the NBL21 season

The NBL season is finally here.

It took a while, but we're finally about to see some basketball being played, and there's so much to look forward to. The roster limit diminished but the talent sure didn't, and the wait for opening night to come around only made it more anticipated.

For now, we're putting aside the usual structured preview content and bringing you something more unadulterated to chew on as we roll into this campaign.

So, here we have it: 21 thoughts going into the new NBL season.


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1. There's never been a wilder off-season than what we just went through.

This off-season went for 10 months, and was just filled with drama. COVID-19 forced salary cuts, which led to players opting out then opting back into their respective contracts, all while front offices were hesitant to pull the trigger on imports because they had no idea when the season would start.

Speaking of the start of the season, that's kept changing, with teams not knowing where they'll even be based, let alone who they might play. The NBL has this weird knack of staying relevant all year round, and it delivered that sentiment in spades this off-season. Here's hoping it never has to be this eventful again.

2. This crop of NBL Next Stars is better than last season's, right?

Hear me out on this one, because I don't think it's too controversial.

Let's look at last season. LaMelo Ball emerged as a consensus top-3 pick throughout his season with the Illawarra Hawks, so he was the clear drawcard of the Next Stars program, while RJ Hampton ended up being a late first-rounder after producing more like an NBL backup guard. Beyond that, Didi Louzada didn't light the world on fire with the Sydney Kings, and I barely remember Terry Armstrong stepping on the floor in South East Melbourne.

Compare that to what we've got this season: the Adelaide 36ers' Josh Giddey and Cairns Taipans' Mojave King are the two Australian teenagers who look set to have really significant roles going into the 2021 campaign, and both are likely to end up as first-rounders. Then, we have Louzada returning to the Kings in an expanded role, while Justinian Jessup's preseason leads us to believe he could also go out and average 15 a game for the Hawks. You can put it down to the fact that these Next Stars are likely to get more opportunity but, still this crop has the potential to collectively play at a much higher level than last season's.

3. Speaking of, imagine the optics for the NBL if both Giddey and King are first-rounders.

The first thing to note here is that there's a good chance both of the Australian Next Stars end up as first-rounders in the 2021 NBA Draft. NBA teams have been high on both for the better part of a year, and they look poised to perform at a really good level once the season starts.

Now, imagine this: over two years, there's a chance the NBL produces four players who get drafted in the first round. How many college programs will have done that? One? Maybe two? If things go to plan for Giddey and King, then the NBL would be up there with the likes of Kentucky, Duke, Arizona -- those top-tier, one-and-done programs -- as the most successful pathway to the draft. Optically, that's mightily impressive, and would bode well for the Next Stars program moving forward.

4. The Wildcats may have made a big mistake by banking on Cotton's potential Australian citizenship.

There was a point toward the end of the off-season when the Wildcats got wind that Cotton's Australian citizenship was close to being done. The reigning MVP's camp thought so, too, so the Wildcats began to make calls about potential import frontcourt players who could be available.

Now, the regular season is here, and the plan is to instead have Tom Jervis potentially fill that final roster spot; a serviceable player, to be sure, but he's not a gamechanger. Cotton's citizenship isn't done yet, and there's no telling where that process is, so the Wildcats weren't able to bring in the impact import many feel they absolutely need. John Mooney has the potential to be very good, but I don't see too many local players who can make a big impact, so Trevor Gleeson's team is looking unusually thin going into a campaign where they're hoping to threepeat as champions.

5. We might be wildly underestimating the Adelaide 36ers.

Going into the season, the 36ers have been widely regarded as a team that will probably finish in the bottom-three. The reasoning there makes sense: the last team to put so much of a burden on an 18-year-old point guard -- the Illawarra Hawks going all in on LaMelo Ball -- were extremely bad, and there are a ton of questions on how this team defends at a high level.

I'll present the alternative. Donald Sloan is a point guard who's proven in the NBA, Isaac Humphries is coming off a stint in that league as well, Daniel Johnson is one of the best scorers in NBL history, and the roster is rounded out by the likes of Tony Crocker and Jack McVeigh; both of whom can undoubtedly make an impact as role players at this level. Giddey is the 18-year-old, but he's surrounded by a really reasonable, experienced group of guys, so his experience in the NBL should differ wildly from Ball's. Not many would pick them as title contenders, but there's a good amount of proven talent, on a roster that can legitimately go seven or eight deep.

At the very least, they'll be a whole lot of fun, but there's scope for them to click and not be anywhere near as bad as most people think.

6. Can we please take a moment to relish the fact that so many high-level Australian players are in the NBL this season.

First, Isaac Humphries signed with the 36ers after a stint in the NBA. Next, it was Tai Webster heading home to join the New Zealand Breakers. Then, Deng Adel and Cameron Bairstow decided to join the Hawks; all of a sudden, the Australians who would usually be in the G-League or at a high level in Europe -- on the fringes of the NBA -- were coming Down Under to play. It was mostly because of COVID-19, but this doesn't happen if the reputation of the league doesn't grow immeasurably over the past few years.

Finally, we saw Jock Landale put pen to paper with his hometown Melbourne United, making this maybe the most talented crop of local players to come through the NBL in some time. Like I said, a lot of this has been forced by the coronavirus, so it's temporary; still, let's enjoy it while it lasts.

7. An MVP sleeper going into the season: Cameron Oliver.

My prediction for this season's regular season Most Valuable Player is Scott Machado; he's coming off a season where he dominated, and the absence of DJ Newbill means his usage will only go up more, on a Taipans team I think can be really successful.

One person not many people are mentioning but could benefit from the exact same situation: Cameron Oliver. He's coming off an All-NBL Second Team season -- and, let's be real: he should've been in the First Team -- and we all know there's still so much room left for him to grow. Oliver has the size, athleticism, and versatility to continue to dominate this league, and with more usage, there's a good chance he enters that MVP conversation.

8. It's fun having Brian Goorjian back in the league.

I'm too young to have covered a Goorjian season in person so I've never experienced his aura up close; but, man, he's already a lot of fun. The six-time NBL Coach of the Year seemingly does every bit of media asked of him and isn't afraid to throw some jabs in the process, all with his signature grit.

Every report out of Wollongong - and wherever the hell that team is now, following relocation after relocation - are that he remains the Brian Goorjian of old; he's still hard-nosed and isn't afraid to call out BS to your face. The consensus seems to be that we should never write off a Goorjian-led team, so let's see what he can muster up with this young Hawks group.

9. I'm a big fan of a lot of NBL front offices chasing balance over this off-season.

There was a time where NBL teams would go out and try to sign the biggest name, or the most talented player available, without keeping in mind how that guy might actually fit on its roster.

This off-season, though, we've seen a lot of signings based on fit, and that's nice to see. I'm looking at a Melbourne United team that didn't try to imitate what they did last season by signing two studs -- Shawn Long and Melo Trimble -- with a rocky off-court track record. Instead, they committed to Mitch McCarron at the one, re-signed Chris Goulding, added their impact three-man in Scottie Hopson, and went all in on a productive big in Jock Landale. They have an extra import spot, so why not go and get a really talented four-man? Well, David Barlow just fits well there. So does Jack White. Fit sometimes isn't sexy, but it works.

I like the New Zealand Breakers for this same reason, and Colton Iverson is the big one there. The team already has a ton of firepower, so getting a reliable, team-first big instead of an uber-talented scoring centre is just what seems to fit well with the Breakers' current roster. I'm a big fan of this sentiment.

10. Keep an eye on the end of the season and ongoing negotiations with the Players' Association.

An issue could arise just as the season starts to come to a close. Because of the season being pushed back, it's seeming unlikely that players on one-year deals will receive payment after a certain date, sources told ESPN. Effectively, they'd be asked to play for free for a period of time. Negotiations are ongoing, but, as it stands, multiple players are unhappy with that potential circumstance. Watch this space.

11. The February FIBA window could see the NBL Cup swing the season

The NBL Cup is supposed to tip off in a Melbourne 'bubble' on February 20. Australia will compete at the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers in the Philippines from February 18-22. That means some NBL teams would almost-certainly be without key players for most of that month in Melbourne.

Think about it. Players who are at the level of being part of that Boomers 'B Team' would have to fly out to the Philippines -- FIBA has been holding qualifiers in their own bubbles -- compete in the tournament, then go through a 14-day quarantine upon returning to Australia. Given the amount of games teams will be playing in such a short amount of time, those circumstances have the potential to shift the NBL ladder.


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12. Melbourne United has 'best starting lineup in NBL history' vibes.

I'm not talking about the individual talent across all five spots here. That would probably go to that Andrew Bogut-led Sydney Kings team from a few years ago.

Here, I'm looking at a combination of talent, fit, balance, and familiarity. You have a defensive do-it-all point guard in Mitch McCarron, a sharpshooting scorer and playmaker in Chris Goulding, one of the best two-way wings in recent NBL memory in Scottie Hopson, a shooter and versatile defender in David Barlow, and your marquee centre in Jock Landale. This is probably jinxing them, but that's as perfect a roster as you could ever put together in the NBL.

13. The coronavirus controls all... How much of a season will we get?

Larry Kestelman owns the league, but COVID-19 is truly what dictates decisions. Going into the season, we're already on our third public iteration of the schedule, and who knows how different breakouts and restrictions will impact things going forward. It seems inevitable that dealing with those sorts of issues will be the norm this season, so then it's all about how the NBL adjusts.

There's confidence that the league will find a way to make sure it pumps out as much of the season as it can; we just have to hold our breath and wait for the coronavirus to decide what that looks like, and where it takes place.

14. This might be the first season in a while where an import doesn't get cut.

This one comes down to logistics. Cutting an import would be a tough decision to make because each team only has two now; teams wouldn't want to be in a position where they diminish their respective rosters even more.

Then, there's the fact that it would be nearly impossible to get a new import into Australia in time. NBL teams had to work wildly hard to get their current American players over here, so jumping through those hoops again -- on such short notice -- isn't what any front office wants to go through. The overwhelming likelihood: all imports are here to stay.

15. I'm looking at some contract years.

There are a few ways I'm seeing contract years here.

In one sense, there are guys who are going into the season with an eye toward getting paid this coming free agency. Mitch McCarron could have another outstanding season - he's my pick for Best Defensive Player - and demand a ton of money. Does another team see him and love the idea of this elite local talent starting at the point, and go hard at him? The same goes for a guy like Clint Steindl, who, season by season, continues to show his value. It's also worth keeping an eye on Cameron Gliddon, Harry Froling, and Jack McVeigh; all of whom could be free agents, and a season with a bigger opportunity has the potential to dramatically increase their value.

The other way I look at it is that there are some players who are unproven, so this season could be their launching pad to becoming NBL mainstays, and then the sky's the limit from there. Deng Deng and Isaac White with the Hawks fit that bill; both signed one-year deals, and have the potential to perform at a good level, proving they can stick in the NBL.

16. The next NBL expansion city will be...

The Tasmania JackJumpers will enter the league next season, making it 10 teams across the NBL. Discussions about expanding beyond that are seemingly perennial, so who could enter the league if it wanted to get to, say, 12 teams?

Well, the NBL absolutely wants another team in Victoria, and I wonder how they would go about that. There's always been chatter about another team in Melbourne, but I think a team out west might be more viable; think Geelong, and that sort of vibe. Outside of that, one NBL player I spoke with recently brought up the idea of a new NBL team partnering with Port Adelaide FC for a second franchise in South Australia. It seems unlikely that there's the population in Adelaide to go through with that -- and the 36ers obviously own the territory -- but could linking with AFL teams help in that regard?

17. NBA scouts really want to enter Australia, but they can't.

At least a dozen NBA scouts who spoke with ESPN are still trying to figure out how they can get to Australia, even though they've been told that it's more-than-likely not going to happen this season. There's a lot of interest in the pair of Australian Next Stars, of course, as well as the likes of Jock Landale, Isaac Humphries, Deng Adel, Cameron Oliver, and Mitch Creek, among a few others. They'll certainly be watching from afar, but are obviously not happy that they can't watch these players in person.

18. Which coach is on the hot seat?

We said it last year, and it probably still holds going into this season: it has to be Andrej Lemanis.

The former Boomers head coach just hasn't achieved the level of success you would have hoped with the Brisbane Bullets, and another season not making the finals might just lead to his exit. Maybe not having to deal with a Boomers program could help him and the Bullets for the better.

19. Who will be this season's Will Magnay?

In other words: which Australian could come out of nowhere and earn himself an NBA deal of some sort.

Two names come to mind: Kouat Noi and Finn Delany. Both are in a position to take a leap, and have the size and skillset to intrigue NBA teams.

20. There are some teams I think will benefit from all of these schedule changes and relocations.

Weirdly, I see two of the perennial road teams as those who'll benefit from these schedule changes.

Games for road teams appear to be stretched out, so for a team like the Sydney Kings, for example, that buys them a bit of time as they wait for Xavier Cooks to return from a serious foot injury. The New Zealand Breakers are in the same boat with Corey Webster; Dan Shamir's team doesn't play a game in Round 1, which they'll absolutely take if it means an extra week of the Kiwi guard's hand injury not affecting wins or losses.


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21. Let's talk about how impressive this season's head coaching ranks are, and why the appointment of Adam Forde is a really encouraging precedent.

Does everyone remember Dean Demopoulos? He was this big-time NBA assistant coach who was supposed to come into Melbourne United and lead the team as a high-profile figure. Only he never proved to be particularly special, and the players really didn't like him.

Well, thankfully, teams are mostly choosing to hire head coaches based on demonstration, not reputation. Adam Forde is an example of that; the Sydney Kings lost Will Weaver, and then leant on his assistant, who'd shown to be an effective and well-liked coach across the NBL for years. He deserved his chance, and they gave it to him. It's a trend that's developing -- from Dean Vickerman, to Mike Kelly, and Simon Mitchell -- and should be encouraging to the heap of talented assistant coaches in the league today. You look at the likes of Jamie O'Loughlin in Cairns, or Jacob Jackomas with the Hawks, and Jamie Pearlman in Adelaide; all have a good chance to be head coaches in the NBL one day, and there's reason to think that staying and continuing to develop in the league will end up paying off.