By Ed Burton
We need to talk about the Boomers.
In my 2014 awards column, I hinted at the fact that it was a pivotal time for the Australian Men’s Basketball Team. Our best player is beginning to head towards the latter stages of an unfortunately injury plagued career, and at the same time we have seen a boom in young Aussies in the NBA – with more to come.
There might be bigger and better things for Australian Basketball in the future, there might be a golden generation on the horizon, but even if there is, that would a) still be a while off hitting its peak and b) likely not have the balance that this squad could have by mid-2016.
We need to be targeting a medal at the 2016 Olympics and the players need to buy into the fact that we can do it.
To have a chance, we only need a few things to happen. Firstly, we need all hands on deck. We will not be able to do this without our full selection of players to choose from. Secondly, we need to get it all right (including getting the right draw). We need to get our rotations right from a coaching perspective, but ultimately, international tournament basketball is all about one thing. Avoiding a match up with USA (and to a lesser extent Spain) until the final four. So luck will be a factor. Thirdly, we need our young players to develop, even if it is merely at the standard expected rate for the talents that they have.
They are all equally important, and all equally achievable.
We really do need our young players to develop. Conventional thinking says that anyone under 24, who has played only 1 or 2 seasons in the NBA, is still learning and improving. Of current NBA players, Australia has 3 matching that description.
Matthew Dellavadova is 24 and has been a staple of the national team for several years now, but after missing out on being drafted into the NBA he showed the fighting qualities that he is renowned for on the court and managed to get a contract with the Cavs for last season. He obviously didn’t know at the time, but 12 months down the track he would be playing with the best player on earth on a true title contender. Delly’s improvements from last year to this have been less on the statistical side and much more on the awareness and defensive side. He has seen a slight uptick in his rebounds and assists in his second year, as well as developing a 40% three point shot – though he is not a volume shooter. But his reputation comes from his hounding perimeter defence. He never gives an opposing ball handler a minute to relax, with an almost constant full court press seemingly throwing some players off their rhythm on a regular basis. This will be important for the Boomers in Rio as they look to become a defensive force and search for every little advantage that they can. So with 12 months to improve – while playing with some world class team mates – all we need from Dellavadova is to continue the improvements in his assists and rebounding and hone those harassment skills.
Cameron Bairstow is also 24 and was a second round draft pick last year for the Bulls. He played a full 4 years of college basketball being named to the First Team All-Conference and winning his Conference Tournament’s MVP award. He averaged 20 points and 7 rebounds in his senior year, but in the NBA, at 6’9”, he is a bit of an undersized Power Forward. Due to this, as well as his place in the Chicago pecking order, he has played just a little over 60 minutes of NBA basketball for the ENTIRE SEASON. Now this can be a bit of a concern for many players as a lack of game time can see them stagnate as players, however there are a couple of things to take into consideration. With 4 years of college as well as making the Boomers team for the last World Cup, a single year of next to no minutes really shouldn’t derail him. Assuming he has a contract with the Bulls again next season, it would be reasonable to expect that his playing time would probably double at a minimum (which would still only see him average 1.5 minutes per game for the season) and give him a chance to develop a little more as a player. Now, I know what you are thinking. 200 odd words on this guy? Well here is the kicker. His season in Chicago will have done wonders for his defensive development. The Bulls coach (Tom Thibodeau) is not only a hard task master, but he is also known as the best defensive coach in the league. Given our expected personnel it is important that we have a strong defensive unit and if Bairstow can get one more year working with Thibs, he could become an important cog.
Dante Exum is super young to already have a season of NBA basketball under his belt. So it is, when considering the following information, that you need to remember that he is only 19. For someone that was a top 5 pick in a supposedly loaded draft (though time will tell on that one) his numbers have been pretty disappointing, with averages (at the time I write this) of 5 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. He landed on a Jazz team that (thankfully) had just hired a new coach, and for the first half of the season, the team lacked a bit of direction as they tried to find their identity. This was reflected in Exum’s play. As a teenager, it is expected that he will be inconsistent, but he really seemed to have trouble trying to find the right role for himself, and building some confidence. Around half way through the season, Exum was elevated to the starting lineup – after sporadically getting starting spots and seemingly excelling. It wasn’t long after this that Utah made their most important move of the season and their future by moving the defensively challenged Enes Kanter on. This elevated Rudy Gobert to the starting lineup and gave the Jazz their identity. The best defensive team in the league. Exum took this with both hands and used his length to become a perimeter menace. But it would come at the detriment of his offence. He seemed incapable of doing both in the one game. He had a 9 game stretch where he never scored more than 5 in a game, but was picking up steals, followed by a 5 game streak where he averaged over 10 points and 3 assists a game, but only picked up a single steal, and then followed that with 3 consecutive games without a point and only 1 assist per game. The Jazz have been on a tear since the All Star break with this new identity, and in April, Exum appears to have finally put it all together at once. The defensive end has not suffered, while he has put up 5 assists and almost 7 points across the 7 matches*, and it is worth noting that the Jazz have won 5 of those 7 matches, with the two they lost coming by 1 and 2 points. So if we can assume that a full year in the NBA at such a tender age has taught Exum a lot, and he looks to have put it all together (along with his team mates it should be noted) I do genuinely expect some significant improvement from him over the next 12 months. If Utah are happy to continue starting him, as it appears that they are, I would genuinely expect that this time next year he would be regularly giving them around 6 assists and 12 points per game, which would be a great result for the Boomers.
Those are the young NBA guys. But we also have a couple of other aces up our sleeves. Ben Simmons is 18 years old and just finished the year as the top High School prospect to enter College (LSU) for the upcoming season, and was named the National Player of the Year. He just led the “World” team to a victory over the “USA” team at the Nike Hoops Summit which caused SBNation.com to write the following about him
Wow. It might be time to get excited about this kid. I am weary though, because of the hype surrounding Exum a year ago. The difference is, that we have A LOT of footage and scouting reports of Simmons playing as opposed to the snippets we got of Dante.
I think it is a given that he will be in our team as both Patty Mills and Delavadova played plenty of games for the Boomers while in college and with all due respect, were not at Simmons’ level. So if he can improve to the levels of your average top 5 NBA Draft pick over the next 12 months, then he should have a strong role to play in Rio. If he can manage to improve more than that, then we may have a game changer on our hands.
The other person that needs to be considered is Thon Maker. It is still not clear what he will be doing next season (College or playing professionally overseas) but either way, he has some work to do. He also played in the above mentioned Hoops Summit game for the “World” team, but he came out with 2 points, 10 rebounds and 1 block. Given that he is 7’1” and playing against other high school students, you might have expected a bit more out of him. But Maker is a bit younger (only turning 18 a month ago) and is physically still very slight, so he probably has further to go to get himself into the team, even as a backup. Ultimately it could all come down to what he decides to do with the next year of his life.
The same SBNation.com article had this to say about Maker
But like everyone in this group, he still has a year to get there. Given that he only started playing at 14 – 4 years ago – and is already looking at the possibility of playing professionally, is it really that big of a leap to think that he might make big enough strides to get there?
Which brings me to the next point.
We need to be picking from a full complement of available talent.
Australia is third to only France and Canada for number of players currently in the NBA with 7. Of those 7 players, 5 are on playoff teams (with the other two on a team that is expected to be challenging for the playoffs next season) and 4 are on genuine title contenders. Hell two of them won it all last year. They all have to be considered walk up selections. Making the NBA is wildly difficult, and the learning curve once you get there is steep, so it would remiss of us to leave any of these players out, and fairly damaging should any of them be unavailable.
For many years the Boomers have gotten used to playing without Andrew Bogut, but for us to have a chance in Rio, we need his experience, his defence and his on court talk. He must be our starting Centre. He isn’t used as an offensive weapon much for the Warriors due to the greatest shooting backcourt in the league’s history, but for the Boomers he would be an essential cog.
Before Patty Mills took the giant leaps in his NBA game that he has since he last played in a major tournament for the Boomers (London Olympics) he was already not only the leading scorer for the Boomers, but for the whole Olympics. With the NBA title that he won a year ago, his confidence, experience and skill level has improved, and he will need to be on top of his game in Rio to give the Boomers their chance.
Aron Baynes is a role player for the Spurs, but was our best player at the World Cup last year, carrying both the scoring burden as well as the role of defensive anchor. He is capable of playing a role at the international level, and we will need him to if we are to make the final four.
The quiet achiever of the Boomers team for many years has been Joe Ingles, and he has finally found an NBA team that was willing to give him the shot that he has earned. His season alongside Exum in Utah has also been one that has improved as the year went on, and he got solid, consistent minutes through the year. There is no reason to think that he won’t have another season for the Jazz that continues on his trajectory.
So if we assume that our 7 NBA players and Ben Simmons make the team, we have 4 spots to fill out our 12 man roster. So where are our gaps? That 8 man squad features 3 positional bigs (Bogut, Baynes and Bairstow) one wing player (Ingles), three guards (Mills, Exum and Dellavadova) and whatever the hell position Simmons ends up playing for LSU (his 6’10” frame says he will be a Power Forward, but his athleticism say he will be a Small Forward long term, so who knows). Which tells me we need some wing players. I expect that the three nominal guards will spend time rotating between the 1 and 2 positions, but a genuine Shooting Guard, and a genuine Small Forward would be the first two things I would be looking for – and then from there fill out the final 2 spots with the best available players that we have, regardless of position.
The players currently on the table are as follows – Ryan Broekhoff, a 24 year old 6’7” SG/SF (a.k.a. swingman) currently playing for Beşiktaş who is the perfect back up for Ingles in that he has that same versatility. Chris Goulding, a 26 year old specialist Shooting Guard who started his career in the NBL as a teenager and is currently playing in the top Spanish league for CAI Zaragoza. Brad Newley, a 30 year old veteran swingman with many years of experience in Europe and with the Boomers, who is still currently playing in Spain**. If I had to guess, I would say that all three of these guys will make the team. The final spot would then go to Brock Motum. The big man recently played in the NBL, but he was SO close to making the final Utah Jazz team in this last NBA season and was only pushed out to create more balance (in an already ‘big heavy’ team) by, funnily enough, bringing in fellow Aussie, Ingles.
So with that final squad, we need to get the rotations right, which is too in depth to get into here, but there is one point I want to look at. The second starting guard spot needs to be thought about on more than just a talent level. Bogut starts at Centre, Baynes at Power Forward, Ingles*** at Small Forward and Mills at one of the guard spots. If you look at experience – for both the Boomers and in the NBA – as well as where they are in their careers and development, this is a simple decision. Dellavadova has it over Exum in every category. But consider the role that would leave Exum in - the leader of our second unit. This is a role that requires more than meets the eye. Depth is important in getting the Boomers to a medal match. A lot of the countries that we will come up against, don’t have the depth that we do, and the bench players are the ones who need to exploit that. Exum has only spent a short time coming off the bench so far in his career, and to be perfectly honest (as a Utah fan) he struggled. He is not a creative passer as much as he is a smart passer, and with lesser talent surrounding him, he struggles. Sure, he may have someone like Ben Simmons to help, but it would be out of his comfort zone and not a role that he has excelled in so far in his career. On the other hand, Dellavadova plays behind one of the world’s best point guards in Kyrie Irving^ and is much more accustomed to running a second unit. Additionally, Delly is much more of a pure point guard who would thrive in that role. Defensively, Exum gives us the length we need to defend the perimeter and Dellavadova is far more likely to have success harassing a back up PG than a starter, not to mention that the chasing tactic that he tends to employ is less likely to see him get burned against a second unit. I truly think that it would better for our chances to start Exum over Delly for tactical reasons.
Which brings me to my next point. Our defensive structure needs to be strong. With Bogut as our anchor it will be, but we need to use this as our team’s identity. Ingles and Exum have been playing in the NBA’s strongest defence since the All Star Break while Mills and Baynes are playing for the reigning Champs whose defence is built on structure and making smart decisions. That makes my starting 5 one of the strongest defensive units in the tournament^^. With Dellavadova hounding players in the second unit, Bairstow learning the Chicago defence and Ben Simmons seemingly being able to make up for any deficiencies with his athleticism, the second unit should be strong enough.
None of this will matter if we get a bad draw, and perhaps I am only convincing myself, but surely the final four should be between the USA, Spain, France, Canada, Serbia and Australia. It is our best chance in more than a generation and we need to take it.
*This includes a 12 assist match that came out of nowhere, but the consistency is coming. He has had a minimum of 3 assists in every game for this stretch – more than his season average.
**Given the amount of youth in this team, I would have to guess that he would have the inside running for a spot here, should they decide to only go with 2 of those three.
***A year is a long time, and Simmons may emerge as a genuine threat to start here, but I would probably hope that we could use him as someone to carry our bench.
^If I have to read or hear one more thing that calls Kyrie and Aussie I may lose my mind. He was born here and that is where it ends. It is embarrassing that we need to hold onto this as a nation when we have perfectly good, legitimate Australians, to write about/report on.
^^Of course with the way Gobert is going the French may be able to surround him with training dummies and still have a strong defence.