HEAL: American basketballers a better bet than Folau for AFL clubs

Shane Heal Columnist

By , 18 Dec 2012

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    US forward LeBron James (R) is congratulated by Tunisian guard Marouan Kechrid at the end of the Men's preliminary round group A basketball match. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON

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    The AFL’s pursuit of former American college basketball players may seem like a gamble, but so long as clubs are choosing wisely and know what they’re looking for, it’s a wise investment.

    Ten players were flown in for the AFL’s recent draft combine and one of those, Eric Wallace, has been given a 10-day trial at North Melbourne.

    Is it crazy? I don’t think so.

    The AFL were reportedly paying Israel Folau $1.5 million a year which, despite admittedly bringing off-field benefits in terms of marketing and profile, was not a gamble that generated long-term benefits on the field.

    For that same $1.5 million, the AFL could get at least 15 American basketball players out here and, so long as they got the selection process right, at least one of them would become a star.

    The stats say only around one percent of Division 1 college players make it to the NBA. Outside of that, you’ve got Europe and the D-League.

    It leaves a massive number of quality athletes wanting a professional career and with the right physical attributes with nowhere to go.

    Since taking over as coach of the Sydney Kings in February, I’ve literally received hundreds of emails from agents and players looking for an opportunity to play basketball in Australia.

    There could be some real finds for the AFL in this group because physically, a lot of these players have the right body type.

    Obviously, the transition would not be automatic. Not all of them would make it as AFL is a tough sport.

    Once a player is recruited, it’s going to take time for him to learn a new sport and adapt enough to play it at a high level. He’ll have to master foreign skills like kicking, handballing and marking. Persistence will be very important.

    Also, it won’t work if the clubs involved aren’t serious. They would have to treat their recruit as an investment and be prepared to wait a couple of years to see a return.

    However, with patience, that return could be very significant.

    While Nic Naitanui is considered tall and unbelievably athletic by AFL standards, if he were to play basketball these attributes would not stand out. They’d be considered normal.

    Body type isn’t the only factor that makes basketballers appealing these days, either. Perhaps more than ever, the game style is conducive to players making the transition.

    The AFL is so much faster today than it was 10-15 years ago, the players are so much fitter and more athletic. With less one-on-one situations, players also need quick hands and quick peripheral vision. These qualities, which are prerequisites for basketball players, are very much in demand from modern day AFL coaches.

    The terminology is also starting to overlap more. Zones and pressing are topics now covered in both sports.

    Similar traits have always existed, but with the innovation that has taken place in the last decade or so in the AFL, now is a particularly good time to look at what’s out there.

    The concern some would raise is that it’s a waste of time and money. They might say that the possibility of finding a star is so minimal that it’s not worth it.

    Just look at the Israel Folau deal.

    Realistically, there’s more chance that a 6’7″ athlete from the States is going to be successful long-term than Folau, and for a significantly smaller investment.

    There are guys I’ve played with in the States that if you played them at full forward, they are that big and that strong that after kicking it to them it’d be almost impossible to stop them, especially now that you can’t hack the forward’s arm or anything like that.

    The beauty of it is that it’s only going to take one player to come over and be a star. Once that happens, it could open an entirely new talent pool for the sport.

    I’m not saying it would be easy. I’m not saying every college basketball player that doesn’t go pro is a suitable candidate. I’m not saying clubs wouldn’t require patience.

    But there’s a lot of great talent out there and the AFL would be crazy not to explore it.

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