For the second time in a month the NBL is making headlines in the NBA media. LaMelo Ball, the youngest brother of New Orleans Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball, has announced he will be signing with the Illawarra Hawks for the 2019-20 NBA season.
The top and bottom of the NBL table shows you the tale of a New Zealand Breakers team rolling on the back of two terrific additions and an Illawarra Hawks line-up not yet replicating their hot form from late last season.
The Breakers missed the playoffs last campaign while the Hawks stunned minor premiers the Adelaide 36ers in the semi-finals to earn a trip to the grand final.
But after four rounds this NBL season, New Zealand are shaping as a genuine championship-winning threat while Illawarra are struggling at the bottom of the table having lost twice to a Sydney Kings team close to being in turmoil.
The Breakers are looking the real deal having won four straight and with DJ Newbill and Edgar Sosa looking outstanding as imports.
New Zealand came into the season bringing back much of their core including Tom Abercrombie (who just reached his 250th game), Kirk Penney (all-time leading scorer), Mika Vukona (closing in on 400), Alex Pledger, Rob Loe and emerging point guard Shea Ili.
This season now looks capable of following a familiar trend. When Dean Vickerman took over for his first season from Andrej Lemanis following the championship three-peat, the Breakers missed the playoffs on 2014.
But they bounced back under Vickerman 12 months later to claim a fourth title in five years before he stood aside as coach to return to Australia and allow Paul Henare to take over.
Henare’s no.32 is retired in the rafters by the Breakers and now after a season of settling last year, where they missed the finals, he looks to have New Zealand ready to contend again in 2017-18.
The arrival of new imports Newbill and Sosa have had a big say in that. Newbill is part of a new generation of athletic three men in the NBL capable of delivering highlight reel plays and stepping up when it matters.
He proved that by hitting the game-winner against the Kings back in Round 2 and is averaging 14.2 points and 4.6 assists over the first five games, which saw the Breakers open up with a loss at home to Cairns. They have since won impressively over Sydney (twice), Melbourne and Brisbane.
Sosa is an excitement machine at point guard. He’s putting up 14.6 points and 4.2 assists a game but appears only to be warming up to the NBL.
Abercrombie, Vukona and Pledger continue to play with a chemistry you only get from playing hundreds of games together.
Ili has gone to another level as a point guard, likely giving the Breakers the best combination at the one spot in the league. Add in the cameos Finn Delany, Loe, Jordan Ngatai and James Hunter are capable of, and it’s a championship-calibre squad.
That’s not factoring in the great Penney either. He has missed the past two road trips following the untimely passing of his father. But with his 25 points against the Kings, he showed he’s got plenty left in the tank.
The fact the Breakers have now won four straight with Penney missing two of those and with them still having the third import spot up their sleeve is supremely impressive.
Henare couldn’t be happier with his team’s start to the season even if some had written the Breakers off entering 2017-18.
“For us we’ve just sort of been focusing on our own little world. I’ll be honest in saying I’m oblivious to any of that talk about people expecting us to struggle this season but it’s no motivation for us,” Henare said.
“We just feel like we have a good team with a good group of guys, and we have started to come together as a unit. The guys are really comfortable within their roles and what is expected of them, and that’s a good place to be in.”
The Hawks, meanwhile, have a hole to crawl out of following a 31-point road loss to Perth on Thursday night and then an overtime defeat at home to the Kings on Sunday leaving them 1-5.
Coming off last season’s stirring finish to the regular season to make the playoffs and then upset the regular season champion 36ers to reach the grand final before losing to the Wildcats, the Hawks just needed some fine-tuning heading into 2017-18.
While Rotnei Clarke was a terrific import last season, winning the league’s Best Sixth Man award, they largely succeeded with one import with Marvelle Harris and Michael Holyfield only bit-part players.
So in theory, it was a significantly upgraded Illawarra team with Demitrius Conger replacing Harris in the three man spot and Delvon Johnson signed in place of Holyfield as an import big man.
With AJ Ogilvy, Nick Kay, Cody Ellis, Oscar Forman, Tim Coenraad, Kevin White, Mitch Norton and Rhys Martin all returning, there was every reason to expect big things from the Hawks this season.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing heading into the new campaign. Club hierarchy decided that it was time to move on from Martin and Forman as co-captains, instead installing White as captain with Norton his vice-captain.
Starting the season with seven of their first nine games on the road was always going to be challenge, and it’s proven to be so. The Hawks have so far lost twice in Perth and in Cairns and Sydney this season with two games away to come in Round 5 against the Brisbane Bullets and Kings, and another in Round 6 against Adelaide before returning home.
For whatever reason things just aren’t clicking on the court like they were in the second half of last season, despite retaining the same players bar the swapping of two imports.
Ellis hasn’t got on the court at all the past three games, despite coming into the season in great shape and off a strong WA State Basketball League season for the Stirling Senators, while others aren’t quite reaching the levels they did earlier this year.
Something just isn’t feeling rosy about this Hawks team right now.
Coach Rob Beveridge isn’t someone afraid of a challenge or having his back against the wall. He also won’t shy away from taking responsibility himself but he has full faith in the Hawks bouncing back this season.
“I know how hard the start of the season is with the amount of road games, but we have to win at home. We’ve got to protect home court and [on Sunday] I felt we controlled most of the game. We controlled most of our turnovers as well,” Beveridge said.
“We are trying to just become consistent and that’s where we are struggling right now. We are just not clicking at this stage, it’s as simple as that. People will write us off but I have the utmost belief in these guys.
“We have each other’s back and things aren’t working well for us, but we are going to stay together as a group. We will continue to fight and we just need some consistency and a little bit of luck sometimes can help. But we have to make our own luck.”
NBL Round 4 Results
Brisbane Bullets 96 lost to New Zealand Breakers 101
Perth Wildcats 105 defeated Illawarra Hawks 74
Cairns Taipans 80 lost to Adelaide 36ers 84
Brisbane Bullets 87 defeated Melbourne United 85
Illawarra Hawks 94 lost to Sydney Kings 99