LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey are unique individuals in many ways but the NBL is hoping their success in using the Australian league as a stepping stone to the NBA can become more and more common.
Ball created a tidal wave of publicity for the NBL just two years ago when he signed up for a season at the Illawarra Hawks.
The multi-talented point guard was getting a taste of life in the pros with the Next Stars program which has been in operation for three years due to the partnership with the NBA which has been growing over the past decade since Larry Kestelman took over the NBL in 2015.
After coming to the Hawks already surrounded by plenty of hype, Ball displayed enough flashes of brilliance over 12 games to build momentum heading into the NBA draft, even though the date got pushed back several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ball averaged eye-catching counting stats of 17 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists during his time in Wollongong but his efficiency was dreadful, shooting 38per cent from the field, including a quarter of his three-pointers.
Despite his shooting woes he impressed enough with his skills to be taken at No.3 in the draft by Charlotte and has since developed into a weapon, lifting his percentages to 43.4per cent from the field and 36.2 from deep.
After winning Rookie of the Year honours last season, he’s continued his rapid improvement for the Hornets over the first month of his sophomore season to lead plenty of pundits to suggest he should have gone first in the draft ahead of Anthony Edwards by Minnesota.
Illawarra are still selling Ball No.1 jerseys from two years ago with Slam as the major sponsor after the iconic hoops magazine hopped on board the hype train for the season in a savvy marketing sting.
The other honours student from the Next Stars graduates is of course Australian born and bred, Josh Giddey.
Despite being a gangly teenager competing against much bulkier men, he proved last season with Adelaide he had the skill and on-court smarts to go a long way with 10.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.5 assists.
Many draftniks were aghast when the Thunder took Giddey with the No.6 pick but in the early stages of his rookie season, he has justified OKC’s faith with returns of 9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists.
The Next Stars program came about after the success of the likes of James Ennis and Terrance Ferguson were drafted by NBA franchises and sent to the NBL to hone their craft.
Ennis starred for Perth in their 2013-14 championship run and has since gone on to build a respectable career Stateside, clocking more than 400 games as he’s bounced around seven franchises as a reliable role player.
Ferguson, who was stashed in Adelaide in 2016-17 after he was taken in the first round of the draft at No.21 by Oklahoma City, managed to carve out 216 games across four seasons with the Thunder and Philadelphia.
Marcus Thornton was drafted by the Celtics and loaned out to the Kings the previous season but that didn’t go so well – his on-court production was mediocre in a stint primarily remembered for the bizarre incident of a Hawks fan tipping beer onto him after he slid into a courtside corporate box.
As far as Next Stars goes, RJ Hampton also gave the NBL incredible exposure and added to the pathway’s legitimacy when he turned out for the New Zealand Breakers in the same season as LaMelo.
After being chosen with the 24th pick in the 2020 draft, he’s been searching for an opportunity to cement his place in the NBA, firstly at Denver last season and now at Orlando.
Brian Bowen and Didi Louzada also used Next Stars to try to springboard into the NBA after suiting up at the Sydney Kings. Bowen snared a roster spot which yielded six games at Indiana but after he was waived, in rather unusual circumstances, he tried to sue Adidas for detailing his career after he alleged they had promised to pay his father $100,000 to sign with Louisville when he was being scouted by colleges.
The NCAA ruled he was ineligible to play college ball, which triggered his Sydney sojourn.
A federal judge dismissed Bowen’s claim in May and he is now trying to get back into the NBA via Minnesota’s G-League team, the Iowa Wolves.
Louzada signed with New Orleans after his Kings stint but has not got on the court for the struggling Pelicans this season and is now suspended 25 games after testing positive for Drostanolone and Testosterone.
Another Next Star plying his trade Down Under is Golden State draftee Justinian Jessup, who showed he is a pure shooter with Illawarra last season and the Warriors are stashing him in the Gong again for the 2021-22 campaign.
Kiwi-born guard Mojave King entered the Next Stars program for Cairns last season and also didn’t get a call-up to the NBA and will try to make the leap via Adelaide this season.
The G-League has supersized their salaries in a bid to attract young NBA wannabes looking to cash in rather than live the pauper life of a college player and this could hurt the NBL’s chances of convincing the next LaMelo or Giddey to take their talents south to the beaches of Australia.
Houston rookie Jalen Green, who was the No.2 selection in this year’s draft, and Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga, another lottery pick, bypassed College for the G-League’s Ignite program.
Australian guard Dyson Daniels, a graduate of the NBA Global Academy at the AIS in Canberra, has also chosen the Ignite option in which he will play in a team mainly made up of fellow Draft hopefuls against G-League teams.
In the upcoming NBL season there are high hopes for French 18-year-old Ousmane Dieng, who will strut his stuff for the Breakers this NBL season, to become the latest Next Star to be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Dieng has only been under his wing for a short time but Breakers coach Dan Shamir described the 6’10 forward as freakishly talented with the potential to become a franchise player in the NBA.
The Breakers have signed another French rising star, 20-year-old shooting guard Hugo Besson, but he’s technically filling an import slot instead of being part of the Next Stars program.
Kai Sotto, a 19-year-old 7-footer from The Philippines, is doing likewise with Adelaide with an eye on getting into next year’s NBA Draft.
There are four other Next Stars suiting up this season – German centre Ariel Hukporti at Melbourne, French prospect Tom Digbeu at Brisbane, South Sudanese-Australian tall timbre Makur Maker at the Kings and Russian shooting guard Nikita Mikhailovskii at the Tasmania Jack Jumpers.
And as successful as it has been, Next Stars is not the only pathway from the NBL to the Big Show on the other side of the Pacific.
Jae’Sean Tate, Torrey Craig and Jock Landale have made the leap in recent years after being given an opportunity on the back of a helluva lot of hard work.
Melbourne United marksman Chris Goulding has been close to getting a call-up in various Summer League stints over the years and was part of a Golden State pre-season camp last month.
At 33, time is running out for the Boomers veteran to get a late-career taste of life in the NBA but if anyone deserves a shot, it’s Goulding after many years of carrying the Melbourne franchise to victories on the back of his superb shooting.
If all else fails he still looks young enough to apply for the Next Stars program.