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The Roar



The NBL players who could have made it in the NBA

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4th December, 2021
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There have been so many NBL players who nearly made the NBA but due to injury, circumstances or downright bad luck, didn’t get a start.

Up until the last couple of decades there was a stigma attached to being a foreigner in the NBA with scouts and franchises in the US often overlooking European, South American and Asian talent for home-grown products.

But superstars like Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Steve Nash and Yao Ming changed that way of thinking and imports now make up nearly a quarter of the NBA player pool.

The first Australian to make the leap was Luc Longley in the late 1980s when he was drafted after coming to the NBA’s attention during a stint with the University of New Mexico.
Boomers icons Andrew Gaze and Shane Heal were given brief stints in the NBA in back-up roles in the 1990s.

Here are 10 of the best Aussie and Kiwi talents over the years that in an alternate universe, could have broken into the big time in the States.

Sam Mackinnon

In the late 1990s it seemed like Australian basketball’s wunderkind was destined for the NBA. The 1994 NBL Rookie of the Year was a dominant player at the Magic, Crocodiles, Razorbacks and Bullets for more than a decade before coming close to an NBA deal in 2007 winning the MVP award in Australia. He trialled with San Antonio, Cleveland, Miami and Toronto where he spent a pre-season camp but failed to get one of the final roster slots. Serious knee injuries limited his career in the next few years and he retired in 2010.

Sam MacKinnon after retiring from basketball

(Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

Simon Dwight


One of the best defensive big men Australia has produced, the shot-blocking power forward was offered a contract by the Charlotte Hornets in 1999 but turned it down, saying he didn’t think it was the right opportunity at the time. He retired relatively young at 28 in 2005 after 314 games at Canberra and West Sydney.

Chris Goulding

Easily the best pure shooter Down Under since Andrew Gaze, the Melbourne United star declared for the 2010 NBA Draft but was not selected. He has had stints with Cleveland and Dallas at the NBA Summer League over the years and was part of a Golden State camp during the most recent off-season. The 33-year-old is fit enough and shoots at a level among the best on the international scene and could still find a spot on an NBA team looking for a gunner off the bench.

Chris Goulding

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Tom Abercrombie

New Zealand’s most athletic basketballer, he’s attended pre-season camps with the Spurs, Bucks and Mavericks, went close to a deal with the Rockets and played for the Suns in the Summer League. Now in the veteran category at 34, the small forward will retire as one of the Breakers’ all-time greats but is unlikely to join New Zealand’s small band of NBA players alongside Steven Adams, Sean Marks, Kirk Penney and Aron Baynes (it depends on which side of the Tasman you’re from if you count him as a Kiwi).

CJ Bruton

Taken at No.52 by the Vancouver Grizzlies in the second round of the 1997 NBA Draft, the son of NBL legend Cal Bruton had more athleticism and definitely a lot more height than his famous father. However, at a tick over six foot, he was still up against it in the NBA ranks. His draft rights were traded to Portland and after being stashed in the NBL with the Bullets and the Hawks for a couple of seasons, he went close to making the Trail Blazers’ roster in 2000 and spent a season in the CBA second-tier league but didn’t get a look-in at the top level.

CJ Bruton


Paul Rogers

A massive frame and a potent scorer, he is another player who could have easily found a home in the NBA if circumstances were different. After a four-year stint at Gonzaga University, he was taken with the 53rd pick of the NBA Draft in 1997 (one selection behind countryman CJ Bruton) by the Lakers, who traded him to Toronto but was never put on their roster. The 2000 NBL MVP, he retired a decade later with two championship rings with Perth.

Brad Newley

A scorer from pretty much anywhere on the court, Australian hoops fans didn’t get to see the best of Newley – he had a few years at Townsville early in his career, spent close to a decade in Europe before returning to his homeland the last few years to be a reliable scorer with Sydney and Melbourne. The Boomers stalwart was selected in the 2007 draft in the second round at 54 by Houston, who sent him to Europe to develop his game but apart from a couple of Summer League campaigns with the Rockets, his NBA career went no further.

Brad Newley

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Andrew Vlahov

The Perth Wildcats legend declared for the 1991 NBA Draft after a stint in the College ranks with Stanford University, winning the national championship in his senior year. He rejected an invitation to attend an LA Lakers veterans camp after he was not selected in the Draft to remain with Perth in charge of their first title defence in the days when the NBL was a winter competition which clashed with the build-up to the start of the NBA season.


Ian Davies

When it comes to the early days of the NBL, he was the sweetest shooter and most potent scorer before Andrew Gaze came along. Another Aussie who would have benefited greatly from playing in today’s era, he is one of a few Boomers who have top-scored in the men’s tournament at an Olympics, racking up 209 at 29.3 per game at Moscow in 1980, joining three others who have achieved the feat – Patty Mills, Andrew Gaze and …

Eddie Palubinskas

Basketball in Australia would not be what it is now if not for the Canberra-born son of Lithuanian immigrants who was the first player to break into the US College ranks. He was also the first Aussie to be selected in the NBA Draft when he was taken by the Atlanta Hawks in 1974. His rights were traded to the New Orleans Jazz and he was also drafted in the ABA by Utah Stars but despite setting a record for scoring with 269 points in the 1976 Munich Olympics, he didn’t ever get a start in the NBA. However, he has made his mark as a revered shooting coach, setting up his own academy and working with stars such as Shaquille O’Neal, Lauren Jackson and Dwight Howard.

Eddie Palubinskas

Eddie Palubinskas