We are two days and four games into the NBL season, and already Bryce Cotton has made his statement, the Sydney Kings have unveiled another MVP candidate and Melbourne United showed you can’t write them off.
The 2022/23 NBL season got underway on Saturday night and despite missing four of their most important players, the South East Melbourne Phoenix made a winning start led by captains Kyle Adnam and Mitch Creek to beat the Tasmania JackJumpers 84-79.
Second up on Saturday night was the resumption of the Freeway Series rivalry. Once again it was the defending champion Sydney Kings getting the better of the Illawarra Hawks, with new import point guard Derrick Walton Jr starring in the 106-97 victory.
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The Round 1 action continued on Sunday first up with an overtime thriller where despite their significant losses, Melbourne United got the first up win 101-97 against the New Zealand Breakers.
The second Sunday clash saw the Perth Wildcats make a winning start to their bid to return to the NBL finals. Once again led tremendously by superstar Bryce Cotton, the ‘Cats proved too strong for Aron Baynes and the Brisbane Bullets winning 87-73.
Round 1 will wrap up on Monday night with the Tasmania JackJumpers at home for the first time this season to host the Cairns Taipans.
PHOENIX START WELL AWAITING BIG ZHOU
The South East Melbourne Phoenix were missing potentially four of their starting five on Saturday night, but still opened the season with a win fresh off the uplifting news of the return of Chinese superstar Zhou Qi.
The Phoenix played host to the JackJumpers in the NBL season opener on Saturday night and did so missing their two new imports Trey Kell and Gary Browne to injury along with former NBA sharpshooter Ryan Broekhoff and Zhou Qi.
Despite that, Kyle Adnam had the best night of his 190-game NBL career with 30 points with six three-pointers. Mitch Creek shook off an interrupted pre-season for 23 points while ‘Big Sauce’ Alan Williams showed encouraging signs with 12 points and seven rebounds.
Adnam rises for Phoenix in season opener | 00:46
The Phoenix also got good minutes from Reuben Te Rangi, Junior Madut, Owen Foxwell and Malcolm Bernard, but more encouraging is the way they played with four genuine stars to return to the line-up.
The Phoenix will be hoping to welcoming back Kell, Browne and Broekhoff in the coming weeks, but the biggest news on the eve of the season was the announcement that Zhou Qi was returning.
It looked a decidedly small looking Phoenix squad coming into NBL23, but Zhou dramatically changes that standing 216cm tall.
Having resisted offers to play in China this season, he was more than happy to return to South East Melbourne where he averaged 11.6 points and 6.6 rebounds a game a season ago.
The former Houston Rockets NBA centre will arrive within the next week and is back with a degree of unfinished business.
“New season, same and old Melbourne, same and old goal of winning,” Zhou said upon the announcement of his return to the NBL.
“I will continue to play on the South East Melbourne Phoenix and compete for a good result. I was moved by the team’s sincerity and persistence during the offseason.
“I still remember the friendship we built together last season. I’m looking forward to seeing fans in Australia again.”
KINGS REPLACE MVP WITH ANOTHER MVP FANCY
The biggest question of the Sydney Kings’ championship defence was always going to be how they could make up for the loss of MVP Jaylen Adams – after one game it appears Derrick Walton Jr is up to that task.
The Kings roared to the NBL championship last season with a dominant Grand Final performance to sweep the Tasmania JackJumpers. They did that without the league’s MVP who got hurt in Game 1 of the series, but Adams was a massive reason why they were there in the first place.
Adams elected not to return to Sydney this season like fellow championship winning imports Jarell Martin and Ian Clark along with Makur Maker, Tom Vodanovich and Wani Swaka Lo Buluk.
That left some big shoes to fill, but none bigger than those of Adams who delivered 20.8 points, 5.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds on the way to knocking off Bryce Cotton to win the MVP of the league.
So being the new import point guard for the Kings in their championship defence was a big job but Sydney left no stone unturned in finding Walton Jr. Already they appear to have struck gold.
The 27-year-old old spent time last NBA season at the Detroit Pistons having come out of the University of Michigan, and wasted no time putting his imprint on the NBL on Saturday night.
With his combination of explosiveness and strength to take the ball inside and finish, his ability to shoot and then coolness to run the team’s offence, there was nothing not to like about his performance in Saturday’s win against the Illawarra Hawks in Wollongong.
Walton Jr finished with 32 points, eight assists and four rebounds while knocking down 10/18 from the field, 5/8 from three-point territory and 7/9 from the foul line.
Kings coach Chase Buford actually felt he left some points out there though.
“It’s funny, I thought Derrick hesitated or stopped on a number of drives when he had his man beat and I felt like he could have gone for 40 had he just kept attacking the rim,” Buford said.
“I told him the help defence would always be there in this league so it’s going to be an adjustment for him, but it was good for him to see the ball go down from three.
“We hope he’ll go 5/8 every night and it probably won’t be the case, but for him to get that first game under his belt and make some shots, it has to feel good for him.”
UNITED IMPRESS BUT DO THEY NEED A ‘BIG’ SIGNING?
Melbourne United lost two of their biggest local stars to the NBA this off-season, another who went overseas and then their Next Star who they built a team around, but still they opened up with a win on Sunday.
It wasn’t in Melbourne’s plans for NBL23 to lose Matthew Dellavedova (Sacramento Kings) and Jack White (Denver Nuggets) to the NBA on top of the departure of Jo Lual-Acuil, but what they really didn’t count on was losing Ariel Hukporti.
The German powerhouse elected to return to United for a second season as a Next Star ahead of nominating for the 2023 NBA Draft. All the signs were he was going to have a standout season as one of the best big men in the NBL too, but then at the Blitz tragedy struck and he ruptured his Achilles tendon.
At this stage, United have made no decision on replacing him but despite his absence, they opened the season beating the New Zealand Breakers in overtime on Sunday on the back of 33 points from Xavier Rathan-Mayes and 24 from captain Chris Goulding.
Former Illawarra Hawks and Sydney Kings forward Cody Ellis would like to think that Isaac Humphries could stand up for the season for United and mean their big men stocks are still in decent order with the loss of Hukporti.
However, he doesn’t think that’s a risk they can afford to take and rather than make a significant call and cut one of their other three imports to sign an international centre, Ellis feels the obvious choice would be to bring in Nate Jawai.
Jawai surprisingly wasn’t required at the Cairns Taipans this season but still harbours ambitions to play in the NBL after spending the off-season playing with the Darwin Salties in the NBL1 North. Ellis feels he could be the ideal replacement at Melbourne for Hukporti.
“Humphries is going to have to stay healthy for them, he has no choice because he’s really there only proper five man,” Ellis said on Hoops Heaven’s Basketball Hustle podcast.
“I think that Nate Jawai might be an option for them purely to give them a big body and someone to go against the other bigs in the league because losing Hukporti is massive for them.
“If they are looking to bring in a big and are looking at locals, I don’t really see another option than Nate. I think he is their best option and could actually make an impact for them because he’s got a bit left to offer.”
BAYNES’ INFECTIOUS JOY JUST TO BE PLAYING
The Brisbane Bullets weren’t able to quite click as a team as well in their season opener as they looked through the pre-season, but none of that mattered for superstar big man Aron Baynes who couldn’t hide his joy at being back playing basketball.
Baynes has always had an infectious personality and love of competing on a basketball court, but his appreciation to resume his professional career would have to warm even the coldest of hearts.
On the back of having played 576 games in the NBA including having a season at the Phoenix Suns where he averaged 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds a game, Baynes was feeling on top of the world for the start of the Tokyo Olympics.
However, he suffered a neck injury early in the tournament and the subsequent complications meant that not only was playing basketball again looking bleak for Baynes, but just living a normal life was in jeopardy.
That’s why just 14 months later he is so appreciative to be back playing basketball again and to be playing in the NBL for the first time with the Brisbane Bullets.
Baynes makes Brisbane debut in style | 00:49
The season didn’t start how Baynes or the Bullets would have hoped with a loss in Perth on Sunday where they had 24 turnovers.
However, to have that as a problem to worry about after everything Baynes has been through even brings a smile to his face.
The 35-year-old did have his moments in his first appearance in the NBL and at RAC Arena on Sunday for the Bullets with 11 points and seven rebounds including a run of seven quick points to open the second half.
But above everything else, he’s just so happy and thankful to be back playing.
“It was enjoyable and I was just trying to make the most of it, and impact it in a positive way. It’s fun,” Baynes said.
“Historically Perth has been the best team in the NBL for however many years so it was fun coming in here for the first time for me and I’m enjoying all of this. If you look at our effort as a team, it’s all there and we just have to direct it in the right way.
“You won’t wipe the smile off my face, it’s just fun to go out there and compete, and enjoy going out there and doing it. I’m enjoying the challenge of coming in and doing this daily, and working towards getting better and pushing each of those guys in the locker room to be better.
“We now have a fun week coming up going into the defending champs’ house and then going into the other Grand Finalists’ house in the same weekend. I know it’s going to make us better and will get us to where we want to be.”
JACKJUMPERS ALREADY NEED A BOUNCE BACK WIN
Bizarrely the expectations are low on the Tasmania JackJumpers for this NBL season despite how they defied all odds in NBL22, but they can’t afford to start the season 0-2 after Saturday’s first up loss to the South East Melbourne Phoenix.
Little was expected of the JackJumpers in their inaugural NBL season but they continued to defy the sceptics. They made a run all the way to the Grand Final on the back of being well coached and a well oiled machine who made themselves tough to play against, and were tremendously successful.
In a lot of ways they look to have a better and more talented squad for this season too with the additions of imports Rashard Kelly and Milton Doyle. Again experts have written them off and so has the TAB rating them a $21 championship chance and $5 top four prospect.
They were largely proven correct on Saturday night with a loss to the shorthanded South East Melbourne Phoenix, but the signs in the second half from Doyle and Kelly were encouraging and they did almost pull off a comeback win.
The JackJumpers now will return to a sold out MyState Bank Arena for their first home match since Game 2 of the Grand Final series last season to take on the Cairns Taipans on Monday night.
Tasmania can’t afford to start the season with two losses but it won’t be easy against a rejuvenated Taipans side playing their opening game of the season led by Tahjere McCall and Keanu Pinder, and with coach Adam Forde ready to have them running and shooting.
JackJumpers coach Scott Roth knows his team will have to be on song to prevail.
“I think all the teams in the league are quite talented this season and in any every year I’ve been in the league everyone seems to be getting better with better athletes, better players and better imports,” Roth said.
“I really like the team that Fordey has put together with a lot of young, lively guys over there and they will be a handful if they are healthy. We’ll have our hands full with them.”