The NBL season resumes with a massive double-header on Thursday night with four teams in action with different degrees of pressure on them after what’s been an eventful period even following a week off the court.
The NBL might have been on a break over the past week with the window for FIBA international matches, but that doesn’t mean there has been any shortage of things to keep your eyes on as the action resumes on Thursday night.
A lot of the interest lies at Melbourne United where coach Dean Vickerman has challenged the way that the NBL is covered and commentated on while his team has welcomed a new import and there was Isaac Humphries’ brave announcement regarding his sexuality.
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Now the focus turns back onto the court and the Thursday night double-header couldn’t be any more mouth watering beginning with Melbourne United playing host to the new Craig Randall-less Adelaide 36ers.
Next up is the Perth Wildcats trying to build on their last up win hosting the South East Melbourne Phoenix.
There is just the one game on Friday and will be another terrific battle between two teams looking to consolidate their playoff positions with the Tasmania JackJumpers at home to the New Zealand Breakers.
There’s then two lots of double-headers on the weekend beginning on Saturday with the South East Melbourne Phoenix and Melbourne United locking horns, and then the Brisbane Bullets hosting the Cairns Taipans.
Last up for Round 7 is on Sunday with the New Zealand Breakers at home to the Adelaide 36ers and then the Sydney Kings hosting the Illawarra Hawks in a top v bottom battle.
EVENTFUL UNITED TURN FOCUS BACK ON TO COURT
There’s been an enormous amount happening surrounding Melbourne United since they played their last game, but they now look to turn their attention back to on-court matters to attempt to build some momentum.
What a couple of weeks it’s been for Melbourne. It started back in Round 6 leading into the break where they were humbled in Cairns losing by 25 points before hitting back two days later to beat the South East Melbourne Phoenix by the exact same margin.
Then during the week off from NBL action, plenty has been going on at United including coach Dean Vickerman causing a bit of a stir by calling for a greater balance in the way the NBL is covered and in the commentary team – especially highlighting former imports Corey Williams and Damon Lowery.
Then in terms of United’s roster, the departure of Jordan Caroline was officially confirmed even though he hadn’t played the past four matches and was never returning.
Melbourne has since announced his replacement, former Kentucky centre Marcus Lee, who will provide someone with great size and length who can be a defensive and rebounding force.
However, he isn’t expected to be available in time to play either of United’s Round 7 matches.
Then there was the brave decision by centre Isaac Humphries to make public the fact that he’s gay and to openly talk about the struggles he has been through trying to come to terms with it.
With him being a former NBA player, it has attracted global headlines and is something both Humphries and United deserve enormous credit for in the way it’s been handled.
But now it all turns back to focusing on the court for United with two huge Round 7 games both at John Cain Arena, against the Adelaide 36ers on Thursday and South East Melbourne Phoenix on Saturday.
Coach Vickerman is actually happy enough to be 5-5 after the start to the season they’ve had and losing Ariel Hukporti and only having Shea Ili for three games, but knows they need to start building momentum.
“I started to praise our team a little bit thinking we were starting to get it and that certainly went the wrong way in Cairns,” Vickerman told SEN.
“This is a group who every time I’ve really stepped on them and been tough of them they have responded, so I’ll keep my praise to a minimum.
“Once we lost Shea and Ariel we felt like if we could just get to this break and be 5-5, which we didn’t mention to our players, but as a staff and club it was a goal of ours to get to that point and then try to get everybody healthy.”
Williams tees off on Randall II | 01:53
LET’S FIND OUT WHAT THE SIXERS ARE REALLY ABOUT
For all the talent the Adelaide 36ers put together for this season, so much of the focus on and off the court so far has surrounded their now departed point guard Craig Randall.
Coming into his second season as coach in Adelaide, CJ Bruton knew the type of team he wanted to put together after having had precious little say on the roster put together a season ago with his late appointment.
Randall fit the bill for what he wanted as a point guard in theory but with so many talented players around him, having such a ball dominant player didn’t work especially when he proved as temperamental as he was.
However, given his match-winning performance in Phoenix and the commanding personality he was, much of the focus so far on the 36ers has been around Randall and it’s stopped the rest of the team finding their true identity.
That’s why in many ways their season starts now following the departure of Randall. They are starting a little behind the eight ball with a 3-4 record, but the reality is the one game they played minus Randall was a win against Illawarra in their best term performance.
The 36ers are yet to replace Randall, but that could prove a positive with the chance to let Daniel Johnson and Robert Franks be the offensive focal points.
It will allow Mitch McCarron to more control the way the team is run to get everybody involved as well.
Coach Bruton is keen to put the Randall saga behind him and focus on what he still has to work with because even before Randall’s replacement, this is a 36ers team capable of success starting Thursday away to Melbourne United, and on Sunday to the New Zealand Breakers.
“Right now we are focusing on the group we’ve got and getting them to play the way the 36ers are supposed to play, and the way I envisioned them to,” Bruton said.
“Clearly we’ve only seen glimpses of that to this point so for the guys that are here it’s about getting back to the drawing board and working our butts off to make sure that when we turn up in Melbourne to play this game that we are ready to go.”
PRESSURE STILL ON ‘DEFENSIVE LIABILITY’ WILDCAT
To many Perth Wildcats forward Brady Manek sealed his ticket for the rest of the season with a match-winning 25 points against Adelaide, but one former three-time champion of the club believes his defence remains a liability which has to change.
That will be put to the full test this Thursday night as the NBL season resumes when Manek will need to spend time trying to stop South East Melbourne’s powerhouse Mitch Creek at the defensive end.
Manek was under fire after an underwhelming start to his professional career coming out of North Carolina, which came to a head when Perth lost a fifth straight match two Thursdays ago at home to the Tasmania JackJumpers.
However, two days later and Manek knocked down six three-pointers for 25 points to help the Wildcats to a drought breaking win against the Adelaide 36ers to take the pressure off himself, and the team, heading into the FIBA break.
It now appears that the ‘Cats will back in Manek for the rest of the season but according to Knight, himself a former power forward of note in three NBL championships, believes they should keep their options open.
While Knight acknowledges the offensive potential Manek has now shown, he feels his struggles defensively are a cause of concern as are his lack of rebounding where he has had just one board in each his last two games.
That could be highlighted Thursday night when he tries to guard Creek, who he believes is leading the MVP race right now.
“In basketball you have to play both ways and I still think he’s a huge liability on the defensive end,” Knight said on Hoops Heaven’s Basketball Hustle podcast.
“While he’s scoring, he’s still giving up points and where teams are really attacking Perth is in the four and five spots. I’d still definitely be looking at what’s out there.
“You’d have to have a look, they’ve played nine games and he’s had one good game so you obviously would be looking. He might have saved himself in that Adelaide game and JR (coach John Rillie) is adamant they have the right pieces to win a championship.
“The coach has to have that belief but I’m sure they had to have a look at what’s out there. He now has Mitch Creek coming in on Thursday night in MVP form so you know Simon Mitchel is going to attack that match up.”
Wildcats slump to fifth straight loss | 00:54
QUESTIONS OVER CHINESE GIANT MAKING MARK FOR PHOENIX
When the South East Melbourne Phoenix have been at full strength this season they appear a genuine championship threat, but they are yet to unlock the potential of Zhou Qi and it’s starting to look more unlikely to happen.
The Chinese superstar has the potential to be the final piece of the puzzle to push the Phoenix over the edge this season with the size and length he provides.
He can be an unstoppable force and in glimpses this season we’ve seen that he can provide that inside presence to throw it down and also be a rim protector.
However, after arriving for his second season at the Phoenix late having elected to not remain in China, he has only been averaging 11.4 minutes a game.
He had arrived on the back of an illness and was working back from that and then you could sense the frustration in coach Simon Mitchell that when they could greatly benefit from working with him over the FIBA break, he travelled with the Chinese national team.
He had hurt a calf prior to that, though, and missed South East Melbourne’s last game against Melbourne United and hasn’t returned yet this week from being with the Chinese team.
Zhou won’t be playing in either game this week for the Phoenix on the road on Thursday to the Perth Wildcats or in Saturday’s Throwdown with Melbourne United.
The Phoenix aren’t sure when he will be returning to Australia either and there has to be question marks over whether or not he’ll be able to have an impact this season once he is back given he will unlikely play again until the halfway point.
“Zhou Qi toured with the Chinese national team during the FIBA window and has not yet returned to the club,” Mitchell said.
“Once he gets back into Australia he will be examined by medical staff and will continue his rehabilitation from a calf injury.”
Prior to the break, Mitchell talked about Zhou’s impact in terms of being an attraction and fitting into the team, but several weeks on and things are further away from clicking than they were then.
“The Chinese community get behind Zhou wherever he plays and it’s awesome to see. He handles it well and he’s a special player, but he’s got a long way to go right now,” Mitchell said.
“Before he came here he had been pretty crook the month before and had lost a bit of weight, and didn’t touch a basketball for about four weeks. He’s only going to continue to grow into his role reacclimatising to this team.”
NOW OR NEVER FOR HAWKS TO MAKE A STAND
The Illawarra Hawks have elected to stick with their current roster over the break and face the biggest challenge in the NBL right now against the Sydney Kings as they return to action on Sunday.
It has been a rough ride so far for the Hawks in NBL23 having now lost their past seven matches by an average of 16.4 points to be clearly in bottom spot at 1-8 and it’s difficult to see an easy way out for them.
While they are looking for stability in their roster having already had to replace injured import Justin Robinson with Peyton Siva, they perhaps need a different type of import than the three they currently have.
Co-captain Sam Froling and coach Jacob Jackomas have talked about the importance of stability, and even the disruption caused with the loss of Robinson, but at the same time there is a type of player they do appear glaringly missing.
Froling is battling hard up front for the Hawks and doing what he can with Mangok Mathiang and Deng Deng in support, but they just don’t have a player who can be a physical presence as a big man.
Somebody who is a strong rebounder, who can be a defensive force and rim protector and most importantly, get out to set strong screens to help their impressive shooters led by Tyler Harvey and Siva get free, could be invaluable.
It doesn’t appear the Hawks will be making a change, but according to one of the rare players in NBL history to play both for Illawarra and the Sydney Kings, Cody Ellis feels Froling does need more support.
Ellis also feels the Hawks just need to bring the energy and follow the model of the Tasmania JackJumpers if they want to be more competitive starting Sunday against the league-leading defending champion Kings.
“I’m hoping Illawarra comes out just with ridiculous energy. The only way they start winning games is if they outhustle teams and play the way the JackJumpers play,” Ellis said on Hoops Heaven’s Basketball Hustle.
“They are just missing a piece or two and I don’t think really it’s through too much of a lack of effort. But there’s sloppy turnovers, rebounding has been an issue and all these little things are piling up. Being 1-8 doesn’t look good and I know it doesn’t feel good.
“Getting more help for Froling is what they need. He doesn’t really have a whole lot of help there and it’s interesting they’ve gone with all import guards because they need a big who can light some people up on screens, and go get some boards for them.
“It’s frustrating to watch them at the moment so it will be interesting to watch how they come out after this break.”