The influx of imports in the NBL has strengthened league play, but does it impact the long-term growth of the sport and the development of local talent?
Burgundy and gold! Moustaches, short shorts, and tight singlets. These are my foundational memories when I think origins of my hoops worship. On my auntie’s water bed, I watched the North Melbourne Giants and Canberra Cannons play what was a new game to me. Having arrived from Cape Town South Africa not long before, any sport that wasn’t cricket, soccer or rugby union was something new to see. This would lead me to my basketball Jesus, Michael Jordan. And a love for the game of basketball and the NBL that has stayed with me to this day.
I say all that to point out that my basketball infatuation started with the NBL and I will always have a soft spot in my heart for our domestic league. With all that being said, we are at a critical point in the current rebirth of the NBL. There can be no doubt that the elevated marketing and free-to-air media presence of the National Basketball League bare delightful fruit. But there are underlying problems that threaten our sport in the bigger picture.
Let’s begin with the talent. In the current version of the NBL, teams are permitted a maximum of three restricted (imported) players or four marquee players. On a single team, you can have up to four marquee or restricted players combined. When you take into account the “soft salary cap” of $1.1 million, you can see why there is a “haves and have-nots” situation in the league. As you can imagine, there is a lot of detail and rulings on player payment and roster construction.
The interests lay more in the composition of the league rosters and ramifications for the overpopulation of non-Australian players. I guess I’m saying there are too many imports in the league right now.
There, I said it! I’ve verbally articulated this in many private debates, but we should be targeting and investing in two imports/restricted players who have maximum effect and not spreading the wealth and collecting mid-range mercenaries who block development pathways. Our league should accommodate the best talent we can afford and still have room for home-grown talent in state-based leagues and those over in the American collegiate system.
Allow me to present the evidence:
Exhibit A: The Cairns Taipans.
They Have Jerry Evans Jr, Dayshon “Scoochie” Smith and Nnanna Egwu on the roster but would anyone argue that their best, or at least most important player is Cameron Gliddon? Probably not. Not one of these imports averages over 10 points per game. Scoochie is no longer a starter and is poor when he’s on the court. Evans’ shot often goes missing and he becomes passive. Lastly, Egwu is basically an offensively inept rebounder. Yet Stephen Weigh can’t get off the bench? Why not pool those resources and have two guys who move the needle? Surely that extra bench spot should be used to blood local talent.
Exhibit B: The monstrously underwhelming production of Delvon Johnson of the Illawarra Hawks.
Currently, he averages 5 points and 4.7 rebounds in a shade under 20 minutes per game. Not worth the price of the plane ticket if you ask me. His minutes could be split between Oscar Forman, Tim Coenraad and Cody Ellis, creating more roster room for local prospects. It should be noted that there are rumours of A.J Ogilvy being moved on for a more impactful import big at the end of the season. Once again, not helping the case.
Exhibit C: Derek Cooke Jr of the Perth Wildcats.
Looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane. In 16 minutes per game, he gives 6 points and 5.5 rebounds and an opportunity to grab a drink and toilet break when he is on the floor. He looks athletic and mobile but has no range and fewer moves when he has possession. The loss of Matthew Knight is telling but creates an opportunity for someone to fill that role of savvy team defender, rebounder, and low block finisher. But it is not Cooke. He should change his name to “Stank Hank” to reflect his contribution this year.
Now when we usually discuss this topic, the first rebuttal is often “these guys are better than the locals!” and for the most part that is true, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Should we have the Scoochie Smith’s of the world riding the pine or have Australian guys in that slot who will possibly get destroyed by two imports worth paying? Likely the latter, think about it. We want the imports to be the standard bearers. They dictate the improvement required from the local clubs and players who want to be in the league. It also means that we actively generate opportunity for better individual performances, and at the same time, development opportunities will create interest in manifesting increased viewership.
By having fewer but more talented imports, we will have a better television product, which in turn draws more revenue for the game. These resources can then be ploughed back into the league to provide further opportunities for the clubs to provide career and development opportunities for Australians. This can also increase their ability to attract a better level of imports.
Populating benches with non-Australians is fraught with long-term danger. How many of these guys end up staying and becoming Australian, then allowing teams to collect more imports that again lockout more of our emerging talents. The connection to the state leagues (SEABL, Big V, etc) will be further severed as these guys will have less opportunity to reach the next level and as a result, it removes the obvious pathway that encourages kids out there who see Kyle Adnam come through the Kilsyth program and end up at Melbourne United.
You need Kyle Adnam and Dexter Kernich-Drew in the league as much as you need Bryce Cotton or Demetrius Conger. They tell your sons and daughters that they can achieve the goal of a professional basketball career. We cannot make the dream harder to get, it is incredibly hard as it is.
That brings us to another question, how old is too old? Did you know that you can be classed as development player up to age of 25? Technically you have to be under 25 years of age at April 30th of the year of conclusion of the relevant NBL season and of Australian or New Zealand birth or naturalisation. Seems a bit old for a work experience kid.
How are men at this age encouraged to chase their “hoop dreams” if they can’t earn reasonable enough money to have normal lives and dedicate themselves to their trade? Development players earn around $46k per season as full-time athletes, but would have to supplement these incomes if they wanted to have any semblance of a personal life. As a result, there is no real offseason as they are constantly on the grind looking to make a living in the small window athletes exist within.
In comparison with the AFL, the base wage for AFL rookies had already surpassed the $55k mark (with additional payments if selected) in 2016. One of the biggest issues we have is the talent drain to other sports where lucrative careers are on offer. Right now you can scratch out a living in the various state leagues but have do additional coaching and possible overseas stints to maintain a professional basketball life.
Even then, we are not talking life transformational dollars.
Consider a lifelong baller and one time Boomer, Hugh Greenwood. He quit professional basketball to play for the Adelaide Crows in the AFL. Only months before did he finish a great career in college and was at the Utah Jazz in the NBA Summer League. He came back and signed with Perth but then walked out to take on the footy challenge. Now we can’t speak to what is in his heart, but it is obvious that there is real money in our local football code when compared with grinding in the NBL in the hopes of getting to Europe or the U.S. for a real payday.
Development players should be no more than the age of collegiate graduates. They need to earn the spots and then graduate to full roster players or be cycled out. Sure it’s tough, but these have to be desirable opportunities, not the stringing along of grown men hanging onto their dreams. The modern-day poets, the “Wu Tang Clan” said it best, “cash rules everything around me”, so we need a structure that encourages our elite athletes to choose the basketball experience as a career.
Lastly to FIBA. We do not care that you want 10 minute quarters and odd rule interpretations that cause confusion and little else. What is an unsportsmanlike foul at this point? Unless we are competing in a FIBA sanctioned tournament of international qualifying game or series with the outcomes related to the Olympics or World Championships, who cares what they say.
Shape the league for Australian fans. They have to watch and buy into the product to make it a sustainable success. Bring back the 12 minute quarters. Create more opportunities for blowouts so the local kids can get on. Allow players to get fouled out or extend their hot nights. In this case more is decisively better.
Minutes are precious but the loss of eight per contest has condensed the game too much and eliminated some of the situational play that makes basketball a sight to behold. Make the rules reflect desired league style and simplify the interpretations so the referees have a chance to be consistent and not be continually blamed for the outcome of games. There are too many strange fouls and worse technical fouls called as the referees become an increasingly separate part of the game.
They are a part of the game’s fabric, like the rims and the hardwood, but have become the target of a lot of criticism because they are instructed to manage the game as it is now. We cannot play without them so let’s give them a break. They love basketball too.
Hopefully, you read this because you love the game. We do! We enjoy the NBL right now and can see a path back to the glory days of the 90s when every team had two stars and a host of home-grown talent. These products are in Europe and the NBA, playing for the Boomers, and with a massive crop of prospects in the college system right now, as well as emerging NBA stars, we are set up to make a quantum leap as a sport. But we have to create a culture and environment within the NBL to support this vision.
The NBL has to be the home to our version of the hoop dream.