Burning Questions – Free Agency rolls on

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Burning Questions is back for 2024 and what better place to start than with the Sal’s NBL free agency. Sky Sport commentators Casey Frank and Justin Nelson put down the mics and share their thoughts around free agency so far. 

Which team has surprised you the most during free agency? 

Justin: Probably the Tuatara, but from a very different perspective, with kudos to team management on being able to get the job done. It’s no secret the League’s salary cap is designed to deliver competitive balance across the competition, which it most certainly has since its inception in 2021. Only one team (Jets) is yet to make the playoffs since the salary cap was introduced, so it is definitely doing its intended job. But with the cap comes an understanding that you can’t stockpile talent any longer, at some stage you will be beaten to the punch on a player because another team has more wiggle room in its cap. So, again, kudos to the Tuatara for being able to negotiate some seemingly lower priced contracts with a handful of stars, with the sell to those players being they can play together and be a genuine contender. The tactic has worked with Rob Loe, Tom Vodanovich, Reuben Te Rangi, Cam Gliddon and Corey Webster forming a formidable unit that, if they remain fit and healthy, will certainly hand out some beatings. 

Casey: I’ll go with the Airs and the way that they have straddled the line between a rebuild and keeping a local core intact while securing some big names. They have had to watch some talented and popular players head to other destinations (notably Anzac Risetto, Scott Telfer and Benji Freeman) but were able to bring back key contributors in Quintin Bailey and Tobias Cameron while keeping rising star Carlin Davison in the fold. I think they’ve hit the mark with import selection and expect Froling and McCarron to produce to a high degree, but the pick of the bunch could be Flynn Cameron. His ability as a defender will stifle teams on the wing and his developing package offensively will make him a threat from anywhere on the court with tremendous upside. This looks like a team that will return to the Final 6 and has the foundation to challenge for a title. 

Who’s the one player you think slipped through a team’s fingers? 

Justin: A couple of names come to mind, but if I was to land on one, I’d go with Alex McNaught. The talented young Kiwi guard was seemingly very close to signing with the Tuatara, but he returns to the Giants for a fifth season if my maths is right. Originally from Auckland you can understand the pull to move home, but ‘Naughty’ remains in Giants colours and no doubt that is music to the ears of coach Mike Fitchett and all Giants fans. Well done to the Tuatara for trying, after all that’s the new world of the Sal’s NBL, but the Giants got their guy. That said, the Tuatara got one back the other way as I’m reliably informed Corey Webster had at least one other suitor, maybe more.   

Casey: This is a tough one, because most of the time when a team wants to keep a player they are holding tight, but it is circumstances outside of their control that ultimately lead to a players decisions on where to ply their trade. But looking at this season’s crop of signings that have moved on I’ll say Callum McRae moving on from Nelson after one year to the Sharks down south. He showed some excellent deftness of touch and had great foot work in the post. If he can take that footwork onto the perimeter defensively he could end up being the unsung signing of the off season and a foundation piece in the Sharks low post for years to come. 

Which team delivered the wow factor with a single signing? 

Justin: Simply must be the Airs with Sam Froling, that was a big wow moment for sure. A few others come to mind – such as Dan Fotu (Giants), Flynn Cameron (Airs), Corey Webster (Tuatara), Sam Timmins (Bulls) and Ben Ayre (Saints). I’m really looking forward to finally seeing LaGerald Vick (Sharks) as well, and I raise a glass to the Jets for bringing back Mustapha Heron. But of course, we are about to be dealt a great hand of imports over the coming few weeks, so I’m fully expecting a few more wow moments.  

Casey: If I had to choose just one I’d go Sam Froling, but since Justin covered him I’ll go with two that actually elicited a ‘wow’ from me when I heard the news, Dan Fotu to the Giants and Hyrum Harris to Wellington. Fotu to Nelson was a surprise, as the Giants convincing an emerging Tall Black talent to leave his hometown and travel down to the South Island is an absolute coup. His inside-out skill set is one that Nelson needs, and Fotu is sure to continue his development under Mike Fitchett.  Hyrum Harris is one of my favourite players in the comp and you need to look no further than the Perth Wildcats to see the effect he has on winning when given the chance. He’s the type of player that is mouldable to any lineup so the Saints can pick from a wide variety of talent to place around him and he can still be additive. Both players are sure to lift their clubs level of play and are among the biggest kiwi names to move in FA over recent years. 

Which signing or non-signing has surprised you the most? 

Justin: It would be easy to look at the positives and talk about Sam Froling (Airs), Sam Mennenga (Whai) or Sam Timmins (Bulls) amongst others, but I think we should address the elephant in the room - where exactly will Taane Samuel and Derone Raukawa land? Samuel has been a fixture at the Saints the last couple of seasons, a tenure that has come with its fair share of incidents. However, the guy brings x-factor in spades, and I think a fresh start might suit Samuel – perhaps a gig with the Hawks, Whai or Nuggets might suit best as it just feels like Taane needs a new environment. Moving to Raukawa, who of course brings plenty of x-factor himself with talents that can’t be ignored, but for some reason the news on his next contract has been quiet. The Hawks have cleared house and it’s clear he won’t be returning to the Bay, but surely, he is way too talented to miss out on a spot elsewhere. Question is, where? The Bulls could be a good landing spot, maybe a leadership role with the Jets if they have salary cap space, or a bit left field could be a role with the Saints backing up import Ben Ayre?    

Casey: I’ll break this in to one from each category (signing/non-signing), with the signing that I was most surprised by being Ben Henshall inking with the Nuggets. We have seen the pipeline from Perth deliver young Aussie talent to the Nuggets previously and successfully, with Michael Harris in 2023 a shining example of the success it can bring. Ben Henshall has similar talent and has already had big games at the ANBL level, but man is he young to be an import! He won’t turn 20 until June,(Harris was 23 last year) and it will be interesting to see if the Nuggets expect him to carry an imports workload or if the youth movement becomes an example of many hands making light work. On the surprising non-signing I’ll go with Derone Raukawa still be available this late in the signing period. A scoring guard who’s coming off a 15.9ppg season at 46.8% shooting he has the talent to lift every roster in the league offensively. Yes, it was time to move on from the Bay for a variety of reasons and his defensive impact could be heftier, but the team that pulls the trigger on him should get a motivated player with a point to prove that could easily end up being a difference maker to a teams fortunes. 

Which team is going to finish free agency with a bang? 

Justin: I can’t go past the 2023 champs here, the Canterbury Rams. With two import spots still to fill, the Cantabrians look set to deliver a couple more big bangs yet. I expect the Saints and Nuggets to fire a few shots as well, and the Hawks have a couple of import spots still to fill as well. And let’s not forget the Giants, who are yet to officially announce Sammy Dempster and also have all three import spots to announce. If Mike Fitchett hits the mark with his trio imports then it could be the Giants grabbing all the headlines late in free agency. However, overall, it’s a big “watch this space” when it comes to Judd Flavell and the Rams. 

Casey: I think it’s the Saints. I like what they’ve done foundation wise with a mix of returning young locals, two solid imports and Tall Black level talent but I’m interested to see how they complete the roster. This is a team that consistently gets big names to sign on the bottom line, both restricted players and kiwis, and Zico Coronel is a coach that players want to player for. With an import spot to fill and what looks like a bit of cap space left to lock down local talent the stage is set to bring in players that will help the Saints chase title number 13 and I hope to see a top level contributor in the remaining import spot and a local name or two that we may have overlooked up to this point in the process. With that said we still have about 13 import spots to go across the league so there are some talented player yet to come that haven’t even graced our radar! 


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