Casey’s Corner: Breaking down the middle of the pack

Despite still being early in the season, week three of the Sal’s NBL offered several matchups that may help determine finals seeding down the track despite some teams still being flummoxed by a lack of personnel as they await the final pieces to their puzzles. Most impressive this week were the Tuatara, who are proving to be puzzle masters that don’t need all the pieces to see what the final picture may look like. Down starting PG Dontae Russo-Nance (not to mention yet to arrive wings Dan Fotu and Siler Schneider) they stormed the capital to remind everyone of their talent. While the lizards start sunning themselves on top of the ladder, teams across the league jostled for the next positions on the ladder under the top rung with a growing pack of teams separating themselves from the bottom of the table.


The Middle of the Pack Grows

As the Tuatara solidify a position on the perch, a bulging middle of the pack grows more interesting by the week with teams slotted from second to seventh providing evidence of belonging up top and giving us glimpses of the issues that may keep them from postseason glory.

Doubleheader weeks can make or break a season and the Canterbury Rams were able to lock down two essential (if uninspiring) victories. But a win is a win and despite concerns around defensive rebounding and early season shooting they haven’t beaten themselves (second best turnover margin at +7) which will be valuable as they look towards their second road double in as many weeks, this time on either side of the Cook Straight.

The Hawke’s Bay Hawks looked to be Southern Road warriors after taking Southland behind the shed in the opening game of the week. While the Sharks struggled with the Hawks unique blend of speed and shooting, more questions than answers remain for both teams following the Hawks loss to a surging Otago Nuggets side coupled with the announcement they are parting ways with Jack Salt due to an extended illness recovery period. Anybody got a spare 6’10” center rolling around? Anyone?

The Franklin Bulls crashed back down to earth with a sputtering offense that found no rhythm due to the harassing defensive efforts of the Nelson Giants (and some Jayden Bezzant foul trouble). But the damage was hardly self-inflicted as the Giants highlighted a suffocating perimeter defense (it looks like no fun to bring the ball up against Jarrod West and Alex McNaught) while getting timely offensive contributions across the board and once again proving to be more than the sum of their parts.  

Towards the bottom of the table there is still room for hope with Manawatu and Taranaki both announcing the arrival of reinforcements.  The Jets will be much improved with the addition of three imports and teams will need to be wary of the young squad despite their record.  Although the return of Marcel Jones (aka the walking double-double) didn’t bring with it a home win, they too will be soon bolstered by talent and will have a vastly different feel once settled.  

Which leaves the Wellington Saints in an unaccustomed winless position. Is it all hands on deck, sound the sirens, fight for your lives time? Not just yet, but time is ticking and the arrival of Tom Vodanavich will help an under-sized lineup that has been poor defensively, particularly in transition. But the time to act is now as further losses will all but guarantee the road to a repeat will go on the road as a lower seed in the reformatted six team finals. But they will have the talent to dig out of a reasonably sized hole, especially if the final piece to their puzzle, Xavier Cooks (ANBL Finals MVP), is able to arrive sooner rather than later.


Worth Mentioning

  • The Tuatara are rolling, with much of the credit to the big timber of Chris Johnson and Rob Loe. But out on the wing the play of Taki Fahrensohn has taken a leap. Averages of 15.8 points and 5.5 rebounds have drawn notice, but it is his defensive efforts that are more impressive. His size and speed should continue to harass opposition wings and with the human erasers behind him in the paint negating any mistakes for the league's best defence (sorry Giants) while he cements his position as an up and comer to watch.
  • The Nuggets are back! I mean I know they came back last year, but now they are really back thanks to a trio of imports that looks to gel nicely with Sam Timmins. The Nugs look tough to beat as Keith Williams and Todd Withers have added needed scoring punch with the best of Tahjere McCall yet to come. The starting five will like their chances against all comers and if a reliable bench comes to the party, watch out.
  • The Giants were hopeful a collective effort could make up for the missing offense that came with Tom Ingham’s season ending injury.  Turns out all they needed was to start a “Dempster Fire” (sorry, not sorry) to warm things up!  In a game where points were at a premium the often unheralded Dempster proved his value once again offering eight boards, four assists and a crucial 17 points on 4 for 7 shooting from the 3-point line. If he can keep defences honest until some rumoured reinforcements arrive the boys from Nelson will start feeling pretty good about their chances behind an aggressive defense and offense that refuses to give possession away.


Week 4 Preview

Auckland Tuatara vs. Hawke’s Bay Hawks | Wedensday, May 18 @ 7:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)

Following the decision to part ways with Jack Salt, the Hawks will be on the lookout for a quality import big to man the middle with the help Hyrum Harris and Jordan Hunt to complete their squad. As those big's don’t exactly grow on trees we can expect a still undersized Bay to travel to the Lizards Lair to take on the league’s best defence and the table toppers. Two of the best early season offences in the league face off.  The Tuatara’s offence feeds off a league best defence and relies on controlling the boards. The return of Jarrod Kenny will be a defensive bolster as well as to an already speedy transition attack, but will it be enough to counter the strongest frontcourt in the competition playing on their home floor and expected to welcome import Siler Schneider?            

Franklin Bulls vs. Otago Nuggets | Friday, May 20 @ 7:30pm

The rampaging Bulls got corralled on their homecourt and the defensive efforts of the Nelson Giants highlighted their reliance offensively upon Jayden Bezzant. As they await Corey Webster's return (currently playing for the title in a 2-2 best of five series) from Egypt questions remain around a league worst offence averaging 69.7 points per game even as the defence proves a solid foundation. While the matchup in the middle between Anzac Rissetto and Sam Timmins will draw the headlines it will be the collective efforts of the Bulls' defence on the import trio of McCall, Withers and Williams that will determine the victors.

Nelson Giants vs. Canterbury Rams | Saturday, May 21 @ 5:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)

The Rams begin their second doubleheader in as many weeks with the hope a step up in the level of the opponent brings with it an improved performance. The offensive performances have left something to be desired but coach Judd Flavell will be heartened by the ability to take care of the ball (first in assist to turnover ratio, averaging a league best 10.5 turnovers per game). Will that still be the case when Jarrod West and the league's best ball swipers (12.7 steals per game) play the role of host? If Mike Karena and Max Darling can combine to slow down Trey Mourning (leading the league in scoring at 26 PPG) this one could go down to the wire.

Taranaki Airs vs. Southland Sharks | Saturday, May 21 @ 7:30pm

This matchup features two teams searching for a bit of consistency on both ends of the court. Taranaki hope the addition of Marcel Jones (and possibly two imports) will add the veteran presence a young unrestrained team needs to reverse its league worst average of 17.3 turnovers a game. Holding on to the ball will only go so far as a yucky 21 percent from the 3-point has made the offence one-dimensional but surely a return to the mean is on hand? The Sharks will be in a frenzy to get back on the court following a 10-day break which would have seen them stewing over a poor home performance that was never as close as the final scoreline suggests. While the rebounding tally will have a say, it will be the team that finds its stroke from behind the arc while navigating tough interior play that is likely to roll into next week with a win.

Wellington Saints vs. Canterbury Rams | Sunday, May 22 @ 3pm 

Fatigue will play a factor for the Cantabrians as they enjoy their second contest in consecutive days. Awaiting them following the hop over the strait will be a desperate Wellington Saints squad at the strongest it's been this season. The return of Tommy V forms a formidable and versatile frontcourt that will excel in transition. The formidableness will be a matchup nightmare for the Rams (and everyone else) with addition of Boomer Xavier Cooks fresh off an ANBL Finals MVP campaign once he joins the team from across the ditch (timings to be confirmed). If the Rams are able to continue their frugality with possession it could help to counter what will be a relentless fast break attack. If not, a long night for tired legs awaits.

Manawatu Jets vs. Otago Nuggets | Sunday, May 22 @ 5pm 

The final game of the week will finally showcase a complete Jets lineup with a full week of practice to gain some familiarity with each other and the systems. After three rounds of carrying all the water, the youth movement should thrive in a supporting role and be eager to solidify their places in the rotation. Otago will have the luxury of a day in between games to recover what is sure to be a grueling affair against the Bulls. Having enough left in the tank against a motivated and fresh opponent will be crucial if the Nuggies want to solidify their place in the Top 6.


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