Week 1 is in the books and the results have immediately indicated that the gap between the top of the table and the depths of the ladder may be the smallest of margins in the 2023 season of the Sal’s NBL. With much of the league at less than full strength, there was an expectation that the teams enjoying a deeper pool of talent would have an advantage early in the season, but that didn’t prove to be universally true.
Particularly in the case of Hawke’s Bay where the Hawks, who are still expecting an import, flew into a season opening road trip and took victories from teams expected to be entrenched at the top of the table. With a come from behind overtime thriller in Franklin and a strong statement in Wellington the Hawks made waves that puts the rest of the league on notice.
Elsewhere the Jets proved a difficult out with hard fought road losses despite being short-handed on the deep south double while Canterbury looked in mid-season form with a stoutly physical defence. Auckland closed strongly to take the only road win of the round south of the Cook Strait, setting their compatriots from the Super City up with a road double in Round 2 against teams that will be as desperate to get on the winning ledger (Nelson and Wellington).
Wellington Saints (0-1) vs. Franklin Bulls (0-1)
Round 2 kicks off with two teams trying to bounce back from what would be disappointing losses to the Hawks. The Saints will be hopeful that Kyle Adnam can shake off an injury that cost almost the entirety of his opening clash while (the same could be said of James Southerland) but his return is unlikely to reverse the thrashing on the glass the Hawks delivered to the capital (47-30 rebounds to the Hawks) or the lack of intensity on defence that allowed 63% shooting from inside the arc.
Those areas won’t get any easier with the size of the Bulls coming to town, who would still be aching over a lost 7-point lead with 1:30 remaining due to poor free throw shooting down the stretch (2-5 in the last minute of regulation). Both teams seem in search of their early season offensive identity, but a loss by either team will put these pre-season top four favorites in and early season hole that won’t be easy to dig out of.
Matchup to watch: Tohi Smith-Milner vs. Tyrell Harrison
Auckland Tuatara (1-0) vs. Taranaki Steelformers Airs (0-1)
The Tuatara were in a tight one late, but the squad used 40 minute contributions from the trio of Rob Loe, Rueben Te-Rangi and Jarrad Weeks (64 points combined) along with some late game execution to start the season off strongly on the road. While the efficiency left something to be desired it was aggression on the rim that led to 37 free throw attempts (24 makes) to keep the score ticking, while 10 steals and three blocks highlighted the commitment to defence.
The Airs will come to town buoyed by a respectable second half performance in a loss to the Rams, but a repeat of the poor 3-point shooting of Round 1 (3-of-14 from deep) would make a road win unlikely. Taranaki showed aggression of their own with 35 free throw attempts (29 makes) against the Rams. Armon Fletcher fought off (what looked to be) cramps to finish with 18 while David Azure used the first and fourth quarters to score 20, but both will need to deliver 40 minute performances to lift the Airs scoring threat. Rissetto proved dangerous with plentiful second half touches and his dominance down low could lead to foul trouble for a Tuatara squad lacking depth up front. The team that keeps the aggression from a week ago and finds their way to the line with more frequency should have the upper hand.
Matchup to watch: Reuben Te-Rangi vs. Armon Fletcher
NBS Nelson Giants (0-1) vs. Franklin Bulls (0-1)
The Giants will get another chance to defend their home court and will look to build on a solid effort offensively that ultimately faltered due to a lack of efficiency. Keeping out of foul trouble may prove as difficult as the opener (where they got whistled for 27 fouls) with the Bulls looking to capitalise on the strength of their own frontline. Matur Maker will need to dig deep to keep Frankin from crashing the glass while building on his opening round offensive form to keep the D honest on the other end. If the boards and staying out of foul trouble is combined with an improvement on the 31% shooting from deep then Nelson will have set themselves in good stead.
In this second leg of a road double the strength of the Bulls will need to find a greater level of efficiency (38% shooting overall and 25% from deep) and physicality (outrebounded 50-39 giving up 15 o-boards) then was fronted in the home opener. Rickey McGill pressured the defensive efforts of the Hawks with 23 and spent just 45 seconds on the bench during the overtime loss, but would likely be focusing on shooting 8-of-23 from the field and missing 3-of-5 free throws in the closing seconds.
If Dan Fotu and Tyrell Harrison (as well as Jamaal Brantley and Dom Kelman-Poto) can punish an undersized front line then a few extra caroms might not have as detrimental an effect. Perhaps more importantly will be putting the disappointing finish of week one in the rearview mirror as quickly as possible. This has the look of a game where possession will be key with both teams looking to ride ball control to victory.
Matchup to watch: Sam Dempster vs. Dan Fotu
Hawke’s Bay Hawks (2-0) vs. Taranaki Steelformers Airs (0-1)
The Hawks will host their first home game of the season, hopefully a brief sporting respite for the community and all that the region has been dealing with of late. A balanced offensive showing over two games highlighted the quality of the Hawks. But with only seven players in the rotation until the arrival of Ira Lee, this balance can get thrown out of whack with foul troubled and drawing fouls is an area that the Airs excelled during their second half efforts in Canterbury.
While the Hawks have used precision execution in the halfcourt sprinkled with a transition attack and second chance points to keep the scoreboard ticking over, the Airs struggled to click with 29 points in the first half. Eventually enforcing their physicality earned trip after trip to the line to the tune of 25 second half attempts (29-35 ft overall). On the second leg of as back-to-back and likely still down one of last season's premier shooters (Anthony Hilliard likely arriving by week three) depth will be tested and shooting efficiency will need improvement to match the Hawks well oiled machine.
Matchup to watch: Jordan Hunt vs. Anzac Rissetto
Wheeler Motor Company Canterbury Rams (1-0) vs. Property Brokers Manawatu Jets (0-2)
Is this the South Island road trip that won’t end for the Jets? After dropping two to open the season in the deep south the Jets head slightly further North to visit what looks to be a deep and versatile Rams squad. Ideally the Jets will welcome their remaining two imports to bolster their depth, but Round 1 showed that they will be no easy beats this season. Danny Pippen (28.5 PPG, 14 RPG) led a 3-point shooting attack in which eight different players hit a three while tallying up 30 in total (at 36%) in the first two games of the season. Even without reinforcements that prowess from deep will keep this hard working squad in games against most opponents.
Unfortunately for the Jets, the Rams do not look like most opponents. Judd Flavell’s squad has depth (nine players played nine minutes or more), size and athleticism to spare. Their shooting from deep topped the comp (41%) in Round 1 and they have room to improve having just welcomed their full contingent of imports. If the Jets are at full strength this will be a serious test for the Rams on their home floor from a team desperate for win. If not the three’s will have to fly freely to counter the overall depth and skill of a Rams squad that is squarely eyeing the top of the table.
Matchup to watch: Danny Pippen vs. Troy Baxter Jr.
Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (1-0) vs. Southland Sharks (1-0)
The Nuggets raised a banner and snuck out a victory in a game where their size, led by Sam Timmins (17 PTS, 11 REB), dominated the glass to the tune of 21 offensive boards. Todd Withers’ (17 PTS, 2 STL) defensive effort helped hold the Jets to 67 points. The bad news centered around poor shooting from deep (4-of-24) and a lack of punch from the bench, who offered three points and zero field goals made. But an ugly win is a win and for the most part the Nuggies looked like a squad in need of a bit of seasoning. They won’t get too much time to search for synchronicity with the Sharks swimming North for the Battle of the South following their own controlled win against the same opponent in their opening salvo of the season.
Jeremy Kendle contributed all over the hardwood (24 PTS, 8 AST, 9 REB) while orchestrating the offence to get the whole squad involved (five double figure scorers) but none more so than Grant Anticevich. His 24-point, 12-rebound haul off efficient shooting inside the arc will be a key point of containment for Otago. If the size of Romaro Gill is able to negate the advantage on the glass that was displayed by the Nuggets in Round 1 the Sharks could find an easier path to victory. If not, expect another grindy affair that will be won with physicality and perseverance on the defensive end.
Matchup to watch: Grant Anticevich vs. Todd Withers