Photo credit: Masanori Udagawa, Photo Wellington
Round two enjoyed huge performances, surprise wins, and a thrilling buzzer beater, but the big takeaway for me is the strength of the teams in the Sal’s NBL is as even from top to bottom as my memory can recall, and performance on one night isn’t necessarily indicative of performance moving forward. There wouldn’t be too much concern for the early holes the Saints and Giants have found themselves in, as the Taranaki Airs and Manawatū Jets have proven that fortunes can change quickly. But the speed of change goes both ways and can bring you back to the pack as the Hawks and Rams realised while playing the favourite in the losses to those road dawgs.
While the Airs and Jets were the biggest surprises, there was another team whose bounce back was just as impressive, with the Bulls riding their bruising interior play and timely defence to a pair of stress relieving wins on the road. The overall talent level and parity of teams is as level as any fan across the league could hope for, but all that parity currently has us sitting exactly where we finished last season, with the Tuatara and the Nuggets on top eyeing each other and contemplating early travel plans for the Final 6.
Rob Loe - The Tuatara are top of the table and Loe has been leading the way with his interior play. His presence on the glass is vital for an undersized team and he will need to continue that activity all season long, but his defence in the first two games is what has gotten the squad over the top. Recording five steals in Round 1 was backed up with seven blocks as the tip of the spear for a suffocating defensive performance versus the Airs.
He was showing hard during on-balls and sprinting to recover which set the tone for the lizards while holding the Airs to 55 points (22 below the season average of 77). These numbers are somewhat outshone by his 18-point, 12-rebound averages on the season, in an early season where he boasts a 57% effective field goal percentage and is grabbing 8% of offensive rebounds available to him with a too early in the season to share 38.6 net rating. All adding up to this equation, slowing down the vet will be key to slowing down Auckland.
Tyrell Harrison - In the opening week of the season the Bulls went down in a home loss where they sputtered down the stretch offensively. For a crucial Round 2 road trip they found a bit of bully ball was the key to winning on the road, and while they had many contributors to the W’s, it was the interior dominance of Harrison that led the way. Averaging 19.5 PTS, 12.5 REB, 3.5 AST, 3.5 BLK at 58% from the floor while providing a bulk of highlights with his finishes above the rim. His two-way contribution is key to the Bulls reaching their ceiling and if his dominance on the interior continues, space will open on the floor for shooters beyond the arc and cutters through the lane.
Tai Wynyard - More praise on the bigs as Tai Wynyard was dominant in defeat in what was the biggest performance of his professional career tallying 35 points and 14 rebounds on 16-of-22 from the field. Only he and Troy Baxter Jr were able to reach double figures. The early season play has been made possible by a commitment to fitness in the offseason, starting the season in the best shape of his professional career. The dominance inside surprisingly didn’t lead to a victory, but performances such as this are sure to lead to greater opportunities for a young player who has refocused his priorities and is starting to realise his untapped potential while helping the Rams reach their potential as a team.
Jets Import Trio - Just too tough to pick one as a victory over a highly regarded Canterbury Rams team shows fans in the Manawatū that the wait was worth it as Danny Pippen was joined by Mustapha Heron and Javion Blake to combine for 60 points (out of 90) on 24 made shots (out of 31) to lead the way in a tightly contested road victory.
Pippen has shown he will be a beast on the glass (14 RPG) as well as an outside threat, and that effort will open up space for Heron and Blake to use on drives (15-of-24 on 2-point FGs combined) and to create opportunities from deep (5-of-9 3-point FGS combined). The smallest of sample sizes (51 possessions) show this is currently the most dangerous lineup in the league with an adjustable net rating of 37.8. With the local supporting cast showing improved decision making and execution combined with elite effort the Jets trio look set to lead the way to a Final 6 berth.
Hawke’s Bay Hawks (2-1) vs. Wheeler Motor Company Rams (1-1) - Thursday April 20th, 7pm
The Hawks will need to shake the memory of the Airs game winner to refocus on a talented and deep opponent coming to town. While the Hawks shooting offers no concerns (55.4% effective field goal as a team) the highest turnover percentage in the league (19%) indicates this is a team that needs to find a higher level of execution which it should be capable of given the level of familiarity the players have. Outside of execution the second lowest defensive rebounding rate in the league (70.5%) will be the biggest concern as they welcome the Rams, who have their own disappointing loss to recover from.
The Hawks' second best offensive rebounding percentage (31.6%) will test the Rams, who are last in defensive rebounding percentage (66.7%) despite their size and athleticism. Tai Wynyard and Troy Baxter Jr. compliment each other nicely but the Rams 3-point shooting will need to find the heights of Round 1 (41%) after shooting a dreadful 14% in Round 2.
Matchup to Watch: Hyrum Harris vs. Troy Baxter Jr
Southland Sharks (1-1) vs. Auckland Tuatara (2-0) - Friday April 21st, 7pm
The Southland Sharks are uber dependent on Jeremy Kendle right now, who is Top-10 in scoring, rebounding and assists. While the production is great, other players will need to find a higher level of execution and commitment on the glass to find their way when Kendle is under wraps. While they have taken care of the ball (league best turnover percentage 11%), the lowest free throw rate in the league (16.1%) will allow opponents to harass the perimeter.
This will be a point of emphasis for the Tuatara, who rode tenacious perimeter defence to a blowout win in Round 2 despite the lack of Reuben Te Rangi. With the return of his explosive scoring game combining with Jarrad Weeks (joining Kendle in the Top-10 of scoring, rebounding and assists) containing the perimeter will be a challenge, but the biggest challenge lies down low. Or should I say down Loe, as Rob Loe has been dominant across all aspects, but his defence has been most impressive (1st in blocks, 4th in steals) and will challenge the Sharks ability to convert in the paint.
Matchup to Watch: Dru-Leo Leusogi-Ape vs. Reuben Te Rangi
Franklin Bulls (2-1) vs. Wheeler Motor Company Rams (1-1) - Saturday April 22nd, 5pm
The Bulls displayed a tremendous amount of mental fortitude, responding to a lack of late game execution in Round 1 with a resounding fourth quarter to open the round followed by a steady four-quarter performance to take the Cook Strait double. While they play the slowest pace in the league it suits their personnel with a strong front court finding comfort in half court execution. While the offence has been solid, the D has carried the weight with the top steal rate (12.2%) and a Top-3 block rate showing the commitment to defence.
And while it was (deservedly) Tyrell Harrison and Dan Fotu getting the bulk of the praise, the defensive efforts of Jamaal Brantley that caught my eye, and those efforts will be key to keep the Rams from bouncing back. With a formidable front court of their own (led by Wynyard, Baxter Jr and Max Darling) to counter the strength of the Bulls they will look to their league leading pace to find space in transition and tire out a team that prefers it in the half court and has the slowest pace in the league.
Matchup to Watch: Tyrell Harrison vs. Tai Wynyard
Steelformers Taranaki Airs (1-2) vs. Night n’ Day Otago Nuggets (2-0) - Saturday April 22nd, 7pm
The Airs were feckless in their opening loss, accounting for only 55 points, but showed their mental fortitude with an impressive win in the Bay. David Azure’s late game heroics aside, no one can deny the intelligence and execution displayed with the live ball SkyCity timeout and game winning shot. The 16 offensive boards and 21 second chance points were more indicative of their strength but it was the improved 3-point shooting that made the game possible (2-of-19 vs. Tuatara, 7-of-16 vs. Hawks).
That level of execution will need to reach an even higher level against the defending champs, as Otago have shown a commitment to defence that has allowed just 67.5 points per game at 36% shooting in efforts led by the Sam Timmins, Todd Withers frontcourt but supported by role players who look to have taken on more responsibility. All this defensive effort may turn this into a game only a fan could love as the two worst 3-point shooting teams in the league will need to find improved strokes and efficiency in the halfcourt to push themselves into the victors circle.
Matchup to Watch: Armon Fletcher vs. Todd Withers
Property Brokers Manawatu Jets (1-2) vs. NBS Nelson Giants - Sunday April 23rd, 4pm
Jets with a full contingent of imports now looks the business, the Giants are searching for answers on the interior after getting pumped on the glass but help should be on the way. The Jets import trio arrived with a bang as they have lifted the squad to the win column. They will continue to put pressure on opponents to contain their scoring prowess as the season goes along, but it is the team defence that has been most impressive. Holding opponents to 20% shooting from deep and 36% overall is a great foundation especially considering they have forced the least amount of steals in the competition so far. That lack of steals has been offset by the best offensive rebounding rate (35%) creating the extra possessions needed to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
The Giants will be thirsty for a win, and after dropping two at home will be desperate for an improved performance on the road. This will take an improved effort defensively, as they currently sit last in defensive rating (117.1) which is certain to be a point of emphasis after a full week of training. Welcoming in another big body in Kavion Pippen, whose G-League stats indicate he will be a presence inside on both ends, should temper the rebounding advantage and create a size advantage on the post with Matur Maker. This size should help Avery Woodson find even more space on the perimeter, which should scare opponents after his 34-point performance on 8-of-10 shooting from deep. The team that controls the glass will take a big step towards victory in the penultimate match of the round.
Matchup to Watch: Danny Pippen vs. Matur Maker
Wellington Saints (0-2) vs. Auckland Tuatara (2-0) - Sunday April 23rd, 6pm
Top of the table Tuatara may be road wary by the time they travel north from Invercargill for the second of their double header with a rotation that probably tops out at 7-8 players. So far that hasn't been a problem with ball movement leading to a league topping assist percentage of 64.5%. When combined with the top free throw rate in the competition (37.9%), the offence looks difficult to contain with myriad scoring options. Defence is the calling card early, with a smothering performance against the Airs showing their abilities on that end, highlighted by the best block (14.3%) and defensive rebounding (84.4%) percentages in the league. This defence, particularly down the stretch, will be a test for a Saints squad that is yet to fire on all cylinders.
The return of injured import Kyle Adnam is paramount to the offensive fortunes, which have tailed off in the second half of their games so far. If Adnam is available the ship should be righted relatively quickly, but if his return is further delayed others will need to take responsibility for steering the offensive in a more effective direction. The pace has been good for the Saints, but playing at speed has been costly with the team sitting second in turnover percentage (16%) while also coming at the cost of team play, showcased by the second worst assist percentage in the league. But with the desperation that comes with being 0-2 in a Saints uniform expect to see renewed discipline and effort as the Saints attempt to climb off the bottom rung of the ladder.
Matchup to Watch: Tohi Smith-Milner vs. Rob Loe