The call for reinforcements was resounding following the opening round of the season and it did not go unheeded. Talent injections came just in time to ward off some early season losses for some teams while others lamented the delayed arrival of soon to be welcome comrades. But despite some early season holes being dug fans around the league should not lose heart, with 6 teams getting tickets punched to postseason festivities all the teams should keep their party clothes out. And while hopes should burn bright across the league with improved performances the norm, there are some intriguing early season surprises.
Spotlight on the Big Smoke
Early season form in Tāmaki Makaurau is exceeding projections for both of the regions franchises. The Tuatara big man combo of Chris Johnson and Rob Loe is delivering impressively even if form at this level was expected. What has exceeded expectations, and put the team in excellent early season stead at the top of the table, has been the play of the young backcourt featuring Dontae Russo-Nance and Taki Fahrensohn. Russo-Nance continues his impressive development facilitating the ball (7th in 4.7 APG) with muscle mass added in the offseason improving form on the defensive glass and helping to counter physical defense. Taki Fahrensohn has supplied some pop offensively on the wing with his 15.3 PPG, but his improved defensive form will have a bigger influence on his teams' season if he continues his trajectory on that side of the ball. The stout defense (1st in the league at 64 PPG) may be difficult to maintain but there is plenty of margin for error there for the number two offense in league (87.3 PPG) that is still to welcome import Siler Schneider.
On the other side of the bridge (and then some) a surprising start (outside of South Auckland) has shown that a physical halfcourt defense will be the blueprint of success for Franklin with the backbone for this physicality provided by the imposing play of Anzac Rissetto. His averages of 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds has been heightened by refined decision making with the ball in hand (72% field goal percentage, effectively tops in the league) and a more judicious use of his strength advantage on the defensive end (2.5 fouls per game). He is quickly proving to be up for any challenge as the Bulls fulcrum in the middle on both ends of the court. For many Bulls fans the arrival of Corey Webster is eagerly anticipated, but in the meantime Jayden Bezzant is doing his best Webster impression while contributing 20 points and 7.5 assists which includes a sizzling 28 points in the confidence inspiring win over the Sharks. It is on defence where his improvement has been most palpable (evidenced by his 2.5 steals per game). Sprinkle in the timely veteran contributions and leadership of Leon Henry and you can see why all of Franklin thinks the Bulls hot start will be the new normal..
Sharks v Hawks | Thursday, May 12th @ 7:30pm
Following their North Island double the Sharks will look forward to swimming in the Shark Tank once again. Mojave King has been eclectic off the bench with his instant offense, but it will be the Southland defensive efforts that will be most tested as the visiting Hawks offense continues its early season improvement. If Jack Salt is unable to make his season debut, look for the Sharks to try to capitalise on their size advantage on the glass versus the speed and quickness that has been on display for Hawkes Bay.
Jets v Rams | Friday, May 13th @ 7:30pm
The Jets youth movement moved in the right direction last week but if their soon to be welcomed imports aren’t available this week, Friday the 13th may be scarier than normal for the home crowd. On the front end of a double-header, the Rams are desperate for a win and should be able to build chemistry on both ends of the court in a game where both teams will be trying to jumpstart a sputtering offense (both teams averaging 67.5 PPG tied for last).
Nuggets v Hawks | Saturday, May 14th @ 5:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
Part two of the South Island double will see the Hawks get their first look at a Nuggets side that displayed quickness off the blocks in their first game at full strength. Hawkes Bay have struggled to slow down the interior options of opponents through two rounds and now meet last season’s most decorated player in Sam Timmins and a Nuggets squad that is shooting 22% from the 3-point line in a delectable early evening matchup that both teams will be circling.
Bulls v Giants | Saturday, May 14th @ 7:30pm
Franklin has surged up the ladder due to defensive efforts and they will need to be at their finest to counter the Sal’s NBL leading scorer in Trey Mourning whose matchup with Anzac Rissetto will help define the result. In a game that may come down to the wire the details will matter, meaning the Bulls will need improve on a league worst 47% from the Resene charity stripe while contending with a Nelson squad that has averaged just 11.5 turnovers a game, while dishing a league best turnover margin.
Airs v Rams | Sunday, May 15th @ 3pm
Taranaki will be looking to bolster the strong play of Tai Wynyard with an improved attack from deep after shooting a league worst 18% from the 3-point line. A tempered approach from deep could help a team that has only managed 40 assists through three games. Canterbury should have plenty left in the tank if they are able to take care of business on the first leg of their double header.
Saints v Tuatara | Monday, May 16th @ 6:30pm (I’ve got my eye on)
Both teams will be well rested after an extended break and will be at full strength for the first time this season Auckland has been miserly on the defensive end while shooting the lights out which seems like a really good combo. The Saints welcome multi-tooled Tom Vodanovich to the an already versatile front line. Will that versatility be able to help counter the inevitability of Johnson and Loe in a game where rebounding will determine the outcome. Don’t sleep on a Wellington crowd that will be raucous in support of a team with a strong local flavour.