Tough question, especially at a time when all 10 teams can still make the Final 6. However, if I consider my preseason predictions which had (for memory) the Giants, Sharks, Jets and Nuggets missing the playoffs, then this is actually an easy question to answer. How I thought the Nuggets would slide is foolish, the 2022 champions have re-tooled nicely and have clinched a berth at the Final 6 with a few rounds left to play. And there is one key point worth making that has led to my prediction being sheer folly.
The Nuggets have enjoyed an even bigger and better season from Todd Withers, who should absolutely be on the radar of every ANBL team right now. With three import spots available in the Aussie league, Withers is a must-add for me, he is an elite two-way player who has taken his deep shooting to another level this season in NZ, plus he can, and willingly will, defend every position. Plus, he’s as honest as they come, a no-fuss worker who will carry out instructions to the letter. Wither has grown as a leader since his last stint in the ANBL, and he’s a better player for it. I’ll put my hand up, I got it wrong with the Nuggets, they have over-performed based on my earlier (silly) prediction, but I’ll safely assume I was the only person ever sitting around that campfire. Capital ‘L’ on my forehead right now.
Ok, here’s the question to balance things up. Surely it’s the Hawks, isn’t it? This is a team that has been at full-strength for the majority of the season with barely an injury to use as an excuse, and they are unquestionably talented to a high level. Wind the clock back to February and March this season and my phone was constantly buzzing from people around the league who were amazed at the class, and maybe the expense, of the roster the Hawks were putting together. When news broke that Jordan Ngatai was leaving the Saints and heading to ‘The Bay’ to join the likes of Hyrum Harris, Ethan Rusbatch and Derone Raukawa, more than a few people were brazen enough to suggest the trophy should be sent to them express post. But play the script forward to today, and for some reason the Hawks have been left wanting.
Going into R12, five of their seven key players who played in the competition last season were scoring less this season, with only Ngatai and Raukawa trending up. Denhym Brooke has fallen away in minutes and production compared with his time at the Bulls, while Jordan Hunt seems to have stagnated as his role chops and changes so much. Ira Lee has proven to be a good addition, but the late season inclusion of import Bryce McBride is a head-scratcher. Did the Hawks really need another guard? Albeit a small sample size, but in two games to date McBride is averaging 3-points at 22.2% and 1-assist in 13.4-minutes per game. The Hawks have the second worst defence, the third worst 3-point shooting percentage and commit more turnovers per game than any other team. Overall, more was expected.
Surprisingly, the Hawks are yet to win a game at home (six straight losses) after being in a winning position in most of them. However, all of that said, somehow the Hawks can still make the Final 6, which in some small way is a positive. Maybe some of what I’ve written here will find its way to the changerooms whiteboard and we’ll see a determined response from the Hawks against the Saints this Saturday. I’m certainly not suggesting my analysis deserves to be highlighted, because I haven’t listed anything here that Everard Bartlett and his players don’t already know. Trust me, they absolutely know they are under-performing. But here we are. The Hawks can still make the Final 6, and it starts with a win against the Saints this week. There has never been much, if any, love between the Hawks and Saints, so if the failing Hawks were to stand up and prove their worth in season 2023, there is no better time than this Saturday to do it. Have the Hawks been the biggest under-performing team this season? It’s a yes from me … anyone got a counter argument?
Well, safe to say there is a long list. The more I get around and talk to imports in particular, the feedback is usually the same … “Man, this is a tough league!” When it comes to the toughest player, much in the same way our very own Steven Adams brings the attributes of ‘toughness’ to constantly top the list in the NBA, I have a few favourites on my Sal’s NBL list. For brut strength, toughness and an unwavering mode of competitiveness, I’m going with Tom Vodanovich (Saints), Sam Dempster (Giants), Todd Withers (Nuggets), Hyrum Harris (Hawks), Dom Kelman-Poto (Bulls) and Acting Sargent Nick Barrow (Tuatara) – there is no way I want to get stuck in a lift with any of those guys if they suffer from claustrophobia. If Aaron Bailey-Nowell was still running around, you can be assured he’d be on the list as well. I also like the growth of Dan Fotu this season, he is looking tougher by the week. As for the toughest? My vote goes to Tommy V … get out of that man’s way.
Personally, I like it and I think the fans would like it, but I’m not convinced the teams would support it. Maybe I’m wrong, but for any movement in this space it would need to be supported by the teams. If the support was there, then it’s about timing and what impact it has on the season, the overall length of the season, and the availability of players. Should it be a straight-out All-Star game, or could we do North vs South, or how about Kiwis vs Internationals … I tend to think the third option would be favoured the most by fans. Nothing better than a bit of patriotic rivalry to get everyone up and about, including the players.
It’s good. Like really good! So far no less than six WNBA-drafted players will be suiting up, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number jumps to eight or nine. The depth of international talent is exceptional, including at least three first round WNBA picks. To put that in perspective, if we were talking about one or two NBA-drafted players in the Sal’s NBL you can be assured the media would be all over it. To have so many women from the world’s best league here in NZ competing is next level and the media needs to step up and tell the story.
Also, the opportunity for Kiwi talent to play alongside or against such elite global players cannot be forgotten, it is an opportunity that simply did not exist before the introduction of Tauihi. And in addition to the quality of import players, I’m hearing as many as eight of the current Tall Ferns team playing at the FIBA Asia World Cup will also be here for the GJ Gardner Homes Tauihi season. It all tips-off on July 12, so strap yourself in!