Photo credit: Emma Rogers
Let’s preface this by tabling we are dealing with a small sample size – the season is only 18 games old, and just four games for the Rams. However, it’s still enough time to at the very least table the notion that Walter Brown (turns 20 next month) is indeed the best young player running around right now. The Rams are top of the ladder and Brown is going at 13.3 points at 60.6%, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 block and 1.5 threes per game. For the sake of the debate, let’s add Under-21 to the criteria of being a ‘young player’ meaning we are looking at players aged 20 and below. Brown’s round three heroics were spectacular and brought to the fore just how much his game is expanding under coach Judd Flavell.
After a season with the Tasmania Jack Jumpers in the ANBL and a red-hot start to the Sal’s NBL season, the name Walter Brown is surely (and should be) on the lips of every ANBL team right now, including the Breakers. Brown’s performance against the Hawks in last Thursday night’s triple-overtime thriller was the stuff of maturity and experience way beyond his years. This very likeable young man grew before our eyes in that game and then doubled down 48 hours later when he delivered another big game, this time against the Bulls. Other young players (Under 21) on the list include the likes of Alex McNaught, Charlie Dalton (was great against the Saints on Sunday night), Robbie Coman, Tu Kaha Cooper, Benji Freeman and Carter Berg-McLean. Note that Anzac Rissetto (22), Dru-Leo Leusogi-Ape (21) and Liam Judd (21) are not in this conversation. For now, it’s a clear yes from me – Walter Brown is the best player under the age of 21 in the Sal’s NBL.
This time last year not many of us were expecting a championship-winning season from the Nuggets, but boy did they rise to the occasion and sit us all on our backsides at the Final 6. Now, after three rounds, we find ourselves staring at a ladder with only one unbeaten team … yep, the Nuggets. Wins against the Jets (1pt), the Sharks (8pts) and Airs (18pts) have progressively been impressive, no doubt the latter was a clinical sign of a team starting to come together perfectly. I was dubious on their shooting against the Jets and Sharks, we all were, but their stroke against the Airs, especially early, was much better.
Since entering the scene as a head coach at the 2020 Showdown, which the Nuggets won, Coach Matehaere has been credited for being able to unify his team with some unconventional methods. He likes to take the pressure off and deliver good life lessons with a focus on ensuring players enjoy time away from the court. I’ll never forget watching (and joining in, albeit badly) with the Nuggets in what became a regular pre-game ritual of playing some cricket before going into battle at the Showdown in 2020. It was a distraction and it turned out to be a good one. The players bonded quickly and had fun before the serious stuff started. I’m not sure if he still does it, but Matehaere enjoyed team walks around the city as well, stopping by Giapo’s in downtown Auckland for some ice-cream. Anyway, the point is whatever the Nuggets are doing – it’s working! As for the question … have we underestimated them again? There’s a long way to go, but I’ll put my hand up right now and say “yes” … after all, a month ago I didn’t even have them finishing in the Top 6.
You better believe they are. If Javion Blake, Danny Pippen II and Mustapha Heron stay fit and healthy, there is no reason why the Jets won’t be a genuine contender this season. And while you might hear other teams talk about how their players are still gelling and need to spend more time together, let’s not forget the Jets are in the same boat after Heron arrived after the season had started.
What I especially like from what the Jets have delivered in wins against the Rams and Giants is they way their three very good imports are bringing others into the game, like Liam Judd and Pafe Momoisea for example. This is the sign of a team working together and all credit to coach Natu Taufale for his work in steering the aircraft carrier into calm waters and turning the engines up a couple of levels. Grab your tickets folks, the green army is taking flight and the seats are selling fast. This is one plane ride we’re all going to enjoy.
Let’s be honest, it hasn’t been an ideal start for either team, especially the Saints who have coughed up three games at home (when did that last occur???) – and let’s not forget TSB Bank Arena in Wellington has long been regarded as the most daunting place for all opposition teams to play – not any longer it seems. In such a tough and tight competition, working back from three losses to start the season is never easy, but I do know the Saints have some firepower on the way and I’m certain it’s going to make a big difference to their Final 6 aspirations.
I’m not so confident on the Giants though, their roster is locked and loaded and I don’t foresee any changes. Defence is a problem for both teams right now and will be something both coaches are heavily invested in fixing. While I expect the Saints to soon be on the climb, I also have no doubt the Giants will also quickly be chalking some wins up under the astute coaching of Mike Fitchett, who always finds a way to get his players delivering the goods. While I don’t think either team is cooked, this Saturday’s match-up in Wellington between the two teams is going to be a massive pressure-cooker and only one will escape the frying pan.
Some have, some haven’t. The triple overtime game between the Hawks and Rams was a great example of using the PTO almost perfectly. I say almost perfect only because the resulting last second(s) plays and shots didn’t drop – on multiple occasions. Teams are starting to work out that the PTO is a great way to advance the ball in the final 20 seconds (or less) of the first and second half. However, there are some key rules players and coaches need to be aware of, such as the fact the player passing the ball in can call the PTO, it doesn’t need to be the player catching the ball off the inbound pass, a good way to save a second, or less. And if the player passing the ball in is on the baseline under their own basket, this is the one (and only) occasion where play will recommence from the same spot, rather than the advance line on the side of the court.
The Saints will need to talk about that one this week after missing an opportunity to come in off the baseline in their game against the Tuatara, unless of course it was planned and they preferred to restart from the sideline rather than the baseline. And teams need to remember they have a full 30 seconds to come together and talk, they don’t need to rush. This includes the defensive team. Even if the team in possession only comes together for 15 seconds and wants to restart, the defensive team has every right to use the full 30 seconds and keep the offensive team waiting. We’ve already seen a team win a game off the back of a PTO (Airs vs Hawks) … will we see some more in the weeks ahead? The SkyCity PTO sure has added some great drama and strategy to the game, and it will only increase as all teams work out how to use it to their advantage.