Justin Nelson’s Burning Questions – Round 5

Photo credit: Gameface NZ

Which players from the Sal’s NBL will make the Tall Blacks World Cup team this year?

I have two locked-in. I just can’t see how Coach Pero Cameron can or will leave Reuben Te Rangi or Hyrum Harris at home (notwithstanding injury or illness of course). From there you have a heap of quality players who will surely be considered - Jordan Ngatai, Ethan Rusbatch, Rob Loe, Sam Timmins, Tai Wynyard, Tom Vodanovich, Tohi Smith-Milner, Izayah Le’Afa, Taylor Britt and Walter Brown, amongst others. I’m also hearing we may see other potential Tall Blacks stop by for a stint in the Sal’s NBL to warm up for the World Cup, which would add some spice to the League during the run-in to the Final 6. Remember, to qualify for the Final 6 a player needs to step on court and play in five regular season games. Right now though – I’m taking Te Rangi and Harris without question.  

Where are the Airs at after their 117-83 loss in Nelson?

It’s a very good question and one I’m sure Airs fans are also asking. While the Airs delivered a very memorable season in 2022 and gave those same fans everything shy of a championship, there is little doubt the team’s start to the 2023 season has been lacking in many areas. Last Saturday’s loss in Nelson was particularly poor, similar in many ways to their loss in Auckland against the Tuatara back in round two. The gap between their best and worst is far too big right now and unless sorted out quickly I think you are going to see the Airs continue to move through the season like an out-of-control rollercoaster.

Anthony Hilliard has now arrived, and he will make an immediate difference from this Thursday’s game against the faltering Hawks, but it also means Armon Fletcher and David Azore will need to adapt in their roles because Hilliard will need the ball in his hands. The loss to the Giants was concerning, it was a performance lacking effort, and in the most part was one-way traffic with some hollow defence on display. At one stage the Giants led by 41 points and in what has become such an even competition that sort of margin is an obliteration. At their best the Airs will make the Final 6, but at their worst they could finish dead last. That’s a wild ride by any definition, so if you’re an Airs fan you better strap yourself in tightly because it’s getting bumpy.

Can the Hawks turn around their current slump?

Firstly, slump is a very apt description. The Hawks are in a funk right now and need to quickly work out what’s going wrong. After a memorable opening round where they nailed two impressive wins on the road, the Hawks have now accumulated four successive losses and are struggling to close out games – which is kind of hard to believe when you consider the experience this team has on the floor. Concerningly, in losses against the Airs, Rams, Sharks and Jets, the Hawks have been in positions to win all of them. The introduction of Ira Lee helps, but it will take a collective effort by the Hawks to regroup and reset from here.

I expect Everard Bartlett and his team to be steaming this week with road games against the Airs and Tuatara, who by the way (both) are also coming off losses. At worst, the Hawks must split the pair, but if they dare cough up another two losses then you will surely see some serious soul-searching with their Final 6 aspirations falling quicker than a waterfall in the middle of a wet winter.  

Should teams play finals on their home court?

Yes, absolutely, 100 per cent they should. The fans deserve the right to see their team, should they have qualified for it, playing at home during the finals. However, it’s easier said than done. In about two months the usual annual questions and frustration will come from fans who want to go and see their team playing a home final, and I totally get it, I too share that frustration. Unfortunately, there are some huge barriers in New Zealand that make home-court finals logistically hard to do right now. Venue availability up and down the country is incredibly hard, actually it’s perplexingly frustrating, and in some regions almost impossible (at short notice) to get a venue and stage a big game. Even though the Sal’s NBL might get 4000+ people to a finals game in Wellington, using the Saints purely as an example here, if TSB Arena is booked for a show or art exhibition (or another event) during the finals then the Saints are stiff out of luck. And it’s not like Melbourne, for example, where the city is littered with stadiums, and you can just pick up and move to another big arena down the road.

And then you have the implication of travel in NZ - which is often hampered by so few flights and largely just one airline operating. During finals, a win or loss one night could mean you have to play in another city a few nights later, and that means quickly having to book flights for 15-20 people, maybe more. Sounds simple but go and give it a try. I know the day will come where these two obstacles can and will be overcome, it’s called natural progress, but right now the Final 6 played in one city is the only feasible way to go.

Who is the one player each team can least afford to lose?

These are always fun questions to answer and a good way to finish this week. Let’s start from the top of the country and work our way down, remembering this only my opinion and all of you are welcome to your own. Give it a go.

As good a form as Jarrad Weeks is in right now for the Tuatara – and it is top shelf stuff - you need only look at their performance a few weeks ago against the Sharks to truly appreciate the importance of Rob Loe to the lizards. Loe’s ability to impact both ends of the floor and bring others into the game is first class, so he’s my pick for the Tuatara. If he can stay out of foul trouble then some massive games from Loe are just around the corner.

At the Bulls I would have gone with Tyrell Harrison but he is already on the sidelines (hand injury), so let’s look elsewhere. I’m naturally drawn to Dan Fotu but he too seems to be battling a few niggles and could miss more games in the future, so I’ll further divert my attention to Rickey McGill. It’s not that McGill is currently at the same level as other PGs in the League, because he’s not in that same conversation at the moment, but without him running the Bulls they start to look a little thin and would need to play others out of position to cover him. Yes, Jayden Bezzant can move into McGill’s shoes, I know that, but there’s a flow-on impact without McGill and it would create some large headaches for the coaching staff.

Over at the Airs I would easily have gone with Anthony Hilliard (based on 2022), but he hasn’t even stepped on court yet, so my focus is firmly on Anzac Rissetto. While I’ve been impressed with Armon Fletcher, his role is about to change with the arrival of Hilliard, whereas Rissetto is the big body the Airs must have on the court. If Rissetto sits at any stage this season I just can’t see either Quintin Bailey or Marcel Jones filling his shoes to the same level. Rissetto is the man the Airs cannot afford to be without.

At the Hawks it’s Hyrum Harris getting the nod by the length of the Flemington Straight (apologies for those not accustomed to this Aussie saying). The Hawks are loaded with experience and basketball IQ, but Harris is the complete warrior, the never-say-die competitor who goes to the edge and back again to try and deliver wins for his team. Harris is entering his prime and has recently been rewarded with a nice contract at the Perth Wildcats (thoroughly deserved), he is positively brutish in the most skillful and competitive way. If Harris was to miss time the Hawks would be in a world of pain.

Over in Palmerston North there is every reason for me to single out Javion Blake, I just love the speed and athleticism this guy plays with. He’s a natural scorer with high-level vision for others, which is going to serve the Jets well. Mustapha Heron deserves every bit of attention as well, just look at what he did to the Hawks last Sunday. But the guy Coach Taufale can least afford to lose is Danny Pippen II. The league’s leading rebounder is big, long and ultra-competitive, something the Jets can’t cover if he sits out. We know the power of the ‘Big Three’ at the Jets, they are all important, but I’m putting Pippen II to the top of that list because the Jets lack cover for him.

In the capital you need look no further than Kyle Adnam. If you missed his game against the Sharks last Sunday, well you simply missed out on an awesome display of control, effectiveness and sublime skill. The Saints have already experienced life without Adnam this season and it wasn’t pretty, in fact it was quite ugly. The Aussie PG has the keys to this team and the motor will always be at full throttle if he’s on the court. No disrespect to the likes of Tom Vodanovich and Tohi Smith-Milner – both are incredibly important to the Saints - but without Adnam this is a team that struggles to maintain consistent flow and output.

Our first stop in the south is Nelson where the Giants finally found some mojo in round 5. This time last year I would be going straight to Jarrod West, but as the Giants try to turn around a slow start to this season, they must have their captain on the floor. Sam Dempster is a mercurial leader and a master at rallying the troops, leading by example, and demanding more from every person who goes into battle with him. I rate Dempster the best captain in the Sal’s NBL and he sits on top of my list of players I’d like to have a few beers with. Hopefully I get the chance to do so one day, in the off-season of course.

Over at the Rams this question has Tai Wynyard written all over it, but we know he is about to leave for China, so let’s look elsewhere. It wouldn’t be fair to heap this topic on the shoulders of young Walter Brown, but I’m going to stick with the surname. We are yet to see the best of import Tevin Brown, but I’m convinced it will come and the win against the Saints last Friday featured more glimpses of Brown’s ability. As Tevin Brown starts stringing big games together we will quickly come to realise just how important he is to this team.

In Otago we can and should talk up the valuable importance of Sam Timmins, and of course JaQuori McLaughlin is also quickly becoming an equally important piece, but there is no doubt Todd Withers is simply irreplaceable. In his second season in NZ this guy has gone to another level. At both ends he is the player the Nuggets must have available every week. His defence continues to be the best in the League, but what I really like this season is his aggressive approach at the offensive end. The Nuggets must have Withers in uniform every game, full stop.

And finally, at Southland you can’t move a single inch past Jeremy Kendle. For some reason the Sal’s NBL and Mr. Kendle fit like hand in glove. Kendle’s ability to bring others into the game is a role no other Shark can provide to the same high level, while his scoring prowess is elite and so uncanny – the guy just finds buckets. If Kendle sits at any stage this season, the Sharks will be lost at sea.


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