Justin Nelson’s Burning Questions – Round 8

Photo credit: Andy Macdonald

Which team has the best fans in the Sal’s NBL?

Nothing like starting with the toughest question first! The good news is attendances right across the League – all 10 teams – continue to rise significantly, which is testament to the good work being done by all teams and the focus they have on fan engagement and entertainment. I would even go as far to say the Sal’s NBL is the best entertainment offering amongst New Zealand’s domestic sports competitions – anyone care to debate?

Over the last five seasons, I’ve been extremely fortunate to spend time at home games for every team and got to see the fans in action. The most important things any fan can experience at a sports event is the chance to socialise, enjoy a driveway-to-driveway level of engagement and entertainment, and of course the feeling that your team has a genuine chance of winning. I truly believe the Sal’s NBL and all 10 teams are delivering this – or rapidly improving in their delivery. As for the best fans … I’m heading to the capital and the Wellington Saints. The fans there bring so much passion and emotion to every Saints home game, and they are packing the 4,000-seat arena at every opportunity. The Saints are kings when it comes to the fans.

Across New Zealand domestic sport, I think the Warriors and Saints have the most tribal fans – again, I welcome any debate. So, for me, the Saints have the best fans in the Sal’s NBL (at the moment), but it’s the best of a great group of fans across the whole league. A couple of worthy mentions - I really like what the Jets fans bring to games with colour and entertainment, that fanbase is a sleeping giant and the show the Jets put on for them is extremely good. In the not-too-distant future I can see the Jets having a big season on the court and given the work they are doing right now with their fans, trust me when I say that Palmerston North will be absolutely gripped with basketball fever. Also, I love seeing the fans charge onto the court in Dunedin straight after a Nuggets game, this has been a real highlight for me this season – long may it continue.

Who is the most athletic player in the Sal’s NBL?

Brook Ruscoe and I had the pleasure – and we enjoyed it – of seeing Marlon Taylor (Saints) and Troy Baxter Jr. (Rams) locking their athletic horns on Saturday night, but I also want to add Isaiah Mucius (Saints) to this conversation because week-by-week he is putting on a great show. Between these three import Americans we witnessed some huge throwdowns on Saturday, the biggest coming from the freshly dubbed ‘Tallahassee Tomahawk’ – aka Baxter Jr.

It’s so hard to separate the three of them, they are all equally as athletic and exciting to watch. However, to avoid sitting on the fence, I’m going with Troy Baxter Jr. given his athleticism at both ends of the floor. While we know he can dunk (in a big, big way), he’s usually also good for a thrilling block or two each game as well. That said, I can confidently speak on behalf of all our Sky Sport commentary team when I say we are literally on the edge of our seats – just like you – every time Taylor, Mucius or Baxter Jr. have ball in hand. Great stuff!

Who were the big winners in Round 8?

Well, I think the most relieved person in the Sal’s NBL after R8 was Everard Bartlett. The rookie coach was no doubt under some stress after his team had collected just one win from seven games, but a road trip in the Sal’s NBL often proves to be the perfect tonic for a team suffering a drop in form. The Hawks headed south and took down both the Nuggets and Sharks, the two wins getting them back on track and jumping up the ladder. While they remain the only team to win a home game this season, victories on the road count for the same as wins at home, so for me, the big R8 winners – the Hawke’s Bay Hawks and their relieved coach.

Why is the Final 6 played at one venue and why is the Grand Final at 6pm on a Sunday?

Based on what I know from previous years, which I believe is still the same this season, due to high travel costs and poor venue availability up and down the country, the Sal’s NBL teams have again elected to play the finals at one venue over a 4-day period, hence the Final 6 in West Auckland at The Trusts Arena. Many venues require bookings up to a year in advance these days, and in some cities you literally only have one main venue available, so a team booking a venue in the heat of the season – sometimes following the last round of the regular season – is basically impossible. And then of course you have to deal with last minute flights and accommodation, which during a finals series being played on home courts could mean you have to fly and play inside the next 48 hours – again, loaded with problems and enhanced when you have just one main airline available to all ports.

The League isn’t quite at the level yet of being able to arrange chartered flights or own private jets! As for why the Grand Final is at 6pm on a Sunday - fairly simple answer. The Sunday 6pm timeslot is when the Sal’s NBL is on Prime TV each week. To help support the League and its fantastic growth, and to increase coverage to all fans, Sky Sport (where I work) wants to make the Sal’s NBL Grand Final accessible on free-to-air TV for all fans. To do this, the Sunday 6pm slot on Prime TV is the time available – hence the Grand Final being played at this time. Hopefully it leads to more Sal’s NBL and basketball fans across all of New Zealand being able to enjoy the game on both Sky Sport and Prime TV.

Who is leading the MVP race at the halfway mark?

My favourite for the MVP right now is Rob Loe (Tuatara) – he is in great form at both ends of the floor, his presence and skills are at an extremely high level and his team is in winning form. I think JaQuori McLaughlin (Nuggets) isn’t too far behind, along with Jeremy Kendle (Sharks), Todd Withers (Nuggets) and Jarrad Weeks (Tuatara). Remember, the system used in the Sal’s NBL – which I think is as good as any other system going around – relies on the coaches of both teams to give votes after every game of the regular season. From there, the top 10 vote-getters go into a final vote conducted by a panel, which usually includes all 10 x coaches and 5 x independent people (commentators, media etc). This ultimately decides the season MVP.


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