The Rapid Dozen

As momentum builds towards the Sal’s NBL season tip-off on Wednesday March 27, Sky Sport commentators Casey Frank and Justin Nelson tackle a Rapid Dozen questions that touch topics of interest around the upcoming season.  

Q1: Outside of the Final 6, which game or games are you looking forward to the most this season? 

Casey: The Rams getting to celebrate the ending of the championship drought to open the season will be a great ticket. Expecting some standing room only space as there just aren’t enough seats for all the fans who would like to be part of that. It’s always great to watch the first night for a new team, and the first home game for the Whai on the second night of the year will be a heck of a follow up to the opener. Outside of that I’m going to look towards the business end of the season and given how tight things were last year there are a couple of Round 16 matchups that will have impact on seeding. These include Otago hosting the Bulls and Taranaki hosting the Giants in the final game of the regular season and likely have some impact on seeding. 

Justin: Bring on both the Saints versus Jets games. There was genuine niggle when they played each other in Wellington last season, which led to some muscle being thrown around and a busy few days for the League as a number of infractions were dealt with. There’s no love lost between the neighbouring rivals and I think the antics last season won’t be forgotten. It’s almost a big brother - little brother rivalry. The Jets want to take down the heavyweights, while the Saints don’t want to hand over any bragging rights, so you just know there will always be some serious spice. 

Q2: Is there a team you are prepared to label as a ‘lock’ for the Final 6? 

Casey: You can never lock something down at this point of a preseason, but looking at current roster constructions I’d be surprised if either the Tuatara and Airs aren’t there. Deep, talented and big is a great combo and both teams have a couple of moves left to make. When the postseason comes calling, I think both squads will be around to assert their influence on things. 

Justin: For me I think the Airs will make it, especially if they land Javonte Douglas in the last import spot. I really like the mix of talent they have assembled; I’m expecting an exciting game style and some real highlights. Sam Mackinnon comes across as a leader as well, a coach the players will go into battle for. A number of other teams are also building formidable rosters, but I’m high on the Airs right now. 

Q3: Do you have a League MVP favourite yet? 

Casey: Not a favourite but there are a few who I would expect to put themselves on the list come the end of the year. Rob Loe should come in at a similar level to last season and will be leading a topflight squad. Hyrum Harris was my preseason pick a season ago and he has proved in Perth the type of influence he can have on winning while not filling the stat sheet like a traditional MVP candidate. If I’m forced to pick one, I’ll go with Sam Froling, he’s surrounded by talent so can’t see too many double teams, and his form in the Australian NBL has been fantastic and likely to carry over. 

Justin: Sam Froling at the Airs is on top in my books, he should feast in the Sal’s NBL, especially with the likes of Mitch McCarron and Flynn Cameron feeding him. Keep a close eye on Mustapha Heron at the Jets, Rob Loe at the Tuatara, and I’m a fan of LaGerald Vick at the Sharks. Of course, all of that could change in an instant with a heap of imports still to be announced - and I expect a lot of them will be coming from the NBA system in the G League. 

Q4: Which team would you rate as having the most intimidating (toughest to play at) home fans and environment? 

Casey: Nobody in the stands can block any shots so they don’t exactly make it tougher, but some of the louder environs can make communication tough when you’re switching defences or sending in plays, and not everybody loves being in that spotlight. The packed gyms are always the loudest, and the most fun to play in, and nobody packs em in like the Saints. Outside of the capital a full Shark Tank in Invercargill would get the sound bouncing around when they had you under the pump and Cowles doesn’t seem to have enough space for all the sound that bounces around in there when things are rolling for the Rams. Taranaki is a dark horse, when packed it’s really fun and you always know where you’re at (when I say Taranaki you say!) and it looks like there is going to be some winning basketball to support again this year. 

Justin: Two stand out. While I do think the Bulls could build the Stockyard into a daunting venue if they turned the music level down and we could hear the fans a bit more (nudge, nudge), it’s the Saints and Rams for me. The Saints do an incredible job at filling TSB Arena, and those fans bring the noise consistently. The energy and spark the Saints fans provide their team with is immeasurable. The place just rocks from start to finish. The other venue I think is really hard to win at is Cowles Stadium - it’s small, loud and incredibly daunting for opponents. You just feel so surrounded at Cowles by the fans, there’s nowhere to hide, that place literally closes in on you. 

Q5: Which coach do you think will be under the most pressure this season? 

Casey: Coaches fall in two categories, those who are looking for their next job and those that are waiting to get fired (sorry coaches!) so they are a group that is under constant pressure to meet and exceed expectations. But that outside pressure pales in comparison to what coaches put on themselves and from that perspective I think Aaron Young will be pushing himself and his squad to get over that final hurdle. Two years, two tight finals that came up just short will keep a coach up nights. Spare a thought for the number of coaches will be getting their first taste of action in the Sal’s NBL with Matt Lacey (Whai), Sam Mackinnon (Airs), Sam Gruggen (Hawks) and Sebastian Gleim (Bulls) all experiencing their first time holding the reigns for a team in NZ which will offer new challenges to those that they have previously experienced. 

Justin: Sacking under pressure coaches isn’t really a big thing in the Sal’s NBL (compared to other leagues around the world), so I don’t think any coach is under pressure to perform or be axed. However, I do think there is a different kind of pressure for Zico Coronel at the Saints - it’s called the weight of expectation. After two leaner years for the Saints, their 2021 championship-winning coach has returned for the team’s 40th season and with it comes an immediate expectation that he’s the man to return the league’s top dogs to the top of the mountain. Of course, as we know, he’s more than capable of doing exactly that. 

Q6: Based on the players signed thus far, which player are you most looking forward to watching and commentating? 

Casey: I do love the bigs and there are a bevy of them across the league after the early free agency period. Returning MVP Rob Loe coming off his MVP year will be tested by Sam Froling, who I expect to be an efficient double-double machine. I’m also excited for locals Sam Timmins and his low post dominance coming to Franklin, Callum McRae being on display for a full season, Jack Andrew with a full minute’s load and Sam Mennenga getting more asked of himself after a rookie year finding his feet in Cairns. Add a number of young bigs across the comp that are just joining the NBL or may get more defined roles this season to that long list too, but I might be most excited to see a trio of young guards across the comp with Flynn Cameron in Taranaki and Ben Henshall along with Dontae Russo-Nance down in Dunners, these youthful talents are tracking as high impact international level players, and I can’t wait to see how they respond to greater levels of responsibility on their shoulders as we watch them develop over the course of season. 

Justin: Carlin Davison at the Airs is so much fun to commentate, you can’t help but jump out of your seat when he does something spectacular. I know Casey will probably go with Rob Loe and Sam Froling as he loves the big guys, so I’ll go with a few guards and say Mustapha Heron at the Jets, Reuben Te Rangi at the Tuatara, LaGerald Vick at the Sharks, and I can’t wait to see Donate Russo-Nance (Nuggets) back in the League. I do want a throw a big guy in as well - I’ve always been a fan of Dom Keenan-Poto, he’s just so much fun to watch him go about his craft in the paint, and a good human as well. 

Q7: You both get to watch a lot of games – in your opinion, which team delivers the best entertainment for fans? 

Casey: When two good teams are going back and forth the game itself is the best entertainment you can ask for and that is what really makes for a fan’s great night out, and to be fair I haven’t actually had a ton of experience as being solely a fan at games as I’m normally busy with a couple of other things. That said I always walk away from a game in Wellington impressed by the atmosphere, and I love it when the kids swarm the court to get up close with the players postgame. The last few years in the Naki have provided a great environment with engaged crowds being inspired by the play on the court and Cowles always feels great with the fans packed in right on top of you almost feeling like they are right in the huddle when the Rams are playing well. I did get to enjoy a Tuatara game as a fan last year and being on the sidelines watching my kids reactions to the games up close and personal made for an awesome night for me and the fam. 

Justin: Ok, looking to get me in trouble now. I love what the Jets are doing with the Green Army, the fans in Palmy are just so engaged and locked into the entertainment on and off the court. If the Jets make the Final 6 that town will go troppo. The Sharks do a cool job, especially when the bouncy pirate ship makes an appearance. Then there’s the Yeti at the Airs and Magilla at the Saints, they are both just constantly mobbed by the fans, while I like some of the activations and fun the Tuatara has in place, a very creative bunch. To be fair, all teams deliver the goods. All up though, my vote goes to the Saints. Just a great night out for fans, superb. 

Q8: Do you think there will be a fairytale or Cinderella season from any team in 2024? 

Casey: I think there are always great stories such as the Rams last year or the Nugs a couple years back, but a true rags to riches fairytale from a nothing (in terms of title hopes) to something is tough to pull off. The Airs look like an early favourite after a great offseason and were close a couple of years back so it’s not exactly a rags to riches story, but they came back from a wins wasteland to having the lead in a semi-final with mere moments remaining. But for a real Cinderella fell you can’t go past Manawatū, who have been knocking on the back door for a few years now and it would be great to see them knock it down and storm their way to some postseason glory. But do I think we’ll actually see it… probably not. 

Justin: Possibly, but you always need a lot to go right - win the close ones, stay healthy, and your best players have to deliver. If the Airs can keep it together and have those key things go right for them, I can definitely see them winning their first-ever championship. The Whai making the Final 6 would be a good story, while a Jets sighting in the playoffs might just lead to a street parade in Palmy! 

Q9: We are yet to see each team’s 2024 uniform designs, but which team are you expecting to look sharp? 

Casey: Can’t wait for the uni reveal! Look good, feel good, play good (and hopefully commentate good!). I’m almost always a fan of the classic clean blue and white the Saints and Giants bring to the table while the Nuggets yellow and baby blue has been popping off the screen for the past couple of years. The Whai have been fire in Tauihi, I’m interested to see if they just run it back for the men or if there are some tweaks coming. 

Justin: I don’t think the Nuggets have let us down over the last few years, so I’m putting them out on top of the fashion sweepstakes. I’m always a fan of the Rams as well - never complicated, just a good clean and sharp look. 

Q10: Based on player signings thus far, do you have a pick to win the Sky Broadband Rapid League? 

Casey: Based on just current info it’s tough to say, and any predictions at this point will surely be thrown back at me later, but early returns have me leaning to the Tuatara, who have a nice mix of experience and youth on the bench, and the Rams, who will have a young group itching for playing time. I feel like most teams will be very young, so I’ll lean towards the squads that have a bit of veteran nous available to themselves across the RL season.  

Justin: No, I don’t, it’s way too early for that as the Rapid League really is about the full roster, each team’s depth and talent all the way through their squad. With so many more players still to be signed and announced, I can’t accurately predict a winner of Rapid League until probably the eve of the opening round, and even then, there is a high chance of being completely wrong. 

Q11: What are you expecting to see from teams in the Sky Broadband Rapid League? 

Casey: Young up and coming players getting a wee bit of freedom. I like the fact that the coaches in RL don’t have a tight hold on the reigns (only player timeouts, only 1 per half) and that players can have a full run across the 16-minute game (4x4minute quarters). That’s the best way to develop, get out and play while getting the time to figure things out on the court. Most of all I expect big scores, with the scores crossing over into the Sal’s to help compute percentages, teams will be looking to push the tempo and get things going on the offensive end. All points to a great apéritif for NBL games all season long.  

Justin: Based on how the Tauihi teams approached Rapid League last year, I expect we will see very fast-paced games where players will be encouraged to shoot with confidence and trust their first instinct. I think fans will be very surprised by how up-tempo this competition is. The other big expectation will be the rise of young talent, the chance for fans and viewers to see talented young Kiwi players showing their skills, whereas before Rapid League they would get buried down the end of a bench far too often.  

Q12: Who’s your favourite person to commentate with? 

Justin: Nope, not going there - all of them are fun! We have a really good crew who are passionate and dedicated, they love the league and want to do the best job possible. We all really enjoy each other’s company as well, which is important. Given I’m always commentating with past or current players, I love hearing about their playing days, the stories and banter, their toughest opponents and memories, but also the experience and insight they bring to the coverage. It’s great being involved in those conversations and listening to them. I often go into fan mode and just soak it in. 

Casey: Mulls… 


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