The ramifications of COVID meant we only had two games in Round 5 of the NBL which saw the Perth Wildcats and Melbourne United flex their muscles once more, but there were plenty of talking points to come out of it.
A packed round of action ended up whittled down to just one NBL match up on New Year’s Eve and one on New Year’s Day. It’s hard to not come out of those matches without feeling like last year’s Grand Finalists, Perth and Melbourne are on track to fight for the title in 2022 once more.
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The first game of the round took place up in Cairns on New Year’s Eve with the Taipans rocked on game day with the loss of star import Tahjere McCall who joined Scott Machado and Mirko Djeric on the sidelines.
However, the Snakes were unfazed and raced out to a 23-5 lead against the Perth Wildcats only for Bryce Cotton to take the game away from them with 29 points over the next two quarters with the ‘Cats maintaining top spot with the 84-78 victory.
Melbourne United then found themselves 10 points down early in the second quarter in Hobart on New Year’s Day against the Tasmania JackJumpers. But the reigning champs responded and held the JackJumpers to three points in the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter on the way to the 76-72 win.
We now hope that Round 6 sees action resume to normal with a game scheduled Friday night, two on Saturday, two on Sunday and another on Monday.
Here are the five big things coming out of the action:
BRYCE SENDS A REMINDER THAT HE’S THE BEST
Three-time MVP Bryce Cotton might not have quite set the world alight to start this NBL season, but he sent a reminder of why he’s the best player in the league on New Year’s Eve with 29 points across the second and third quarters alone.
Cotton has somewhat played facilitator role to the exploits of new teammate Vic Law so far this season, but that all changed in Cairns on New Year’s Eve when the Perth Wildcats needed him to help them overcome a horror 23-5 start.
Cotton himself had a rough first quarter where he had his shot blocked, he threw up an air ball and coughed up some uncharacteristic turnovers, but then he showed why he is in the discussion of the greatest player in NBL history.
The triple MVP had a rough first quarter, including shooting 0/4 from the field and being scoreless at quarter-time. That didn’t last long. In the second quarter alone, he scored a remarkable 19 points while hitting all four of his three-point attempts.
He added another 10 points in the third quarter with all 29 points he scored for the game coming in the second and third terms as the Wildcats turned an 18-point deficit into a six-point victory to remain on top of the NBL standings.
Not that Cotton needed to remind anyone, but it did send a message that he is still an unstoppable force and beyond it all, he cares about winning more than anything.
“I just wanted us to pay attention to the game plan. I felt like we played as poor as we could have possibly played in the first quarter, but we knew that if we chipped away and played how we were supposed to, especially on the defensive end then our offence would take care of itself,” Cotton said.
“We started to chip away at the lead and we got a little bit of life especially going into that second quarter and by half-time we felt pretty good even though we had a couple of turnovers in that final 10 seconds. But the second quarter showed us what the rest of the game could be.”
UNITED BIG MEN COULD FOLLOW JOCK’S FOOTSTEPS
Jock Landale led Melbourne United to a championship last season and is now shining in the NBA at the San Antonio Spurs. There’s no reason that Jo Lual-Acuil and Ariel Hukporti couldn’t now be on the same trajectory.
Landale had a standout NBL season last year leading United to the championship before then being signed to the San Antonio Spurs, and now after a rocky start to the NBA season, he’s contributing strongly to their cause.
Melbourne decided to entrust Lual-Acuil as the key man to step into the role that Landale played last season. He is thriving in the role early in the season both as a scorer who is averaging 13.8 points a game, but also with shot blocking at 2.5 a game.
He is the first player now in Melbourne United’s history to reach 100 blocks and at 27 years of age, with his size and shooting touch, along with improving defence and shot blocking, and rebounding, he absolutely could have an NBA future.
Then there is German Next Star Hukporti who has come to the NBL this season with the hope of honing his craft in a similar fashion to LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey to be ready to enter the NBA next season.
The powerhouse 19-year-old is already wreaking havoc on the rims across the NBL but he’s also developing nicely finding his feet as an inside offensive threat for Melbourne while his defence is getting better all the time.
The biggest difference ultimately for United’s win against the JackJumpers on New Year’s Day was the size advantage Melbourne had with Tasmania missing Will Magnay through COVID protocols.
As a result, Lual-Acuil finished with 19 points and seven rebounds for United, and Hukporti 11 points and six boards.
Coach Dean Vickerman was happy with how his two bigs took advantage but feels they can still get better.
“They both had solid games,” Vickerman said.
“We thought if we shifted the basketball the way we wanted to shifted that we probably could have got them a few extra easy looks as well, but they did miss a couple that they missed on good entry passes as well.
“We can still improve on that area of taking better advantage of the advantages they give us.”
STAR SNAKE’S ABSENCE SHOWS HE CAN’T BE LOST
The Cairns Taipans were rocked when star import Tahjere McCall hurt himself at game day Shootaround on New Year’s Eve but what it highlighted is how much they can’t afford him to answer an NBA SOS call.
The Taipans already knew when they awoke on Friday morning that they would be without regular back court starters Scott Machado and Mirko Djeric for their traditional New Year’s Eve home clash against the Perth Wildcats.
Then during the Shootaround on the morning of the game, the one player the Taipans couldn’t afford to lose, import Tahjere McCall, slipped and injured a knee ruling him out of taking on the Wildcats.
To say he was a loss was quite the understatement. McCall arrived in Cairns this season a renowned defender and he has lived up to the billing, likely the leading candidate to win the Damian Martin trophy as Best Defensive Player.
He has proven much more than that though. With Machado going down injured, McCall has done a lot of the ball handling and playmaking duties for the Taipans, he has been assuming a lot of the scoring load and is the best all-round player in the NBL so far this season.
So coming up against the ‘Cats on New Year’s Eve, he would need to be asked to guard either Bryce Cotton or Vic Law, would be running the point for a large period and would be asked to take on a lot of scoring responsibility.
Then it was a hammer blow when he hurt his knee at Shootaround. His Taipans team fought hard without him and got off to a fast start before being overcome by Perth in the finish.
What it did show, though, was how valuable McCall has already become for the Taipans. Not only do they need him back from this knee scare, but also need him to resist the temptation of taking up a return to the NBA instead of seeing out this NBL season.
“He was obviously a massive loss and he is, just like everybody is that we’re missing out of our line-up,” Taipans coach Adam Forde said.
“That changes how we wanted to defend. Because he hurt himself on game day and it was all pretty quick, we aren’t sure what the diagnosis.
“I’ll wait until I get all the information from the experts so I’m the last to know with that and I like to be. I want to get all the information and then work out how to fix it, so we don’t know much at this point.”
TASSIE HOMECOMING A CAREER HIGHLIGHT FOR UNITED SKIPPER
Chris Goulding has put together a career full of highlights since leaving his old home in Tasmania, but his return on New Year’s Day to play his first official NBL game in his home state is something he’ll never forget.
Goulding spent his early childhood years in Launceston before his family moved to Brisbane aged eight. Eventually his remarkable basketball career took off that has now included winning bronze with the Australian Boomers and captain United to two NBL championships.
However, he’s always felt a connection back to his old home state, was hoping they would get their own NBL team again and was delighted when that happened with the JackJumpers joining the competition this season.
Goulding was eagerly awaiting what came on New Year’s Day when he got to play back in Tasmania for the first time in an official NBL game.
His Melbourne team had to fight hard for the win, though, coming from 10 points down to end up beating the JackJumpers 76-72 with Goulding contributing another 14 points while making an impressive 4/7 from three-point territory.
Goulding was relieved to get the win afterwards, but in the bigger picture as a Tasmanian native, it was a thrill for him to be playing an official NBL game back in Hobart.
“It was cool. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Goulding said.
“Tassie getting a team has been a long time coming in my mind so I definitely pencilled in the first time we were coming down here, and I wanted to experience the updated stadium, the sold out crowd and to come away with a win was cool.
“It was looking a little dicey there at times and that’s a credit to them, and how they’ve built this team and how they are playing even with key guys out. They play hard, they play a tough brand of basketball that’s going to keep them in games.
“Overall I’m really pleased to come out of here with a win and I’m really happy to be doing a press conference down here in Tassie after an NBL game. That’s awesome.”
ROOKIE LESSONS COULD TAKE HIM A LONG WAY
He might not be a Next Star officially but there’s no reason Cairns Taipans rookie Bul Kuol can’t be aiming to have an NBA future and there’s no doubt his development accelerated by chasing around Bryce Cotton on New Year’s Eve.
There is a lot of things the NBL is doing well right now and one of them is providing a platform for young players to develop and improve their game to be ready to enter the NBA.
LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey are the two most obvious examples, but if you dig deeper you can also point to Jock Landale, Jae’Sean Tate, RJ Hampton and Cam Oliver as players who might be doing what they are in the NBA without having honed their craft in the NBL.
The Taipans might not have had a great Next Star experience with Mojave King last season who is now with the Adelaide 36ers, but in the case of rookie guard Bul Kuol, he might very well be on that same trajectory.
Through necessity with injuries to Scott Machado, Mirko Djeric, Jordan Ngatai and now Tahjere McCall, Kuol has had to be thrown in the deep end in his first NBL season and he is more than holding his own.
While ideally he might be more of a small forward, he is spending significant time as a point guard for the Snakes and his natural size and athleticism is giving him some advantages in that role.
He is proving himself a capable ball handler and playmaker, he is scoring well when called upon and his defence is rapidly developing simply because of the calibre of player he is now being asked to guard.
On New Year’s Eve, that meant coach Adam Forde threw Kuol right in the deep end and was asked to guard Perth Wildcats superstar Bryce Cotton for most of the evening.
His coach has no doubt the learning curve will only serve to accelerate his development.
“That was great for Bul to go up against the best player in the league,” Forde said.
“There are reasons why Bryce Cotton earns the dollars he does and wins the MVP’s and scoring titles. That’s a tough match up and Bul learnt how it’s officiated so he will be better for it. I can’t fault the guys for that.”
Taipans veteran guard Jarrod Kenny also spent time guarding Cotton and has done so for several years now since joining after winning championships in Perth, and also has no doubt the experience will help Kuol reach his potential.
“You can talk about it and watch film, but until you actually get on the floor and do it, that’s what really is invaluable for him,” Kenny said.
“The thing I love about Bul is that he’s keen to learn, he’s always asking questions and he listens. He’s coachable so for him I think he is a great defender as it is, but he’ll take a few big steps from that for sure.’