Jordan Hunter (left) and Jaylen Adams (right) during the 2021-22 NBL season. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings, Design: Will Cuckson)

The Sydney Kings won the NBL Championship in the 2021/22 season, their first since 2005. However, NBL21 Most Improved Player runner-up, Jordan Hunter missed the entire season through injury. The Kings’ centre spoke to The Inner Sanctum about last season, his injury, his journey, his recovery, and what he is excited about this season.

The 2021/22 NBL season was meant to be the year Jordan Hunter cemented his spot and continued to improve his game as the centre for the Sydney Kings.

Coming off the back of the 2020/21 NBL season, where he was runner-up to Sam Froling from the Illawarra Hawks in the Most Improved Player award, the 6′ 10″ centre was ready to shine.

He had also watched Andrew Bogut during his time at the Kings, biding his time to take Bogut’s spot and make that centre position his own.

However, during the NBL 2021/22 pre-season, Hunter suffered a broken finger before a foot fracture saw him miss the rest of the season.

“[I didn’t feel] great, as you can imagine,” Hunter told The Inner Sanctum.

“It was a strange pre-season. I got COVID at the time when you were in your room for two weeks as a close contact. I was a close contact and then on day seven, tested positive.

“So, I spent three weeks in my room and then came out and broke my finger [in] one of the first training [sessions] back.

“So, I missed the first two games. I was out for about six weeks, [and] missed most of pre-season, even though we had that long COVID-impacted stop-start pre-season.

“Then my first full training session back from my finger, I broke my foot.”

The 25-year-old explained how he felt when he had broken his foot.

“Shocked, really, I’ve never really broken a bone… ‘never really’, sorry, I don’t mean to make that quantitative,” he laughed.

“I’d never broken a bone before, besides my finger and then my foot. So, it was definitely strange.

“I was shocked and then you hear the timeline and it’s very disappointing.”

Despite these injuries and the season that he missed, Hunter emphasised the support he received from his teammates.

“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and that extends to the coaches,” he said.

“Chase [Sydney Kings head coach Chase Buford], it’s his first year and there’s a myriad of things he had to juggle including leading a new program in his first year and getting everyone on the same page.

“He was great at keeping me feeling involved and that’s all the coaches, top to bottom.

“Kev [Assistant coach Kevin Lisch], Fleur [Assistant coach, Fleur McIntyre], and the performance staff led by Toby Banfield and Mitch Fuller.

“Especially the Zone 34 staff led by Dave Hillard and Simon Hall just keeping my spirits up.”

The whole club banded together to ensure Hunter was well supported throughout the entire process of the injury, from the diagnosis to the recovery.

“I felt very fortunate to be on such a close-knit team,” Hunter said.

“Paul Smith, Chris Pongrass, and Luc Longley. Those guys were invaluable to me as well.

“Just checking on me all the time, it can be really lonely, that time, but I didn’t feel that for one second.

“That’s a credit to that close-knit organisation.”

Experiencing a season in the squad from the sideline injured compared to playing out on the court was a different experience for Hunter.

“I was very ill-equipped and I’d never had to do something like that,” he said.

“At the start, when we were struggling, you’re itching to be out there so you can help. You feel like you can help this way and that way.

“[While] you’re sitting there in a moon boot. That helplessness was an interesting feeling that I’ve not had to deal with in basketball before.”

The Sydney Kings leave the court (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Once the Kings’ fortunes had turned, that feeling of helplessness changed.

“Then the tide turned and we were killing it and making a Championship run and that itchiness didn’t go away,” Hunter explained.

“You’re just so desperate to be out there amongst it.

“They’re having so much fun, so it was difficult in that regard, but I was so happy for the club. It was such an awesome ride to be on.

“So watching from the sideline, not ideal, but there are worse gigs in the world.”

Hunter spoke about his rehab process and journey and the effect it had on him.

“As with any rehab, it can get monotonous,” he explained.

“Again, credit to the Zone 34 staff. They were just amazing.

“I’m sure their task felt like babysitting me a lot of the time.

The centre had a lot of praise for the performance and physio staff.

“They were there every day with a smile on their face, taking care of me,” Hunter said.

However, the injuries he sustained were complicated to recover from.

“But, because I broke that navicular and I had that pinned, I also had all the ligaments reconstructed in that ankle. The rehab was interesting,” Hunter explained.

“Because your navicular would be ready to do certain parts of the rehab, but your reconstruction wouldn’t be ready to do those sort of things.

“We had to tailor and [figure out] what we can do with these thresholds. Then suddenly, the ligaments are ready to do something and the navicular isn’t ready to be under that load.

“It was nothing that I did, it was all the brains of our physios and performance team that pieced that together.

“They had me ready to play games by the end of the season.”

Shot hit at Qudos Bank Arena (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

However, due to NBL rules, Hunter was unable to play for the Kings in the NBL Finals.

“You have to qualify for Finals, which is a rule to stop teams from bringing in imports at the last second, but usually just ends up keeping injured Aussies from playing at the end of the season,” Hunter said.

“They did an amazing job and they put me in a good position to go and have a cool NBL1 season to get me ready for this season.”

Hunter had a mentality he tried to stick with throughout the injury and rehab process. One that would best help him get back to his best as soon as possible.

“Just day by day,” he said.

“At the start, it was ‘you’re shut down for the whole season’. It feels like there’s no end in sight.

“You don’t want to get too big picture because you’ll go insane.

“That was probably the hardest part of getting injured is that I had big goals and things I wanted to achieve that I felt like last year I was a big part of.

“All you could really is [think], ‘what am I doing with my rehab today?’ and ‘what can I do to help training today?’

“That was the only way I could stay sane.”

Hunter explained what he did outside of basketball that also kept him sane.

“It was a lot of time with my wonderful family and girlfriend and exploring hobbies outside of basketball that kept me sane,” he said.

“It’s a strange forced downtime, similar to lockdowns. So I guess I got a lot of reps through COVID at what I do when I’m not playing basketball.

“You keep yourself busy because some of that competitive fire and that joy of the game is taken away from you a little bit.

“So, you’ve gotta kind of channel that in a healthy way because some athlete brain things don’t translate well to everyday life.”

Sydney Kings players walk down the tunnel (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Hunter also talked about his hobbies outside of playing, including old and new.

“I’m a copious consumer of movies and tv and music. I’ve not quite finished all the movies and tv and songs that there are. I’ve nearly finished YouTube,” Hunter smiled.

“Mostly my hobbies are, I like to write, I love fantasy and Sci-Fi.

“I try to do a little bit of that myself and for the most part, [it’s] hard to read back myself.

“But it’s something that keeps me very busy and I really enjoy doing it. I got a lot of time to do that these last few months.”

There were many people Hunter wanted to acknowledge who helped lift him up throughout the injury and recovery process.

“The people I was fortunate enough to be around at work when I was there and just the support of my partner and my family,” he said.

“Those things are just invaluable in times like those, just keeping your spirits up.

“That’s not necessarily telling you that ‘there’s always next year with basketball’, like some days you don’t wanna hear about that.

“It’s just the daily interactions I had with the people at the Kings, my friends, my family, and my partner.

“It’s nothing specific, but just every day they were there for me.”

Sydney Kings players band together during a match (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Given he didn’t play a role on the court last season, he played his own role off it. Hunter explained what the Sydney Kings Championship means to him.

“I’m so proud of the club and what they achieved and proud to be a part of the club,” he said.

“I’m hoping this year, [the] expectations are to do it again, that I have a bigger hand to play in it.

“It was just such a fun ride to witness and people that I really care about achieved a really impressive goal.

“I couldn’t have been happier.”

With Hunter’s return, he will be working to get back into the team and make his mark this season under Chase Buford.

“I’ll just try and focus on what my strengths are and that’s defence and rebounding. Hopefully, there are some ways offensively that I can chip in that I was working on before I got injured,” Hunter said.

“Through this NBL1 season, it’s just about doing what I do well and trying to be the best at that.

“If that helps the Kings win games, then I’m sure I’ll get a bit of a run out there.”

When asked what he was most looking forward to, Hunter had a simple answer.

“Just being out there again,” he said.

“It’s been a long time since I played for the Kings. I’ve actually not sat down and figured out exactly how long.

“But I’ll be so excited to step out onto our home floor and play with these guys again. It’s been a long time.”

Given his promising form and talent before his injuries, Hunter has a lot to give to the squad this season.

As for his driving factor this upcoming season?

“My basketball goal is always to represent Australia,” Hunter said.

“The NBL is positioned now as one of the best leagues in the world.

“You can achieve any of your basketball dreams from here.

“You can feel it in the air that the Kings, our goal is to win the Championship again or else we haven’t met our expectations and that’s very exciting.

“That’s something I want to be a part of, but for me, the number one basketball goal has always been to play for the Boomers.”

Sydney Kings prepare for a match against the Cairns Taipans (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

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To win back-to-back Championships, it will take a camaraderie and teamwork which comes from having a close group.

Hunter talked about his closeness with those at the club.

“I like to think I’m fairly close with a lot of the guys,” he said.

“I have a great relationship with Luc (Longely, Kings assistant coach) and he’s taken amazing care of me since I got here.

“He just sees the world in a way that I want to see the world, that has been invaluable.

“But I’m very close with all the staff.

“There’s not a person in that locker room I wouldn’t sit down and have dinner with.”

And as for the players?

“No, none of them are my friends,” Hunter laughed.

“Xav (Xavier Cooks) and Shaun (Bruce) have been here since my first year.

“You had ‘Glove’ (Angus Glover) and ‘DJ’ (Dejan Vasiljevic), those guys have been good early on.

“I can honestly say it’s just a great group of guys that I love being around.

“These imports that we’ve brought in this year are amazing guys and they’re putting in the hard yards already.

“But yeah, I share a close bond with Xav and Shaun, for sure.”

Xavier Cooks (right) during the NBL Indigenous Round (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

A host of new signings have joined the Kings as they lost some talent after the 2021/22 NBL season. Hunter spoke of his new teammates.

First, he spoke of Derrick Walton Jr, the American point guard who recently played for the Detroit Pistons and their G-League affiliate, the Motor City Cruise.

“We lost three outstanding imports last year and whenever that happens, it can be a bit daunting,” Hunter said.

“But we’ve replaced them with just really high-quality character guys who are, you know, their basketball careers thus far speak for themselves.

“Derrick (Walton Jr) will be that cool, jack-of-all-trades point guard that you want.

“Running the show and he’s a great passer, and he has just had an awesome career.

“He’ll be paramount in making sure we get back to the place we want to get to.

“I could say the same about [Justin Simon] and [Tim Soares].”

Hunter also spoke about Justin Simon, the American shooting guard who joined from Riesen Ludwigsburg in Germany and what he’ll bring to the team.

“Justin Simon is just a tenacious defender and we’re lucky to have swooped him up when we did,” he said.

“He’ll just bring a defensive versatility that is hard to find.

“He’ll play every possession like his life depends on it. That helps you win.”

The last of the imports Hunter spoke about was Brazilian centre Tim Soares, who joined from Ironi Ness Ziona in Israel.

“Tim is a great stretch big, great inside and out. He’s got a great touch all the way out to [the] three,” he said.

“Big physical body, great rebounder, [he] will help us protect the rim.

“Another great versatile player and that’s kind of where basketball is going. You want versatile offensive and defensive players, guys who are gonna be comfortable in a lot of different spots on the floor.

“Derrick, Tim, and Justin are all that and they’re gonna help us win games, that’s for sure.”

As for the players and staff who have left the club, Hunter had a strong connection with a lot of them.

“That’s the nature of it, you have guys come and go,” he said.

“I was really close with Craig Moller who went over to Europe, another Sydney boy.

“Tom Vodanovich, who went to the Breakers, was just a great presence in the locker room and a great guy to be around.

“There’s a lot of guys who come and go, Casper Ware, even coaches like Will Weaver.

“It can be a bit of a revolving door sometimes, basketball, which is unfortunate.

“Last year, our three imports were just great dudes and now they’re off doing amazing things.”

Tom Vodanovich warming up for the Sydney Kings (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

A mixture of players can bring excitement but it presents a new challenge for the club heading into a new season.

“It’s a great mix of both this year, it’s half and half and it’s great,” Hunter said.

“Because you hit the ground running in a lot of respects.

“[It’s] also helpful because you get to kind of learn the program from the ground up again, which is something that I desperately needed having not played at all last year.

“So, it’s always exciting to see new guys integrating and see what they can bring to the table.

“It’s just an exciting group. We’re bringing in versatile guys like Kouat Noi, it’s gonna be an exciting team that people are gonna enjoy.”

Hunter’s preparation for this season has been unique, given he didn’t play last season and has found his feet again through the NBL1 competition, lining up for the North Gold Coast Seahawks as he got himself ready for the new NBL season.

“I just went up to the NBL1 to get miles in my foot and get that feeling ready to roll,” he said.

“I feel like I’ve had a great off-season, refreshed and excited for the new season, but also having laid a cool foundation up in Queensland to hit the ground running.”

Hunter explained how it felt to be out on the court playing basketball again.

“It’s very surreal,” he said.

“To be honest, I was a bit emotional when it happened in the NBL1 for the first time.

“But now, it’s just exciting to be out there. It’s no fun being on the sideline when there are games going on.

“It’s just great to be back out there.

As for what he is looking forward to in the upcoming NBL Blitz?

“It’d be great to see the appetite for basketball up there [in Darwin],” Hunter said.

“It’s a really cool city and an NBL team will work up there.

“I’m excited to see what that looks like.

“More importantly, I’m excited to start games with this group and see how we gel when we throw ourselves in the fire, even though it’s pre-season.

“It’s a good time to start battle testing and it’ll be an exciting taste of what’s to come.”

Sydney Kings Head Coach Chase Buford watching his side away to the Cairns Taipans (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Hunter explained what his goals are for this season, personally.

“I think the Kings winning again will take care of any personal goal if they do arise.”

As for what he is most excited about this season?

“It’ll be good to see the first non-COVID-impacted NBL season, touch wood [since before COVID],” Hunter smiled.

“It’ll be great to have big crowds back excited about the basketball and excited about the Kings.

“It was hitting such a precipice before COVID and then obviously what happened, happened.

“We were starting to get that momentum back and obviously winning, it helps out immensely.

“We’ll hope to keep the good times rolling.”

The NBL Blitz tips off on September 16, with the South East Melbourne Phoenix playing the Adelaide 36ers at 8:00 pm AEST.

The Sydney Kings kick off their Blitz campaign on September 17 at 5:30 pm AEST against the Tasmania JackJumpers, while they also play the South-East Melbourne Phoenix on September 21 at 5:30 pm AEST. They finish off against the New Zealand Breakers on September 23 at 5:30 pm AEST.

The Sydney Kings start their NBL season away to the Illawarra Hawks on October 1st at 8:00 pm AEST.

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