Sydney Kings Assistant Coach Kevin Lisch at Qudos Bank Arena. [Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings, Design: Will Cuckson]

The Sydney Kings won their first National Basketball League Championship since 2005 after their 3-0 triumph over the Tasmania JackJumpers in the 2021-22 Grand Final series. Now, they’re looking to defend the throne this season. Kings’ assistant coach, Kevin Lisch, sat down with The Inner Sanctum to discuss how they plan on doing just that.

It is one of the toughest questions in sport – how does a championship-winning team back up? What drives them to go again the next season to achieve the same heights, or even greater?

The Sydney Kings have the luxury of having that problem this upcoming 2022/23 NBL season after they ended their 17-year wait for a Championship last time out.

But how will the Kings tackle the challenge of defending the throne? What mentality will they bring?

Head Coach Chase Buford instructing his players during a match in the 2021-22 NBL season (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

“There are little tweaks that come and go. You definitely reflect on the season that was and things you could have done better and things you didn’t do as well,” Kevin Lisch explained to The Inner Sanctum.

“To say you don’t change anything is not true, you make little tweaks.

“We are who we are and we’ve tried to recruit that way, as well.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how this new group comes together because, in basketball, it’s not like a lot of jobs. You’ve got guys coming and going, it’s a revolving door all the time.

“So, you better put things together real quick.”

In the off-season, the revolving door has been in full swing.

There have been plenty of outgoings, the most notable being the Andrew Gaze NBL Most Valuable Player Jaylen Adams, who departed the club for Crvena Zvezda in Serbia.

Fellow departures include Jarell Martin to Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, Makur Maker to the Washington Wizards in the NBA, Wani Swaka Lo Buluk to the Illawarra Hawks and Tom Vodanovich to the New Zealand Breakers. Ian Clark is also among the players who departed.

Sydney Kings celebrate their 98-88 win over the Cairns Taipans during Indigenous Round (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch spoke of his relationship with those players who have left and the impact they had on the team last season.

“I probably started getting a little bit closer with Makur Maker, ‘MK’, and just his journey,” Lisch said.

“He was a guy that I started to look after and he had some injuries early.

“I really enjoyed the process of working through some things with him. I mean, his hard work worked him through all those things.

“Just being able to see… here’s a guy with huge expectations and had to go through some tough times early.

“Then you saw what he was at the end of the season, helping us win, it was great to see.”

Makur Maker became the first NBL Next Star to win an NBL Championship, as he stepped up during the back end of the season.

In Game 3 of the Grand Final series, the centre picked up 10 points, four rebounds, and two blocks as the Kings won the Grand Finals series 3-0.

The NBL Next Star linked up with the Chicago Bulls for the 2022 NBA Summer League in Vegas before he signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Washington Wizards.

“It’s so good to see and what you want for any job is to help a guy develop to where they have their dreams set at,” Lisch said.

“Any time you can help facilitate that, no matter what level they get to, or even if it’s off the court… I think that’s pretty gratifying.

“The guys who have done that have just worked so hard and had such great attitudes that, most of it was them, too.”

Makur Maker attempting a shot against the Illawarra Hawks (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch also spoke of his relationships with the other players who have departed.

“It’s such a revolving door, but you have the imports like Ian Clark… [he] was just a leader on and off the court, hit some huge shots, [had] big games for us against [the JackJumpers],” he said.

“The whole time he was with us at the Kings… he’s gotta be one of the best winning percentages of any King to play.

“I don’t even know what his winning percentage was, but it’d be pretty good.”

Ian Clark won an NBA Championship with the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and was electric for the Kings, averaging 12.9 points, two assists and 2.5 rebounds in 22.8 minutes per game.

This was highlighted in Game Three against the JackJumpers in the Grand Final series, where he scored 22 points and earned two rebounds, three assists, and one block.

Ian Clark shooting for the Sydney Kings (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch praised a lot of the team from last season and their contributions.

“Jarell [Martin] been with him for two years, Jaylen Adams, Tom Vodanovich, Wani Swaka Lo Buluk… there’s a lot of guys who are leaving who are just great guys,” he said.

“We’ve replaced them with great guys, but it’s always tough to see guys go, but you get excited for the group you have now.”

Lisch still keeps in contact with some of those departed players and explained how the relationships work.

“We’ll text back and forth, Jaylen [Adams] and ‘MK’ [Makur Maker], ‘Rel’ [Jarell Martin] when he had his baby and stuff like that,” he smiled.

“That’s the cool thing about basketball, I think, is the relationships you form.

“It’s definitely different when you’re a coach, but you still have those connections, which is cool.”

Sydney Kings celebrate a victory (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch explained how now he’s a coach, the relationships with players differs compared to the relationships he formed when he was playing.

“It’s good, I mean, it’s different for sure,” he said.

“When you’re a player, you’re in the locker room, you’re in the players’ group chat.

“When you’re a coach, you’re in the coach’s meetings and helping the head coach decide things.

“So, it’s certainly different, but it’s no worse. It’s fun that you can maybe be involved a little bit more in each individual guy’s development.”

Players leaving always means new players come into the team and the Kings have made plenty of big signings in the off-season.

Sydney has added firepower all over the court, including Brazilian centre Tim Soares, American point guard Derrick Walton Jr, American shooting guard Justin Simon, South Sudanese-Australian forward Kouat Noi, South Sudanese-Australian development player guard Jackson Makoi, and Australian forward Isaac Gattorna.

Lisch spoke of the new signings coming in and how they’re gelling with the group.

“We’ve had new guys start to come in, some development players and it’s been great because you kind of start at square one again and build it back up. I enjoy that process,” he said.

“The thing is with these guys we’ve gotten, they’re competitors and they’re great locker room guys as well.

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When asked what each player can bring to the team this season, Lisch was excited for them to show what they can do.

“Each of ’em can bring a lot of different things,” he said.

“For example, Justin Simon obviously defensively can bring a lot. Tim [Soares] is a big guy who can shoot the ball.

“Derrick [Walton Jr] looks like a great point guard. He can score the ball but get guys involved and be a great facilitator as well.”

But the imports weren’t the only players he’s excited to see play this season.

“That’s just speaking about the imports but I’m excited about the group and the young guys,” Lisch said.

“Like Jaylin Galloway, who was a DP [development player] last year and moving up.

“Just to see how these guys can progress and get better will be fun and interesting to see.”

Jaylin Galloway playing against the Brisbane Bullets in the 2021/22 NBL season (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch wants each player to reach new heights and wants that hunger to shine this upcoming season.

“There’s always a new level. I don’t care how old you are,” he said.

“I don’t care if you’re a 40-year-old still trying to play in the league, you can always get better and the moment you’re just trying to continue to just do the status quo is the moment you start going backwards.

“So these guys all have a hunger to get better. Xavier [Cooks] had a great time away in New Zealand playing there. Shaun Bruce spent a lot of time in the off-season working out here.

“So all those guys are hungry to get better. Even if it’s just one per cent better in a little area, that can make the difference.”

Xavier Cooks lifting the Claude Williams MVP award for his Indigenous Round performance against the Cairns Taipans in the 2021/22 NBL season (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch mentioned there is a high turnover rate in basketball compared to other sports and explained how that affects a squad heading into a new season.

“I think maybe, as coaches, you have to kind of reteach things and start from the ground up, which is great because, throughout the season, you can get in kind of a bad habit,” he explained.

“Or maybe you wanna tweak things so none of the guys are necessarily stuck in their ways.

“So, you get to start that over and it’s fun. Just seeing the camaraderie build from the guys not really knowing each other to what we had at the end of last season.

“You don’t have the problem of guys starting to get tired of each other yet because they don’t even know each other, so that’s a positive.”

The Kings’ preparation for the season is well underway, with the NBL Blitz tipping off in Darwin on September 16.

Lisch spoke about what his off-season and preparation have been like.

“Personally, I’ve been here kind of working out some of the guys throughout a lot of the off-season,” he said.

“I got to go back and see my family back in the [United] States for a while, which was great.

“But yeah, then I just got back into it, doing some individuals and work with some of the guys.

“[I’m] just trying to play my role and get better and just see the individual needs of the guys and how this season, I can best help them and not get in their way too much.”

Kevin Lisch with Sydney Kings guard Angus Glover at Qudos Bank Arena (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch explained what the process of preparing for a new season involves, both on his end and the players’ end.

“Us coaches got together for a few days and watched film of last year,” he said.

“We were able to see some of the things that worked, some of the things that didn’t work on both sides of the ball, defensively, offensively.

“We also looked at, kind of the same process in a way, some of the other teams in the league, things that worked pretty well for them.

“You’re just trying to always learn, even when you’re watching NBA games or Euroleague games, anything.

“You just try to get little things here and there but I think there’s a lot of reflection on the year and even if a few things can sneak in, great, we’ll use it.”

Asked if there is a player primed for a breakout season, Lisch wanted to point out one player.

“I’d like to think everyone, but I think ‘DJ’ [Dejan Vasiljevic] on our team,” he said.

“[Towards the end of] last year, he started to really get comfortable playing again.

“As you could see how he was in the Grand Final series, I think he could be ready for a really good season.

“Sometimes a good season is measured in different ways as well. I think defensively he’s gotten so much better and stuff like that’s not gonna show up on the stat sheet, either.

“I could see him breaking out in a lot of different ways.”

Dejan Vasiljevic shooting away against the Illawarra Hawks in the 2021/22 NBL season [Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings]

With the upcoming NBL Blitz, Lisch explained what he is most excited about seeing from his squad in the pre-season tournament.

“I’m excited for the team to get together and just be around with the team for nine or 10 days,” he said.

“Obviously to play the games, but to really get to know each other, to go out, eat together, I think that time is critical.

“So, that’s what I’m most looking forward to.”

The Sydney Kings playing at Qudos Bank Arena (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

The Kings will be hoping to win the NBL Championship back-to-back this season, as well as push for the minor premiership.

However, Lisch also had some other goals for the Kings this season.

“You could say the goal is winning the Championship, which it is and I think we’re pretty farsighted and nearsighted in our preparation where it’s today ‘what can we get better at?’,” he said.

“We’re gonna work on this today and get better at it and then this tomorrow we’re gonna get better at that.

“Just the process of doing that and obviously having a plan where you can to lead towards.

“I think it kind of takes away a lot of the anxiety and takes away a lot of the distractions, where you can just focus on the here and now and that’s how we’re gonna get there.”

The Andrew Gaze Trophy awarded to Jaylen Adams for the 2021/22 NBL Most Valuable Player (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

When asked what he was most excited about this season, Lisch gave an answer which summed up the mood.

“I’m most excited just for the games to start up again,” he said.

“You look at some of the movements, some of the guys who have switched teams, some of the imports [who have] come into the league, it’s a talented league.

“It’s gonna be jam-packed basketball going back to the old system of October to pretty much March, so I’m looking forward to that.

“It’s gonna be pretty non-stop, which I’m just really excited about.”

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.

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