NBL 2021: Season Preview

The Perth Wildcats are the defending champions heading into the 2021 season. Picture: Ministryofsport.com.au

The NBL returns in 2021 with one of the most open and even seasons in recent memory.

The team at The Inner Sanctum has delivered our NBL 2021 season preview so you know what to expect heading into the new campaign.

Adelaide 36ers

Last Year’s Finish: 7th

Players In: Josh Giddey, Isaac Humphries, Donald Sloan, Keanu Pinder, Owen Hulland, Sunday Dech

Players Out: Obi Kyei, Kevin White, Ramone Moor, Harry Froling, Ben Ayre, Eric Griffin, Jerome Randle

Key Player:

This roster is packed with experienced players and plenty of quality, which makes it strange to think that the success of the Sixers rests upon the shoulders of an 18-year-old kid.

Make no mistake, Daniel Johnson, even at 32, is still the most effective player on this team, however, young point guard Josh Giddey will be the barometer for the 36ers this year.

Giddey is the youngest player to represent the Australian Men’s team and in his debut managed to chalk up 11 points, six assists, and three boards in an impressive showing.

Noted as a genuine NBA prospect, Giddey possesses extreme length at the point guard position, standing at six foot eight, making him a difficult matchup for any point guard in the league.

If Giddey has a solid year, the Sixers will still be competitive however if he manages to really excel in his first year in the NBL, he raises the ceiling of this team a long way.

What to expect this season:

The 36ers will be looking for a bounce-back year after they missed out on a playoff position by three games in 2019/20.

They lose scoring machine Jerome Randle as his second stint at the club comes to an end however his replacement, 18-year-old Josh Giddey, could be the perfect injection of youth needed to propel the Adelaide outfit into the top four.

Regardless of their final position, though, the consensus around Adelaide is that this will be an exciting team to watch.

Three-time All-NBL first-team center Daniel Johnson spearheads a three-player leadership group alongside veteran guards Brendan Teys and Daniel Dillon and with the addition of two-time NBL champion Sunday Dech, the Sixers have a great mix of youth and experience.

The signing of former NBL rookie of the year Isaac Humphries should prove to be a shrewd acquisition as the 23-year-old returns to Australia after spending a few years in the United States.  

New head coach Conner Henry spent time at both the Perth Wildcats and Sydney Kings a decade ago before making the switch to the United States.

His stint in the US was fruitful as in 2014 he was named the D-League coach of the year and following this was appointed by the Orlando Magic as an assistant coach for the 2015/16 season.

The Sixers may not finish at the very top of the pile but expect them to gain several admirers throughout season 2021. 

Ben Lennon

Brisbane Bullets

Last Year’s Finish: 5th

Players In: Anthony Drmic, Tanner Krebs, Harry Froling, Tamuri Wigness, Blake Jones (DP) Orlando Johnson (IP) Vic Law (IP) 

Players Out: Cameron Gilddon (Released), Will Magney (New Orleans Pelicans)  Lamar Patterson (New Zealand Breakers) 

Key Player:

With the loss of Lamar Patterson to the Breakers, Nathan Sobey will have added pressure on him this season. Sobey has big shoes to fill, with Patterson being last year’s points and assists leader for the Bullets, as well as their reigning club MVP. Sobey has in the past shown his strong capabilities to step up when required. If the Bullets are to make the playoffs in 2021 Sobey will have a huge say.

What to expect this season:

After falling just short of making the playoffs in 2020, the Bullets will be determined to return to the fold. Orlando Johnson, after 103 games in the NBA, and several stints in various international leagues, arrives at the Bullets for this season, as does fellow international recruit, Vic Law, fresh off a stint with the Orlando Magic. They will also be buoyed with the return of Matt Hodgson, who has chosen to remain with the Bullets in 2021. 

The loss of Lamar Patterson will hurt, but the quality coming in should offset his loss.

With a wide variety of talent at their disposal, expect the Bullets to challenge for a playoff spot once again. 

Thomas Grattan

Cairns Taipans

Last Year’s Finish: 3rd

Players In: Jordan Ngatai, Mojave King, Jordan Hunt

Players Out: Anthony Fisher, DJ Newbill, Tai Wynyard, Tad Dufelmeier Jr

Key Player:

It’s hard to split Scott Machado and Cameron Oliver, but in the end, the slight edge was given to Machado. Machado made an immediate impact in his first year in the NBL. Machado averaged 16.6 points and 7.7 assists per game, breaking the NBL’s assist record in the process with 220 dimes. This was enough to see him make the All-NBL First Team, finish second in MVP voting and win the Fans MVP. The former NBA player not only established himself as one of the best players in the league but helped drive a culture off the court that was key to Cairns turn around.

What to expect this season:

There’s no reason to think that Cairns can’t achieve the same heights as last year or go even further. 

The fairy-tale story of last season, it went from cellar dwellers to one game away from the NBL Grand Final. The Taipans showed how far they had come when they went up against the Perth Wildcats in the Semi-Finals. In a thrilling series where Cairns managed to take it to three games, Perth just managed to get over the line. But by going toe to toe with the eventual champion, it showed that the Taipans should be a serious problem going forward.

Cameron Oliver should continue being a human highlight reel. The big man averaged 17.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game and made the All-NBL Second Team last year. If the 24-year-old’s improvement continues there’s no reason to think he can’t achieve first time honours.

The likes of Nathan Jawai and Mirko Djeric remain, while the reigning Coach of the Year, Mike Kelly, is still at the helm.

They will not have the services of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, DJ Newbill, after he opted to head to Japan in a big blow to the club and the league.

Cairns will look to improve on last season through its youth. Mojave King is the most exciting addition to the side, the NBL Next Star will look to follow in the footsteps of LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, and establish himself as a first-round talent heading into the 2021 NBA draft. He excited fans with the 21 points he put up against Melbourne United in a pre-season game and the prospect of how he’ll combine with Machado in the backcourt is an exciting one. Kouat Noi (runner-up for Rookie of the Year last year) will take over Newbill’s role after an impressive debut season.

The combination of stability and some exciting young players has the club well placed to be around the mark once again, with the goal of a maiden championship looming large.

Hamish Spence

The Hawks

Last Year’s Finish: 9th

Players In: Deng Adel, Cameron Bairstow, Akoldah Gak, Deng Deng, Isaac White, Justin Simon, Justinian Jessup, Max Darling, Tyler Harvey

Players Out: Lamelo Ball, Aaron Brooks, David Andersen, Todd Blanchfield, Josh Boone, Timothy Coenraad, Sunday Dech, Angus Glover, Hyrum Harris, Darington Hobson

Key Player:

With Aaron Brooks and LaMelo Ball moving on from the Hawks, there is now a 34.9 points per game void created by their departure. The Hawks are hopeful the duo can be replaced by one man, Deng Adel. The 6’7 small forward featured off the bench for the Cavaliers in 2019 before signing a one-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets. Adel didn’t feature for the Nets before he was waived; however, he did sign a G-League contract with the Long Island Nets. 

Former NBA talent Cameron Bairstow will return to the NBL, following a three-year stint playing for Brisbane. Most recently, Bairstow played in Lithuania for Rytas Vilnius, however, he played just one season before returning to the NBL.

What to expect this season:

Don’t expect fireworks from this Hawks team. They only managed five wins across the season with an average points differential of -10.71 per game and haven’t done enough to get better in the off-season. 

The most notable change to the Hawks roster is the loss of Ball, who is now plying his trade for Charlotte in the NBA. Aaron Brooks, after tearing his achilles tendon, is now coaching in America for New York’s G-League affiliate.

It’s a perfect storm for a talent like Adel. The former Louisville forward plays his best basketball as the top offensive option, whether that’s on or off the ball. He’s long enough to provide defensive assistance in the paint, yet agile enough to guard the perimeter. He should provide a good base for the team to build around.

With a good run at it, The Hawks may scrape off the bottom of the ladder, but that’d take a lot of clicking early for a side that has faced plenty of turnover in players in recent years.

Matt Forrest

Melbourne United 

Last Year’s Finish: 4th 

Players In: Scotty Hopson, Yuadi Baba, Jock Landale

Players Out: Casey Prather, Shawn Long, Melo Trimble, Stanton Kid

Key Player:

United’s hopes rest with Jock Landale. The Australian representative was an integral part of the Boomers FIBA 2019 World Cup over in China. He may be new to Melbourne United, but he’s already hit the ground running.

Out of the four preseason matches that United was a part of, Landale was named as one of the best on the court three and was best on court for two of those games.

Landale steps straight into a leadership role at Melbourne and will be one of the MVP chances heading into the new campaign.

What to expect this season:

United made the playoffs in the 2019/20 season, they will be looking to go a few steps further in 2021, to take out the all-important NBL Title. United have bolstered up their roster with additions of Hopson, Baba, and Landale which will put them right up there this season. 

In 2021 Melbourne United fans can expect great things from their side, but for neutral spectators, you can expect an awesome and exciting brand of basketball. When they are on, they will be a tough side to beat. 

Elly McNerny

New Zealand Breakers

Last Year’s Finish: 6th

Players In: Tai Webster, Daniel Trist, Kyrin Galloway, Lamar Patterson, Taine Murray, Colton Iverson, Isaac Davidson, Rasmus Bach

Players Out: R.J. Hampton, Sek Henry, Jordan Ngatai, Deng Deng, Ater Majok, Scotty Hopson, Tom Vodanovich, Brandon Ashley, Chris Obekpa

Key Player:

Lamar Patterson is the new star of this team. The former Brisbane Bullet will replace Scotty Hopson after he jumped ship to join Melbourne United. It was an astute by the Breakers to lure over one of the league’s best players, especially when re-signing Hopson started to look unlikely. Patterson has a resume that speaks for itself, two straight All-NBL First Teams while finishing third in MVP voting and second in scoring last year. He averaged 21 points, six rebounds, and 4.6 assists a game and scored a season-high 36 points against the Adelaide Strikers. The former Atlanta Hawk’s skillset means he can make an impact all over the court.

What to expect this season:

New Zealand has a roster that should see the club re-emerge as a contender this year. Smart off-season recruiting and a strong pre-existing core has it well placed to make the playoffs. 

The Breakers will be looking to ride their momentum from the end of last year, after winning 11 of their last 14 games to just miss out on the playoffs on percentage.

The team will also be keen to leave the injuries and controversies from last season in the past. The team had a record of 4-10 halfway through last season (mainly due to injuries) and faced numerous off-court issues, including Tom Vodanovich causing a drunken incident on a plane and import Glen Rice Jr. being arrested for an altercation at a bar that later saw him part ways with the team. The club also had to deal with the death of long-time manager Fata Letoa, who was viewed by many as the heart of the Breakers and New Zealand basketball community.

Hopson’s departure loomed as a fatal blow to their 2021 season, but the acquisition Patterson puts the Breakers right into the title picture. Getting Tai Webster to return home is a huge coup for the club, while accomplished big man Colton Iverson will slot in at the five.

Dan Shamir is an experienced head coach who handled a turbulent first year at the Breakers quite well. He will be looking to build on the strong end to the 2019/20 season and hoping for less distractions off the court.

While Matt Walsh’s ownership group has been polarizing at times, the way the club stabilized and rejuvenated its campaign last year suggests that a strong culture has been established.

The concern will be if the injury bug strikes again, with Corey Webster already missing the start of the season after injuring his hand cutting an avocado. The Breakers will also be the team most affected by COVID-19 protocols, they will be based in Australia for at least the first of the season and face the prospect of only playing a few home games at Spark Arena back in Auckland. How the team deals with these disadvantages and challenges will determine how far it can go.

Hamish Spence

Sydney Kings

Last Year’s Finish: 2nd

Players In: Dejan Vasiljevic, Angus Glover, Jarell Martin, Tom Vodanvitch

Players Out: Kevin Lisch (Retired) Jae’Sean Tate (Houston Rockets) Andrew Bogut (Retired) Deshon Taylor (Free Agent) Lucas Walker (Retired)

Key Player:

Casper Ware, needs no introduction. After initially opting out of his multi-year deal with the Kings, Ware re-signed in August, determined to get the Kings the title that eluded them last season. 

Ware averaged 18 points and 4 assists in 30 minutes per game in 2019-20 while helping the Kings to a Minor Premiership and the Club’s first Grand Final appearance since 2008.

The Kings will no doubt be bolstered by the return of their star player, who already has a title with Melbourne United. Add his three consecutive all-team NBL entries, alongside a second all- team NBL entry in 2019-20, and you have your key player for the Kings hopes of going one better in 2021.

What to expect this season

After falling at the final hurdle in the Covid-shortened final series to the Perth Wildcats, the Kings will no doubt be looking to go one better in 2021. Alongside the re-signing of Casper Ware, Craig Moller, Shaun Bruce, Xavier Cooks, and Daniel Kickert have all inked new deals.

Head coach Will Weaver leaves to join the Houston Rockets coaching panel and will be replaced by Adam Forde, who has spent a decade in the domestic competition.

The big query will be to see who can fill the void of last year’s MVP, Jae’Sean Tate, who has joined the Rockets alongside Weaver in the NBA. Andrew Bogut’s retirement is also an issue that needs addressing. 

If they manage to find solid replacements for their last two MVPs in Tate and Bogut, expect another strong season for the Kings. 

Thomas Grattan

South-East Melbourne Phoenix

Last Year’s Finish: 8th

Players In: Cameron Gliddon, Reuben Te Rangi, Ben Moore, Keifer Skyes 

Players Out: Tai Wesley, Ben Madgen, John Roberson, Daniel Trist

Key Player:

Arguably the most accomplished player in the league, forward Mitchell Creek returns for his second season with the Phoenix. 

Having experienced multiple stints in the NBA for the Brooklyn Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves in 2019, Creek will be looking for a big 2021 season for the Phoenix to capture the attention of American scouts. 

Averaging 20 points and 8 rebounds last season, Creek will be hoping to increase his usage in 2021 and become a larger part of the team’s offense as they look to climb up the ladder following a disappointing maiden campaign.

Most dangerous in the paint, Creek is a handful for defenders with his ability to finish inside and impose himself on the offensive boards. 

He also causes major problems for opposition teams on the defensive end, with versatility a vital asset to his team. 

Creek is the heart and soul of this Phoenix side, with his play on both ends critical to their overall success. 

What to expect this season:

Overall it was a disappointing opening campaign for the Phoenix who, despite showing flashes, never got going and squandered their way to an eighth-placed finish. 

However, with a star of the calibre of Mitch Creek, the Phoenix cannot be counted out to bounce back in a big way in 2021 as they look to add more depth around their power forward. 

The additions of Cameron Gliddon and Reuben Te Rangi were vital off-season moves that should spread the floor and give the team some much-needed shooting power on the perimeter.

Whilst Keifer Sykes coming in as starting point guard will assist in taking pressure off Creek on the offensive end with his skill and awareness seeing him able to take over and produce game-altering plays. 

With a solid starting five intact, the Phoenix will be wanting increased productivity off their bench this season as they look to youngsters Kyle Adnam and Yanni Wetzell to step up and improve their second unit scoring from sixth last season. 

Along with their depth issues, the Phoenix had the second-worst defense last season (holding opposing teams to 98.9 points per game), with their over-reliance on Creek telling as they simply ran out of gas on this end of the floor come to the end of the season. 

It is hard to predict just how the Phoenix will fare this season as despite their obvious star power, they lack the depth and defensive intensity to consistently compete against the league’s elite. 

Zac Standish

Perth Wildcats

Last Year’s Finish: Champions

Player Ins: Tom Jervis, Todd Blanchfield, Kevin White, John Mooney, Jarred Bairstow, Corey Shervill, Andrew Ferguson

Player Outs: Damien Martin, Nic Pozoglou, Nick Kay, Chuatwech Reath, Miles Plumlee, Terrico White, Rhys Vague

Key Player:

As the reigning NBL MVP and Grand final MVP, it’s difficult to look past Bryce Cotton.

After initially opting out of the final year of his contract to explore options overseas, he ended up extending his contract with the Wildcats for another three seasons in May of 2020.

The Wildcats will expect him to continue his stellar form as the international import enters his fifth season. Glimpses of this form were seen in his first preseason match against the Hawks, putting 25 points on the board, a total well above his career average of 22, with two assists and three rebounds. 

The guard’s unparalleled ability to take the game head-on and sway its momentum is a useful tool for the Wildcats as they hunt for a three-peat heading into the 2020-21 season.

What to expect this season:

Captain Damien Martin called curtains on his career in July 2020 after 11 seasons with the Wildcats, passing the captaincy on to Jesse Wagstaff. It will be interesting to see how Wagstaff-led Wildcats can win a third-straight title.

After losing a quality player like Martin and observing the team dynamic in the preseason fixtures against the Hawks, it is clear they need to find another quality offensive player. Cotton must repeat his MVP-standard performances if the Wildcats want to be considered contenders, but he also needs support from his teammates.

Fellow import John Mooney looked promising during the preseason, totaling 31 points, 21 rebounds, and 7 assists across the two matches. Provided he can bring his College Basketball form into the NBL and control the interior, he could ease several concerns.

This is a brilliant opportunity for recruit Todd Blanchfield to step up and bring his firepower to the side. His aggression when shooting and tearing into the lane is an ingredient for the Wildcats’ success.

The 11th hour re-signing of veteran Tom Jervis is also a massive bonus for the Wildcats. 

While the Wildcats may be down a star, there are plenty rising to take the opportunity and prove themselves. This season, we can expect to see these players rotated through to fill the gap left by Martin. Being the reigning champions and hunting for their 35th consecutive finals appearance, there is no reason to be doubt their ability to be a contender once again. 

Rebecca Ruthven

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