The Illawarra Hawks took their season to a semi-final Game 3. (Photo: Illawarra Hawks/Twitter)

The Illawarra Hawks defied expectations in NBL21, making the semi-finals and taking the reigning premiers to a Game 3.

With an incredible NBL21 regular season concluding, The Inner Sanctum has taken a look at the year that was for clubs that didn’t make the four-team finals series, with a season review of the Illawarra Hawks next up.


Finishing position: 3rd (20 wins, 16 losses)

It was early, off-season drama for the organisation after the NBL took back the Illawarra Hawks license when the club went into voluntary administration. The NBL vowed to keep the club alive and a new group of licensees was announced with the club trading as The Hawks to start the NBL21 season. In early February, after a campaign by the new ownership group where more membership numbers and corporate support contributed, the NBL reinstated the Illawarra name ahead of the club’s first home game.

Despite the challenges, Illawarra didn’t fall below fifth place, eventually finishing third with the help of the crucial re-signings of AJ Ogilvy and Tim Coenraad as injury replacements at various points. The club powered through and made their first finals series in four years, taking it to defending champions Perth in a semi-finals series that spanned three single-digit margin games.

What worked:

Illawarra started the season really well, winning its first four games of the season despite not playing at home until Round 5. The run of wins included big 16 and 20-point wins over Cairns to get their season going within that time.

After the NBL Cup was complete, the Hawks were sitting third but one win against Brisbane in their next six games had them spending a bit of time outside of the top four. Their ability to bounce back though is commended, especially on the home stretch, from Round 16, winning eight of their last 10 matches to cement a spot in the finals.

Qualifying for their first finals series since the 2016/17 season when they lost the grand final series to Perth a year after meeting in semi-finals too, it seemed fitting they would meet each other in this season’s finals series. Again, the Hawks’ ability to work around their challenges came up, taking the Wildcats to a decisive Game 3.

In four regular-season meetings against the Wildcats this season, the Hawks won one game – in Round 21 by two points, otherwise, it was double-digit margins the way of Perth. Illawarra took Game 1 of the series by two points again but unfortunately for the club, it would lose Game 2 and 3, each by eight-point margins to end its finals campaign.

First-year Hawk Justin Simon was a commanding defensive unit for the side, the USA import taking home the Damian Martin Trophy for the NBL’s Defensive Player of the Year. He was commended for his Round 1 performance against Brisbane and Cairns where he put up 23 points, 20 rebounds, and eight assists combined. Simon averaged 5.47 rebounds a game and 1.86 steals (his 67 steals a league-best), proving valuable for the Hawks.

Second-year player Sam Froling took his game to another level in 2021, claiming the NBL’s Most Improved Player. The forward’s game time was up by 15 minutes from last season and he reaped the benefits, shooting 11.53 points per game at 52 percent. He also led the team in rebounds, collecting an average of 7.06 a game. The big man celebrated his 50th NBL game against the Breakers in Round 20.

What didn’t:

Scoring didn’t come easy to the Hawks in NBL21, having the lowest points average in the league with 81.5. It was quite a fall from averaging 90.5 over the first 10 games across the opening seven rounds of the season.

Only four Hawks players averaged points in the double-digits with Tyler Harvey the standout scorer, the only player on the roster to average over 20 points – the next best was Next Star Justinian Jessup with 13.26 points a game.

The Hawks also had the worst field goal percentage of the league, sitting at 42.5 percent on the season (47.8 percent from the two-point range and 33.2 percent from deep). Illawarra’s free throw shooting also came in at 69.4 percent.


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Club’s MVP:

US import Tyler Harvey was the recipient of the Illawarra Hawks’ MVP for NBL21, capping off a great debut season for the club with inclusion to the league’s All-NBL First Team.

Harvey led the club in points (20.4 at 42 percent) and was outright third in the category league-wide. A handy contributor around the court, only dipping below double-digits in one of his 34 games, Harvey went at 38.1 percent from beyond the arc and 81.5 percent from the line.

The California native also led the Hawks in assists with 3.24 a game. He finished fourth league-wide in steals during the season (1.38 per game). Harvey also broke the league record for most three’s made during a season (114) and was nominated for the leagues’ MVP.

The Hawks guard won the NBL’s Player of the Week on three separate occasions – Rounds 5, 13, and 20. Round 5 saw a 22-point, 10-rebound game against Melbourne United. Round 13, throughout three games against Brisbane, South East Melbourne and Cairns saw 18-, 22-, and 35-point games respectively. And in Round 20, coming up against New Zealand and Adelaide, he put up a combined 53 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Looking ahead to NBL22:

The Illawarra Hawks head coach Brian Goorjian, who chalked up 750 NBL games, would be happy with his team’s form in his first season in charge. With the future bright in Woolongong and the improvement of Froling as well as Deng Deng and Deng Adel, these guys will look to take the Hawks into the coming years.

If the Hawks can hold onto the likes of Harvey and Simon, they will only force the club to become stronger. But what’s perhaps most pleasing from a Hawks perspective is the level of supports it’s gathered from past players giving back to the club. In 2021, Coenraad, who announced his retirement at the beginning of the 2021 season came out of retirement as the injury replacement to Cam Bairstow.

The sense of community, both involved in the club with staff and players past and present will carry the Hawks into the next few years. Evidenced by Coenraad coming back, Ogilvy being handed the captaincy, as well as the unfolding of the spirit of the locals at the beginning of the year, the Hawks will be packing out WIN Entertainment Centre for many more seasons and looking to claim their first championship as Illawarra.

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