NBL22 Season Preview: South East Melbourne Phoenix

Head coach Simon Mitchell and Mitch Creek will look to take the Phoenix one step further this season. (Image: South East Melbourne Phoenix/Twitter)

After coming agonisingly close to their first NBL Grand Final appearance in franchise history, the South East Melbourne Phoenix have re-signed the majority of their local talent while adding some new potential key pieces and are looking to go one step better in NBL22.

Last season:

Final ladder position: Fourth (19 wins, 17 losses)

Last season, in their second year in the competition, the Phoenix displayed they have a roster to potentially win an NBL championship, especially after acquiring the signature of ‘Rowdy’ Ryan Broekhoff midway through the season.

However, the Phoenix went through patches of inconsistency, unable to put consistent performances together and losing to teams they shouldn’t.

Injuries to key players in Broekhoff and import guard Keifer Sykes hurt, while marquee player Mitch Creek missing some time as well didn’t help.

Despite all that adversity, the Phoenix were able to make the top four and make their maiden appearance in the NBL Finals series.

They were 20 minutes off making their first grand final appearance, leading Melbourne United by as much as 15 points in the second quarter of the last game (game three) of the semi-final series, but were unable to keep United at bay, finishing 10-point losers.

Biggest in:

The Phoenix’s biggest inclusion this offseason are their two new imports: Chinese superstar Zhou Qi and American Xavier Munford.

With the loss of Yannick Wetzell, and Dane Pineau coming off an injury-riddled season, the Phoenix needed to acquire an import power forward/centre who can score and defend.

The Chinese international has NBA experience, previously spending time with the Houston Rockets after they took him with pick 46 in the 2016 NBA draft. He also played for the Rockets’ G-League affiliate the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

Qi spent most of this time in the NBA with the Vipers playing 31 games in two seasons, averaging 11.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.

He also played 19 games in two seasons with the Rockets before being waived in 2018.

The 25-year-old then went back to play in the Chinese Basketball League which he has played in for the last two seasons with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers. Last year, Qi averaged 20.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.2 blocks per game.

Standing at 7’1″, Qi will be a huge x-factor for the Phoenix with his ability to score, shoot the three-ball efficiently and block and alter shots. He will be a force to be reckoned with for opposing teams.

Losing Keifer Sykes, the Phoenix needed to find another import point guard to replace him, so the front office secured the services of Xavier Munford.

Munford brings worldwide experience, including stints in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks. He also spent six seasons in the NBA G-League.

The 29-year-old recently spent time in Turkey, representing Bursaspor, averaging 13.4 points, 3.4 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1 steal per game.

Munford’s 6’3″ frame allows the Phoenix to play him as a combo guard, which will complement the side’s backcourt depth alongside Izayah Le’afa, Cam Gliddon and Kyle Adnam.

Biggest out:

The Phoenix’s biggest loss this season was Yannick Wetzell, signing with the New Zealand Breakers in free agency.

The 25-year-old Kiwi in his first year as a professional exceeded exceptions, starting in every game for the Phoenix and performing terrifically.

Wetzell showed he could hold his own against opposing centres. In 36 games, Wetzell averaged 11.2 points, 6 rebounds and under a block and a steal per game.

Even though Wetzell has left, Phoenix fans will always remember the impactful contribution he made to the team and will be hoping that his replacement Zhou Qi can make a similar impact to soften the blow.

Player to watch:

Ryan Broekhoff looks set to have a massive season. After signing with the Phoenix midway through NBL21, Broekhoff never quite reached the levels some were expecting from him due to form and injury.

With all the challenges, Broekhoff only played 16 games, averaging 7.6 points and 3.6 rebounds. Despite not having played basketball for more than a year, Broekhoff still managed to shoot the three-ball at an efficient clip, shooting 40 per cent.

The pre-season has given Broekhoff the opportunity to get fit, mentally and physically. It has also given time for Simon Mitchell and his coaching staff to create offensive sets to best utilise the Australian sharpshooter.

Expect to see his teammates setting off and on-ball screens for Broekhoff to come off and get open.

So don’t be surprised if you see ‘Rowdy’ running off screens this season and reminding everyone how good he really is.

Embed from Getty Images

Starting five:

PG: Xavier Munford

SG: Cam Gliddon

SF: Ryan Broekhoff

PF: Mitch Creek

C: Zhou Qi

Full squad:

Cam Gliddon, Dane Pineau, Izayah Le’afa, Kyle Adnam (captain), Mitch Creek, Owen Foxwell (development player), Reuben Te Rangi, Ryan Broekhoff, Tohi Smith-Milner, Xavier Munford (import), Zhou Qi (import), Tristan Forsyth (development player), Devin Thomas (import)

In: Xavier Munford, Zhou Qi, Tohi Smith-Milner, Owen Foxwell, Devin Thomas

Out: Yannick Wetzell (New Zealand Breakers), Keifer Sykes (Indiana Pacers/Fort Wayne Mad Ants)

Fixture highlights:

The South East Melbourne Phoenix open their NBL22 season against a familiar face, matching up against Wetzell and the New Zealand Breakers at John Cain Arena in Rounds 1 and 2.

South East Melbourne fans and players always look forward to the ‘Throwdown’ against arch-rivals Melbourne United. The Phoenix will be want to avenge their semi-final series loss against United and they won’t have to wait long as they’ll meet in their second game of Round 2 on Sunday, December 12 at John Cain Arena.

The Phoenix’s first road trip will come in Round 3 when they travel north to Sydney, matching up against another title fancy in the Sydney Kings at Qudos Bank Arena.

It will be a battle of the expansion teams in Round 6 when the Phoenix meet the NBL’s newest franchise, the Tasmania JackJumpers at the State Basketball Centre.

More NBL Season Previews

NBL22 Season Preview: Tasmania JackJumpers

NBL22 Season Preview: Sydney Kings

NBL22 Season Preview: Brisbane Bullets

What to expect:

Last season, the Phoenix played a high-tempo style of basketball. Players and coaches have said they’ll continue to play their high paced style of basketball, especially with the quality and the depth of the team’s roster.

As a team, the Phoenix has never struggled to score the ball. In the two seasons they’ve been in the competition, they have scored the most points.

The main issue the Phoenix has struggled with is on the defensive end, unable to contain opposition teams. Game three against United was a prime example.

The team did show improvement in the area last season but were able to do it on a consistent basis, so keeping defensive structures tight all the way through games should continue to be Simon Mitchell’s key focus going into the NBL22 season.

The last word:

After finishing fourth last season, with the acquisitions they recruited this offseason, the South East Melbourne Phoenix sights should be set on pushing further up the ladder and securing a spot in the top two to secure home-court advantage for the playoffs and hopefully make their first appearance in the NBL grand final.

If Simon Mitchell can get his players to switch on defensively and keep their structure, it will go a long way to helping them reach their goal.

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