26/02/2024
Bryce Cotton. Picture: perthwildcats.com.au

Bryce Cotton. Picture: perthwildcats.com.au

After the eager wait for the NBL season to get underway, the opening round didn’t disappoint.

The Sydney Kings began a new chapter under Mahmoud Abdelfattah with a comfortable 96-81 win over their rival, Illawarra Hawks. Melbourne United made it two from as many games, with stifling defence over the South East Melbourne Phoenix and the Adelaide 36ers.

The Brisbane Bullets opened a new era, giving former Melbourne United assistant Justin Schueller his first win as an NBL coach. Meanwhile, the New Zealand Breakers celebrated club stalwart Tom Abercrombie’s 400th match in style, knocking off the Cairns Taipans.

As the new coaches soaked in the joy of victory, several players, most notably new imports, hit the ground running right away, with dazzling performances. Performances no doubt will captivate both fans and audiences as the season progresses.

With round two not far away, here are five takeaways from an action-packed first round.

A new era starts on the right note

Redemption is the best word that the Brisbane Bullets are seeking in NBL24. 

And did they deliver.

Perhaps not in the opening stages, as the Adelaide 36ers shot out of the blocks, racing out to a 15-0 lead, as the home side missed jumpers and gettable layups. After an unideal start, Brisbane worked themselves back into the game.

With the steady orchestration from former Taipan Shannon Scott and former Wildcat Mitch Norton, the Bullets started getting cleaner looks on the interior and the perimeter. Whilst superstar Nathan Sobey was his usual assertive self, finishing with 18 points, despite a 7 of 18 performance from the floor, the Bullets had several contributors.

Aaron Baynes had his way inside over Issac Humphries, posting 12 points and 13 rebounds, while sharpshooter Chris Smith made timely baskets, finishing with 15 points. However, the most valuable contribution came from Sam McDaniel.

After minimal opportunities with Melbourne United and the Tasmania JackJumpers, the guard played a pivotal role, especially in the fourth, as Schueller put trust in him down the stretch. 

In a new environment and in a team ready to prove the doubters wrong, McDaniel fits the mould perfectly. 

Although it’s only one game for the Bullets to have success this season, defence has to be the calling card, one Schueller knows all too well. Limiting the 36ers to only 71 points on 37% shooting, including 43 in the final three quarters, is a start.

Enigmatic Wildcat starts in blazing fashion

Throughout last season, teams devised numerous tactics to stem the scintillating offence of Bryce Cotton, which at times, worked. However, the three-time League MVP can’t be counted to carry the scoring bulk.

On Friday night, the Wildcats found a piece, who will substantially lessen the offensive load on Cotton. Just as Cotton did on January 7, 2017, in his Wildcats debut, Jordan Usher likewise replicated Bryce’s exploits, scoring 35 points in a 101-95 victory over the Tasmania JackJumpers – the most points ever by a Wildcat on debut.

Usher basked in the moment with an array of moves, including a catch and turnaround short jumper. The combo-forward finished 13 of 20 from the floor and 4 of 8 from three-point territory, coming up clutch in the final 53.4 seconds, knocking down a clutch left-wing triple to push the Wildcats lead to four.

His offence will complement Cotton, similar to former teammate Terrico White. 

But more than his offence, Usher’s defence on taking the assignment of locking down the opposition’s top guard and small forward is even more important – an area where the Wildcats struggled last season.

After only one game in front of the parochial Red Army, Usher is already a fan favourite.

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Stopping Bryce Cotton is like trying to prevent Russell Westbrook from clicking into fifth gear. Over the six years, teams have had minimal success slamming the brakes on the scoring juggernaut. However, the JackJumpers and Phoenix may have shown the seven other teams the blueprint to eliminate Cotton’s dazzling offensive feats.

Tasmania’s strategy was setting double teams on Cotton before he could cross half-court to force the ball from his hands or create a turnover in the backcourt. Ultimately, the method didn’t pay off, as Cotton was safely able to get the ball across before the eight-second backcourt violation.

Moving forward, this is a tactic teams will implement to reduce Cotton’s effectiveness.

As the JackJumpers went double-team mode at Cotton, Phoenix instead went straight one-on-one. Ben Ayre, who made his impact known playing for Cairns Taipans in NBL23, had the challenging task of reducing Cotton’s offensive production.

And sure enough, he did.

Not only did Ayre have a steady impact offensively, scoring 11 points, including 3 of 4 from range, but he also made life extremely tough for Bryce. On every possession, Ayre stuck with him like superglue, preventing him from getting free for clean looks. 

As the game progressed, it became obvious Cotton was getting visibly frustrated, even interacting with the referees about the non-calls against Ayre guarding him. Against the JackJumpers, Cotton finished with 21 points but only shot 5 of 18. Against the Phoenix, he shot a woeful 3 of 13, hitting only one of his nine three-point attempts, finishing with seven points.

Aggressive Delly impacts

Pass-first mentality and rugged defence is Matthew Dellavedova’s basketball DNA. But in a conscientious effort to evolve his game, the veteran has become more offensively assertive. Through the first two games, Dellavedova has taken a combined 38 field goal attempts despite only shooting 34.2% and 31.2% from deep.

Yes, it’s only early, and those shooting numbers will climb exponentially.

What is clear is Dean Vickerman and his coaching staff are giving him free rein to let the ball fly. Even early in United’s offence, Dellavedova didn’t hesitate taking jumpers, whether pulling up from deep in transition or catch-and-shoot jumpers, even with 13-15 seconds on the shot clock.

In Thursday’s post-match presser alongside Vickerman, he spoke about changes he made in being extra aggressive in looking for his shot. With defensive maestro Shea Ili running the show, Dellavedova can play more off-ball, thus providing other teams with further conundrums in assigning tactics to slow him down.

Basking in the moment back home down under, it’s a new Delly, one we’ve never seen before.

Sydney Kings’ complementary piece

Talent exudes amongst the Sydney Kings roster, from point guard to centre. Amongst the stars, role players play an instrumental role when the starters are on the bench.

Kouat Not fits the category, who comes in and impacts on both ends of the floor. Playing alongside star players isn’t new for Noi, who in NBL20 played with the dynamic backcourt of Scott Machado and D.J. Newbill, as well as dynamic power forward/centre Cam Oliver in the Cairns Taipans ascent to the NBL semifinal series.

On Saturday night against the Hawks, Noi was the sparkplug, allowing the Kings to bridge a gap during the second period. Noi seized upon the Hawks’ defensive lapses, finishing with 23 points, hitting six of eight from downtown.

Whether knocking down triples or shutting down perimeter guards and forwards, Noi’s versatility to play numerous assignments is a commodity, as he produced in the Grand Final series win over the New Zealand Breakers.

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