30/05/2024

The Illawarra Hawks stunning season turnaround saw them return back to finals action. (Image: @illawarrahawks - X)

Opening their NBL24 campaign with disappointing start, the Illawarra Hawks where led to a thrilling run to finals under new coach Justin Tatum.

It was looking to be yet another turbulent season for the Illawarra Hawks, who endured a spate of injuries and the sudden exit of their head coach early in the season. But a stunning turnaround led to a revival that saw them produce a fairytale comeback to return to finals, only just missing out on a spot in the grand final.

Snapshot

Final ladder position: Fourth (14 wins, 14 losses)

After finding themselves on the bottom of the ladder in NBL23, the Hawks were looking for a fresh start in Jacob Jackomas‘ second year as head coach.

The off-season saw a bit of a revamp to the roster, welcoming new faces Lachlan Olbrich, Mason Peatling, Biwali Bayles, AJ Johnson, Gary Clark, Luca Yates, and Hyun-Jung Lee. Former Perth Wildcat Todd Blanchfield also returned to the side three years after his last campaign with the Hawks.

The Hawks showed promising signs during the pre-season, finishing their campaign in NBL Blitz with a record of 2-1. But as the regular season got underway, Illawarra had looked to revert to its old ways, continuing to produce disappointing losses.

Despite strong performances on the court from the likes of Sam Froling, Tyler Harvey, and new recruit Gary Clark, Illawarra struggled to find its foot early in the season.

By October, the Hawks were sitting at 2-4 with wins against South East Melbourne and Cairns. It wouldn’t have helped that the Hawks were thrown a spanner in their campaign with both Hyun-Jung and Peatling under an injury cloud.

They suffered two more brutal defeats in the next month against Sydney and Cairns before another spanner was thrown, as the team and Jackomas parted ways. It left the Hawks to find a replacement with Justin Tatum stepping up as interim coach.

Following the sudden announcement, the Hawks moved past a rough start to produce a win against the Breakers. They would collect wins, going on a streak of 4-2 until being hit by injury again in the New Year.

Dan Grida would be sidelined during the last few weeks of the regular season due to concerns with his knee, whilst former Phoenix guard Kyle Adnam came in as an injury replacement.

Despite the challenges, the Hawks’ round 14 loss against the JackJumpers is where things started to look up for them, with the embattled side finding themselves fifth on the ladder for the first time this season.

As a result, it saw a late-season charge where the Hawks finished the regular season fourth on the ladder and claimed a spot in the finals.

Illawarra brought its rejuvenated form into the finals series.

They could not topple the JackJumpers in the seeding qualifier, falling by 16 points (92-76). A second chance for Illawarra saw it come up against a dominant New Zealand Breakers and overcome the odds to defeat them by two points (88-85), booking a spot in the semi-finals alongside Melbourne United.

The Hawks headed into game one determined and looked set to snatch defeat after a stunning first half which saw them edge closer to the championship series. However, an unexpected comeback from United led the game into overtime and saw the Hawks fall 115-106. They levelled the series, pushing it to a decider after defeating United in a thriller by five points.

But the dream run had come to a heartbreaking end despite their efforts, with Illawarra falling short of a shot at a second championship in franchise history by six points.

Although Illawarra missed out on the chance to play for the championship, it exceeded expectations. Having gone from wooden spooners in NBL23 to making finals this time, plenty of positives could be taken away from the season.

What worked

Illawarra saw a massive improvement in scoring. In the 2022/23 season, the Hawks ranked last for average points with 80.8 points per game. However, this season they were able to increase their offensive output, finishing fourth for average points with 91.6.

Gary Clark’s impact on the scoreboard was undeniable, a key part of the jump seen in their scoring over the past season. The former NBA veteran led the Hawks in scoring and ranked 10th across the league with an average of 17.1 points per game. He was followed by Tyler Harvey with 15.3 points per game, with Sam Froling close behind with 15.2.

The additions of Hyun-Jung Lee and Lachlan Olbrich also helped, with the pair contributing to the scoreboard throughout multiple games of the season.

Outside of Illawarra’s scoring improvements, the emergence of Will Hickey seen particularly towards the end of the season was instrumental in its finals campaign.

Hickey turned heads with his improvement defensively and his ability to limit the impact of New Zealand’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright was highly praised. His contribution during game two of the semi-final series with the 25-year-old recording a career-high in minutes played (33) and points (18).

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What didn’t

For all the positives that came out of the season, an issue that often hurt the Hawks in games was turning the ball over. This season, they averaged 11.8 per game.

Although they fared better than the likes of the Kings and the Bullets, there were times when they were only a matter of points away from winning the game.

During the seeding qualifier against Tasmania, Illawarra recorded a total of 14 turnovers, while its opposition made only 11. It was a tight end to the game with Illawarra just missing out on the win by three points.

Club MVP

It was only his first year in the NBL, but Gary Clark made quite the impression so it wasn’t any surprise when he was announced as the MVP for Illawarra’s 2023/24 season.

The forward produced a stunning campaign with the Hawks, concluding the regular season by averaging 17.1 points, 2.3 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per game.

Throughout the season, Clark was a consistent force as he was the top-scorer for several games including his momentous efforts delivering a season-high of 38 points against Cairns back in round 20.

Clark’s impact on the court was noticed leaguewide with the 29-year-old named on the All-NBL First Team at this year’s NBL Awards.

Looking ahead

With Justin Tatum continuing his duties with the team after officially signing on as head coach, it sees the Hawks setting their sights on going one better next season and aiming to add a second championship to the collection.

For NBL25, a host of names are already locked in with Sam Froling, Daniel Grida, Lachlan Olbrich, Hyun-Jung Lee, Mason Peatling, Todd Blanchfield, and Luca Yates (development player) all contracted for next season. Hawks fans will rejoice after it was announced that the club picked up Will Hickey’s team option.

AJ Johnson is also contracted until the end of the next season as a part of the Next Stars program. However, a question mark remains on his future at the club with the Next Star expected to put his hand up for the upcoming NBA Draft.

However, it’s not just Johnson that is uncertain to return next season. A few key names are included in those out of contract heading into free agency.

Justin Robinson and the Hawks’ reigning club MVP Gary Clark are among those names with their one-year-deals concluding, and re-signing Clark is one of the key priorities for the club.

Tyler Harvey also enters the off-season as a free agent and will be among the Hawks’ priorities to re-sign as the guard is set to have interest from other teams, especially since he is eligible for Australian citizenship in January 2025.

Should the Hawks get their roster as close as what it was this year and improve around the edges, remain healthy, they could be genuine contenders for the championship next season.

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