The Perth Wildcats after their victory in game 1 of their semi-final series against the JackJumpers. (@PerthWildcats / X)

Pushing past early season struggles, the Perth Wildcats behind superstar Bryce Cotton played stellar team basketball, culminating in a return to the playoffs.


Final ladder position: Second (17 wins, 11 losses)

The Perth Wildcats had to navigate early-season adversity under second-year coach John Rillie. A 2-5 start after an October 27 loss to the Brisbane Bullets at home (RAC Arena) set about calls for Rillie’s departure.

However, Wildcats General Manager of Basketball Operations Danny Mills stuck firm, keeping his trust with the under-siege Rillie.

The other struggle came with four-time MVP Bryce Cotton.

Cotton had a slow start, with the offence not running through him, leaving him standing in the corner, almost becoming a pedestrian. The elevation on his shot was there. However, it wasn’t consistently falling through the nylon.

Something had to change.

A change which dates back to the Bullets’ loss when centre Keanu Pinder spoke that the team would win their next five games. His deep fortune-telling proceeded in the Wildcats, turning their season around.

Perth would become one of the league’s hottest teams from November onwards, entailing a return to the postseason, ending with a semifinal series loss to eventual champions the Tasmania JackJumpers.

What worked

Several areas worked for Perth with another season to learn and grasp coach Rillie’s system. Apart from Cotton’s offensive ritual masterpieces, the acquisition of Kristian Doolittle became an integral defensive glue to the Wildcats’ defence.

Right away, Doolittle established himself as the defensive stopper, getting the assignment of matching upon one of the opposition’s best point guards, shooting guard, small forward, and power forward. The 26-year-old relished the challenge, making a valuable contribution on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, he was rock solid, methodically working himself into the Wildcats’ offence, predominantly taking mid-range jumpers, adding another dimension and alleviating the scoring punch from Cotton.

Perth’s other import, Jordan Usher, set RAC Arena alight in his Wildcats debut, scoring 35 points in the season-opening victory over the JackJumpers – the most points by a Wildcat on debut.

However, the enigmatic two-way guard went through a form dip, leading to his removal from the starting lineup and into a sixth-man role. Most imports would’ve sulked about the move, but Usher took it in his stride.

Embracing his new role, he relished the opportunity of providing instant energy and offensive punch. On numerous occasions, coach Rillie praised Usher for his professionalism, with some games leaving him on the floor in tight situations late in games – notably the December 15 matchup against Tasmania.

With Doolittle and Usher making instrumental impacts, the addition of Next Star and likely NBA number-one pick Alexandre Sarr supplied excitement to the Red Army.

And he didn’t disappoint.

Despite being only 18, the 216cm giant’s poise was incredible, playing far beyond his youthful age. From the outset, he adjusted to the league, showcasing his ever-growing potential.

In only his third NBL game, Sarr came through in the final two minutes, nailing two triples against the Adelaide 36ers after Keanu Pinder fouled out.

His shot-blocking instilled trepidation into opposition guards seeking to drive to the basket, especially in the South East Melbourne Phoenix game, where he had five blocks.

Hyrum Harris, another acquisition, would become a valuable piece to the Wildcats’ overall resurgence. Replacing Usher in the starting lineup for its match on November 4 against the 36ers, he instantly brought a level of competitiveness and defensive intensity, diving on the hardwood for a loose ball or flying in from the baseline to pluck an offensive rebound.

His contagious energy immediately won him the respect of the passionate Wildcats supporters.

Coach Rillie consistently praised Tai Webster, with the former New Zealand Breaker’s ball handling responsibilities, allowing Cotton to play off-ball. Teams used a tactic by leaving Webster wide-open for threes, daring him to unleash the trigger.

In four games from January 13-25, Webster averaged 18 points, resulting in the Wildcats winning three of four matches. His impact wasn’t through the numbers but through the intangibles.

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What didn’t

On the contrary, defensively, there’s room for improvement, particularly in the rebounding department, ranking seventh (41.6). It’s a vast improvement from NBL23, which they ranked last.

The stark rebounding differential was alarming, particularly in the regular-season meetings against the JackJumpers, where they lost the rebounding count by minus 27.

Offensive rebounding also hurt Perth, predominantly against Tasmania, giving up 16, 23, and 11 offensive rebounds, leading to 21, 23, and 11 second-chance points, respectively, in three regular-season meetings.

It came to haunt them in games two and three in the semifinal series, losing the rebounding count by minus 18.

With Sarr’s departure to June’s NBA Draft, who do the Wildcats turn to in a rebounding big man to help Pinder on the boards?

It’s an intriguing question Mills and Rillie have during the off-season to address this area.

Club MVP

Undoubtedly, it’s Bryce Cotton.

The four-time MVP consistently came to the fore, delivering one spectacle performance after another, overcoming a lean seven games to begin the campaign.

From there on, the six-foot guard went to another scoring stratosphere by one of the league’s greatest imports.

In a dominant win over the Adelaide 36ers on November 4, Cotton broke out of his early-season offensive slump, scoring 29 points. From this game onwards, he was back in business, including draining a season-high 41 points in a December 1 triumph over arch-nemesis the Sydney Kings.

In an eight-game span from December 15 to January 21, Cotton averaged 30.4 points, including four 30-point games and, in the process, all but sealing the MVP conversation.

On the Gazeys Awards night, he’d fittingly win his fourth MVP, surpassing Brisbane Bullets legend Leroy Loggins (three), moving into outright second only behind leader Andrew Gaze (seven).

Looking ahead

Expecting to contend for an 11th championship, the Wildcats have locked away import Kristian Doolittle for a second season.

Veteran and six-time champion Jesse Wagstaff continues to defy father time, putting pen to paper for a 16th season in NBL25, with his veteran leadership and experience pivotal components to Perth’s veterans and younger players.

The team has picked up Tai Webster’s team option for next season, meaning he will remain a Wildcat. However, his brother Corey won’t be there next season, with Perth not picking up his team option, leaving him as a free agent.

With Cotton coming into the final year of a three-year deal signed in May 2022, expect the Wildcats to be aggressive in the free agency period and look to acquire a centre to help curb their rebounding.

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