The NBL’s pre-season competition – the NBL Blitz – tipped off on the Gold Coast last week and it was the first opportunity NBL fans got to see their teams form ahead of the regular season.
New recruits, Next Stars, up-and-coming rookies, and new game plans under new coaches were all on display.
The Inner Sanctum answers the question – what did we learn about your team after the 2023 NBL Blitz?
Wanting to get back to the 36ers that were synonymous with titles in the 1990s, CJ Bruton has brought back some key talent in the form of former Adelaide players, including big man Isaac Humphries, point guard Jason Cadee, and fan favourite forward Jacob Wiley.
Another key player is Trentyn Flowers who decommitted from Louisville to sign with the Adelaide 36ers as a part of the NBL’s Next Star program. Adelaide experimented with the 18-year-old as its starting point guard throughout the pre-season after struggling in the first two games on the Gold Coast, the 36ers moved him to a role on the wing.
Having won the last two Loggins-Bruton Cups, the 36ers have finished second to last on the NBL Blitz table after losing all three games.
Adelaide will look to be more competitive during the season. Bruton has stated that despite the results, the chemistry of the team and seeing some ‘different looks’ with new players.
Last season, Brisbane had high expectations and was hyped as a potential top-four contender. However, its performances did not reflect that and led to change on and off the court and you can already see the breath of fresh air that newly appointed head coach Justin Schuller has brought to the Bullets.
With their off-season additions in imports Shannon Scott and Chris Smith, locals Sam McDaniel, Isaac White and Mitch Norton, and the young talent of Next Star Rocco Zikarsy and Josh Bannan – who have shown they can contribute, on top of the core from last year (Aron Baynes, Nathan Sobey, and DJ Mitchel), the Bullets look to have a more balanced roster to what they’ve been accustomed to in recent seasons.
After finishing with only eight wins in NBL23, with the change of head coach, additions to the roster, the potential to be one of the best defensive teams and parity in the league, Brisbane is one of the teams to watch this season.
If you weren’t invested in Cairns’ young talent before the Blitz, you certainly have to be now.
With more than 45 NBA scouts in attendance, the Taipans youngsters including Australian and New Zealand prospects Taran Armstrong and Sam Mennenga, and Swedish Next Star Bobi Klintman showed they have what it takes to perform at the elite level.
Especially Armstrong and Klintman who particularly caught the eyes of the NBL public and draft experts.
In the Blitz among other potential draft prospects, Klintman finished second in average points (13.3) behind Lachlan Olbrich, second in minutes (24.1), and first in steals (2.7) per game.
Armstrong’s passing ability was on full display, dishing out several incredible passes. The Tasmanian product finished the Blitz as the top assist leader averaging 6.3 assists per game, as well as five rebounds and almost two steals.
Despite losing Keanu Pinder and DJ Hogg in free agency, the Taipans still look like one of the most fun and exciting teams to watch as they reintegrate Bul Kuol and Tahjere McCall among the impressive youth they have at their disposal.
There were plenty of positive signs for the Illawarra Hawks throughout their time on the Gold Coast.
After finishing on the bottom of the ladder last season, the Hawks entered the Blitz with a point to prove. A season on from suffering a tear in his meniscus on debut, Justin Robinson made his return to the court for Illawarra.
The American import delivered an impactful contribution against the Bullets, finishing the game with 12 points, three rebounds, and an assist. While the 25-year-old wasn’t as strong against the Taipans, he still followed up with an effective effort (six points and three assists).
If his performances are anything to go by, it’s a good teaser for what is likely to come from him in NBL24.
Heading into the new season all eyes will now be on UC Riverside’s Lachlan Olbrich. His dominant performances at the Blitz have put the league on notice.
The 19-year-old was dangerous on the court as he provided significant contributions against Brisbane (20 points) and Cairns (18 points) in front of a number of NBA scouts. Olbrich finished the Blitz averaging 14.6 points, shooting 86 per cent from the field.
South Korean special restricted player Hyunjung Lee showed he can have a big impact as a sharpshooter off the bench. He produced two modest performances before capping the week off with a stunning finish (15 points, shooting 80 per cent (4/5) from beyond the arc).
Melbourne United no doubt had a busy off-season recruiting a number of new faces to their roster.
But perhaps the biggest move was getting Matthew Dellavedova to return to the competition.
The 33-year-old delivered a scintillating Blitz campaign, showing he still has plenty to offer at NBL level. Dellavedova was United’s top-scorer against the Hawks (20 points) and the Bullets (28 points).
Whilst Dellavedova was in dominant form, the young guns also impressed and stood up in crucial moments.
Next Star Ariel Hukporti put up an impressive display following his recent return from the season-ending Achilles injury he suffered at the last NBL Blitz. The German was impactful at both ends of the court with his best performance coming against the Kings where he recorded 19 points and eight rebounds.
Luke Travers also lit up the court. The Cleveland Cavaliers draft pick’s high-scoring performance in the same contest consisted of 21 points, seven rebounds, and four assists.
The team quickly found cohesion, ultimately claiming the Loggins-Bruton Cup this year after a perfect three and zero record on the Gold Coast.
Whilst the win is minor in hindsight, their Blitz campaign could be a taste for what the side has up their sleeves in NBL24.
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New Zealand Breakers
Barry Brown Jr. was one of many reasons the New Zealand Breakers made the run they did at the NBL Championship last season. When it was announced the NBL Sixth Man award winner signed in Italy, it was always going to be a crucial piece for the Breakers to replace.
But with Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s performance at the Blitz despite playing as a starter due to the absence of Will McDowell-White, the Breakers have found Brown Jr.’s replacement.
In three games, Jackson-Cartwright proved he could add that scoring punch that Brown Jr. excelled at but also found his teammates averaging 16 points and 7.7 assists. The 28-year-old will fit into New Zealand’s defensive identity under head coach Mody Maor, as we saw Jackson-Cartwright get in and under, pestering opposing guards.
Expect the Breakers to be at the pointy end of the season again, with them adding dunking machine Zylan Cheatham and bringing back marquee-level player Finn Delany off the bench.
The Wildcats are looking like legit contenders this season, with the team clicking on all cylinders.
Last season, their dominance in physicality and losing momentum swings were a big theme in their games, especially against the best teams.
In the pre-season and blitz, Perth has shown its excellent recruitment in key positions.
Their start to the NBL24 campaign has shown incredible efforts defensively, scoring in transition and having one of the best half-court sets in the Blitz, with pick and roll, pick and pop, as well as Bryce Cotton getting his mid-range shot in isolation.
Keanu Pinder who with more games under his belt, will add his scoring efforts and mix play between the power forward and centre positions, depending on the usage Pinder has as the number one scoring option.
Bryce Cotton continued his dominant scoring prowess and ability to get his teammates involved. With a second star in the former Taipans forward, the Wildcats have a one-two punch that can play in different settings and dimensions.
Next Star recruit Alex Sarr has increased his stock as an NBA prospect exponentially in the pre-season, and in the Blitz, showing more of his rim protection and efficiency shooting the ball.
With his incredible defensive IQ at such a young age, the French man can space the floor and also contribute in different defensive coverage, significantly in drop coverage and man-to-man.
Ben Henshall and Jordan Usher were also very noticeable contributors, with Michael Harris also a standout option this pre-season, showing coach John Rillie that they can be ready at any given time to make an immediate impact.
What will need to be answered in the regular season is how the role players will play around those three stars on a consistent basis and who their last import signing will be, with reports suggesting Rillie is after a three/four.
Despite Perth going up against teams in form such as South East Melbourne and Tasmania to start the season, the Wildcats have a lot of firepower that can kick their season off with really big wins and be on the road to being on top of the league.
South East Melbourne Phoenix
Phoenix fans’ hearts would have been in their mouths after the news that their star big man Alan Williams required minor surgery on a knee injury sustained during a practice prior to the Blitz.
South East Melbourne moved quickly to secure an injury replacement player, Tyler Cook. Upon the time the former Chicago Bull hit the floor on the Gold Coast for the Phoenix, he had only been in the country for a couple of days but that didn’t stop him starting with a bang.
Cook illustrated why the Phoenix signed him as the short-term replacement for ‘Big Sauce’.
Cook’s size and athleticism were too much for opposing defences to handle as the 203cm power forward was unstoppable once he got inside the paint.
The 26-year-old was one of the most dominant figures on the Gold Coast, averaging 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and a steal in 27.5 minutes per game. He was awarded the Ray Borner Trophy for his performances throughout the Blitz.
The Kings went winless in the Blitz, and although that looks concerning on the surface, the back-to-back champions and their fans shouldn’t panic.
Sydney struggled with its rotations at the centre spot, as Jordan Hunter was the only playable five in a team that implemented many different lineups.
The Kings relied on individual play, especially through isolation which has not been a key to their success in the past.
Denzel Valentine is taking his time to adjust to the NBL, but looks promising, recording a double-double in his first game for the team. Ideally, there is not a lot of carrying solely from the NBA veteran. Jaylen Adams had limited minutes, meanwhile, DJ Hogg is continuing to recover from his shoulder injury.
Jaylin Galloway and Alex Toohey looked really impressive, showing their scoring ability and immediate impact in any starting or bench role.
With key players finding their feet, Galloway can continue his level of play, mixing up his game with drives from the wing or his catch-and-shoot ability from the three-point line.
The 19-year-old Next Star showed similar abilities, playing at the shooting guard and small forward spots, showing his defensive versatility, ability to operate off-the-ball, and finding consistency in the rebounding spots.
Their late-game execution looks really concerning, with careless turnovers and playing impatiently which created extra possessions for their Melbourne opponents.
Jonah Bolden played limited minutes and struggled immensely, especially playing centre.
Head coach Mahmoud Abdelfattah should make adjustments to accommodate Bolden to play some time at the power forward spot, possibly as a pick-and-roll runner and traditional four play and shift him to the centre spot to space the floor when Hunter is not on the court.
The Tasmania JackJumpers were probably the sleeping giants from the NBL Blitz. In their two seasons since joining the competition in NBL21, the JackJumpers have featured in the playoffs and look set to be another top-four contender in NBL24.
Tasmania is known for its tough and scrappy defence but it was the offensive side of the ball that held it back. The JackJumpers were able to retain their All NBL First Team member Milton Doyle who proved to be one of the most savvy imports last season.
To complement Doyle, Tasmania replaced its inaugural point guard Josh Magette and signed Jordon Crawford to add more firepower to the backcourt. The 33-year-old is a proven overseas scorer finishing in the top 10 in the Turkish BSL the last two seasons, finishing eighth (17 points per game) and first (19.6) respectively.
Although Crawford had a modest time at the Blitz, he did look good in the JackJumpers’ second game at the event against the New Zealand Breakers. Crawford finished with 18 points, five rebounds, and seven assists.