Why NBA people whose thoughts, actions and decisions mean something are looking at the NBL

This is an interesting read from Liam Santamaria on how more NBA team eyes are starting to focus on the NBL.

Written for nbl.com.au by Liam Santamaria

The NBL’s reputation as a breeding ground for NBA talent continues to grow, with more NBA coaches, agents, analysts and scouts than ever viewing the league as a legitimate development pathway.

It’s a reputation that has skyrocketed over recent years thanks to a combination of factors, including the increased visibility of the league, the NBLxNBA initiative and the success of young players developing their game on Aussie shores.

Take a glance around the National Basketball League this week and you’ll see a number of players who are a genuine chance to jump into (or back into) the Association over the next few years.

Sydney’s Brian Bowen is the most obvious of those prospects, with the athletic wing expected to be picked up in the NBA Draft later this year.

But there are others.

New Zealand’s Shawn Long has shown that he’s ready to make an NBA return while high-scoring Cairns guard Melo Trimble has turned heads with his play after going undrafted 18 months ago.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are keeping a close eye on Taipans wing Devon Hall after drafting him last year while 20-year-old rookie Harry Froling has displayed his own potential throughout NBL19 as an impact player for Adelaide.

As Ben Mallis outlined in his detailed look at the NBL-to-NBA pathway earlier this week, all are following in the footsteps of a number of recent examples of the trail at work.

Oklahoma City starter Terrance Ferguson, Houston Rockets wing James Ennis and Denver Nuggets forward Torrey Craig, amongst others, have helped pave the way for the current crop of NBL players with NBA aspirations.

And here is what’s making it happen: for many key decision-makers within the NBA, the Aussie league is now considered an attractive destination for developing and scouting young players.

“The growth of the NBL over the last five years has been unbelievable,” Dallas Mavericks Director of Player Personnel, Tony Ronzone, told NBL Media this week.

“With the marketing of the league putting the teams and players on the world map and getting them recognised in the NBA, the growth really has been at a rapid pace.”

Ronzone is regarded as a pioneer of international scouting. He’s a big fan of Aussie ball players – “I love their selflessness and tenacity” – and has become something of a champion for the NBL within NBA circles.

“Five years ago NBL players were not on the world map,” he explains.

“There were only a few of us who were watching and staying on top of it. But the league really has gone to another level in recent years.”

Another who has followed the growth is ESPN’s NBA Draft Expert Jonathan Givony.

Givony was the founder of Draft Express which has become the industry leader for all information regarding the NBA Draft and now covers the draft and international hoops for ESPN. He is regarded by NBA teams and industry members as one of the most credible and reputable sources on future pro prospects and the international game.

Currently scouting in Europe, Givony told NBL Media this week that the NBL’s growth is noticeable all over the globe.

“There are guys that are passing up offers to play in Spain, Italy, Germany, Turkey, all of these top leagues, in order to play in the NBL,” Givony said.

“A guy like Bryce Cotton, for instance, he had Euroleague offers and he said no to them.

“People are taking the NBL a lot more seriously now as a pathway for players. These people follow basketball very closely, they live it every day.”

A big part of the NBL’s growing reputation for developing NBA players is the league’s Next Stars program, an initiative that positions the league as an alternative pathway for NBA prospects.

Bowen is the first player signed to the program and his NBL experience has so far been a roaring success. The 20-year-old is a key part of the rotation for the league-leading Kings and has undoubtedly enhanced his draft stock during his time in the league.

Of course, the whole idea for Next Stars was sparked by the ground-breaking decision made by Ferguson back in 2016 to skip college and come to the NBL.

“Ferguson was the original pioneer,” Ronzone said.

“Brandon Jennings went to Europe, (Emmanuel) Mudiay went to China and then Ferguson said, ‘Let me go to Australia, let me give it a try.’

“The ability for him to go over there and learn to be a man away from his country and learn to be a pro helped him become the player he is today.”

After an up-and-down rookie campaign, Ferguson is currently playing an important role in OKC’s starting line-up as a defensive stopper. Last week the athletic wing also flashed his offensive potential, drilling 7-of-10 threes on his way to a season-high 21 points on the road in San Antonio.

According to Ronzone, Ferguson’s time in Adelaide offered him a fast-tracked education in pro hoops.

His NBL classroom taught him how to be around pros, how to play against big strong bodies, how to play pick-and-roll defence, how to fit within a team and how to do things on a daily basis that make you a better player.

“Adelaide prepared him very well for the Draft and got him ready for the NBA,” Ronzone says.

“Terrance was a big-time scorer in high school because he was just better than most of the kids around him but the NBA is often about fitting into a system and I think his time in the NBL was very beneficial in that regard.

“In the future you might see a lot more Terrence Fergusons going to Australia because of his impact and the fact that he was able to get drafted in the first round.”

Bowen’s arrival on the NBL scene has so far doubled-down on that success.

After being ruled ineligible by the NCAA for the 2018-19 season – Bowen got swept up in 2017’s college basketball corruption controversy – Next Stars has given him a chance to compete at an elite pro level while preparing for the Draft.

And the kid has grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

“He’s having a much better season then Terrence did and he is really contributing to winning, he is a factor in games,” Givony said.

“I don’t know if NBA teams have really gone in and dug into the film and really studied it yet… but soon they’ll sit down and do their boards and do all the research and start to make their calls.

“And at that point it’s going to hit them a little bit more, like ‘Wow, this guy had a really good year. He did something very impressive that not many kids who are 19 or 20 years old have accomplished.’”

Bowen will also benefit from the shorter NBL season, when compared to other pro leagues around the world.

When the youngster heads home in late March or early April he’ll start working out with a trainer and will head into pre-draft workouts in May and June feeling fresh and ready to impress.

“With all that experience that he has garnered throughout the year he’s going to be able to use that and he’ll go to the NBA Combine and his stock will continue to rise as the year moves on,” Givony explained.

“He’s going to have to continue to build his resume and draft stock once he gets back to the States but what he’s doing in the NBL right now is going to play an important factor in that because you have all that film, it’s all on Synergy, they are going to be watching the full games and they are going to be calling. There are so many people you can call in Australia and New Zealand to get the information.

“From what I hear everything is very positive about him in terms of the off court stuff; his work ethic, his attitude, etc. All that stuff goes into where a guy gets drafted so I think that is going to be positive and going to help him when we get to June.”

The length of the NBL season is part of the attraction for older players too.

Guys like Trimble and Long, aged 23 and 25 respectively, will likely sign short-term contracts in the G-League following this season before preparing for the NBA Summer League.

Those G-League stints aren’t really possible for guys who sign in Europe, where seasons aren’t completed until May or June. That’s not to mention the physical wear and tear that occurs from playing ten months of European hoops before moving almost immediately into Summer League play.

“That is why you see a guy like a Torrey Craig make it,” Givony explains.

“Because he comes into Denver Nuggets camp fresh and he just kills and I don’t know if your body can do that physically if you are just going straight for 11 months like that. It is very, very hard to do and in that regard I think it’s attractive.

“As a result, you are seeing the calibre of import that all of the NBL teams are bringing in is getting much higher year after year. I think that’s only going to continue.”

NBA scouts and player agents are also becoming more interested in the NBL due to its style of play.

“I get a lot of agents who ask me about Australia and they like what they hear. They like the fact that it is structured and the teams are good,” Ronzone explained.

“You go to China and guys are putting up crazy numbers, there’s not much defence and Americans are supposed to score 40 a game. In Australia that’s not the case, they are learning to play team basketball.

“And if you look at the NBA now, that’s what it has become; much more team-oriented. Guys are not isolating as much – James Harden still does, he’s a special talent – but for most of the league scoring is achieved through spacing and shooting.”

Another important factor is the combination of highly-regarded coaching and plenty of time on the practice court.

“The practice time, for agents, is a real key,” Ronzone said.

“It’s huge because a lot of these guys didn’t make the NBA for a reason. Maybe they were undersized, maybe they didn’t shoot it well or maybe their handle’s loose.

“So one of the things I tell the agents is these teams in Australia are going to spend time on what they need to get better at.

“They’re going to get practice time, the coaching is good and they’re not playing 100 games in a row. They’re going to get three or four days of practice before they play the two games on the weekend.

“For me and for any agent, I know that players are going to get better over there.”

Ronzone also points to the increased visibility of the league as a key attraction for future prospects.

When agents of players with NBA aspirations are considering their client’s next move, they want their guys to be seen. They want every one of their games to be on TV, viewable online and with plenty of complimentary coverage.

“That’s where the NBL’s social media has been huge,” Ronzone adds.

“We now get all kinds of stuff from the league, you get social media from each team, you go on Twitter and you are constantly seeing updates on players and how they’re doing.

“So with the TV, the social media and the game-day experience, they’re making it feel much more like an NBA event and you see it when you go to games where the atmosphere is great.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the league’s global reputation has significantly improved via the NBLxNBA initiative.

Over the past two years, six NBL teams have played a total of ten pre-season games against NBA squads, with some even going close to pulling off a win.

“That has definitely put the league on the map,” Ronzone claims.

“Playing Melbourne United against OKC and only losing that game by one… I mean people were assuming they were going to get beat by 50 and being able to put up a competitive fight was good.

“It’s early, teams don’t have a full roster and they are trying guys out but still, the opportunity for NBL players to compete is tremendous.

“Because what happens is, you start becoming less fearful of an NBA player and you start feeling like ‘I can get as good if I keep working and maybe I can get an opportunity to come back and play in the NBA.’”

That is exactly what’s currently in play for Brian Bowen. After battling against the LA Clippers during the pre-season, Bowen has attacked his first professional campaign with the confidence and energy of a man on an NBA mission.

And with more overseas eyeballs than ever currently focused on NBL games – and respect for the league at an all time high – the future couldn’t possibly be brighter.

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