NBL clubs head to US for historic games

In a massive coup for Australian basketball, the NBL has announced that three clubs will travel to the United States to take on some of the world’s best as part of the NBA’s pre-season competition.

Melbourne United will join the Brisbane Bullets and Sydney Kings as the three teams to represent Australia’s national league. The games mark the first time an NBL club has played against an NBA team since the Perth Wildcats faced the Houston Rockets in the now defunct McDonalds Championship in 1995.

Brisbane Bullets head coach Andrej Lemanis, who also serves as the men’s national team coach, says he is thrilled for his club and the NBL.

“Obviously we are excited by the opportunity and for me, it continues to validate the growth of the NBL over the last couple years,” Lemanis told Hatch.

“All the guys were excited about getting the opportunity to go and play against an NBA team. That’s what drives you in sport, right? You want to play against the best and test yourself against the best.”

Each of the three NBL clubs will play one game, starting on October 3 when the Sydney Kings take on the Utah Jazz. Melbourne United will travel to Oklahoma City to face the star-studded Thunder on October 8, while Brisbane will round out the trio of games by facing a young Phoenix Suns outfit on October 13.

Each game will be broadcast live in Australia on ESPN.

Big moment for players

Sydney Kings head coach Andrew Gaze is also buoyed to be part of the NBL contingent heading to the US, and is particularly excited to be taking on Utah.

“I follow the NBA quite closely and I’m really glad to be playing against the Jazz,” Gaze said.

“There are a lot of similarities between the way NBA teams go about it these days, like the way that they prepare, and their styles both offensive and defensive, but Utah and their coach Quin Snyder do things differently on the offensive end so I’m looking forward to getting a chance to look at that.”

The timing of the games comes at a delicate time for the participating clubs, as it clashes with the start of the NBL season in Australia. However, Gaze is confident that the trip will be well worth it.

“It’s not ideal, we’re going over there, playing a game, getting on a plane for 18 hours or whatever it is to get back and the next day after we arrive we have our opening game against Adelaide,” Gaze said.

Building Australia’s reputation – at home

“But I think there can be long term benefits for the league and for the club – and even for our season, with these guys getting the chance to play against the NBA talent, to have that experience, to play a different style, so when the invitation was there we jumped on it.”

These games may have broader positive ramifications for the NBL and Australian basketball, something that both Lemanis and Gaze recognize. For them, this tour continues to solidify the work done in recent years by NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger and majority owner Larry Kestelman to both improve and build awareness of the league.

“There used to be a time when the best 10 or 15 (Australian) players were playing in Europe. Now we have eight in the NBA, and three or four in Europe and the rest are here in Australia,” Lemanis explained.

“Larry and the team at the NBL have done a fantastic job getting that quality up by being able to lure some of the best Australians back by putting on a professional league and increasing the salary cap.”

Gaze echoed those sentiments, saying the NBL is highly regarded and hopes these games help increase local support.

“I think throughout the world that our league is very well recognised. Speaking to people that have played in Europe or coaches that have coached in Europe or the NBA or other parts of the world, I think it’s really well recognised in the basketball community and I think it’s just the broader recognition that we get from these games that provides us with the exposure,” he said.

“Hopefully we can be competitive and gain respect from those fans that may know very little about our competition.”

The level of talent in the NBL has certainly been validated over the past few months, with several former NBL players getting the opportunity to play at the NBA level.

Former New Zealand Breaker Akil Mitchell and Melbourne United’s Devin Williams received NBA training camp invites with Brooklyn and Boston, respectively. And Torrey Craig, who donned the maroon of the Brisbane Bullets last season, was rewarded with a two-way NBA contract with the Denver Nuggets. Lemanis, who coached Craig last season, was stoked to see him earn an NBA deal.

“He’s such a good guy and he put in a lot of hard work over the last 12 months so to see him rewarded with an NBA contract was great for him and great for us as a club,” Lemanis said.

“It’s a fantastic reflection on us as a club that he was able to come play with us for 12 months, improve his game and end up where he wanted to end up which was the NBA.”

With football season now in the rear-view mirror, basketball now takes centre stage. In addition to the upcoming US tour, the opening round of the NBL season kicks off on October 5 when Melbourne United face last season’s runner up Adelaide at Titanium Security Arena.

Story by Kyle Standfield. Photo by Geordie Guy (Flickr Creative Commons).