Opportunities must be seized.
For 60 NBL hopefuls, the 2017 NBL Combine is just that. It’s a chance to showcase their abilities, their skills, their strengths in front of a number of NBL Coaches and Executives who are looking to fill out their rosters for the 2017/18 NBL Season.
The Combine concept, now in its second year and first being run by the league, is a two-day event designed to give these players an opportunity to learn in a professional environment, step up to a higher level of play than they may be used to, or get noticed by those here to find new talent.
The Combine was organised in conjunction with W Sports & Media (who founded and ran the inaugural event in 2016), with assistance from Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence (CoE) & the Australian Basketballers’ Association, and has brought together players from a variety of backgrounds.
There are those with previous NBL experience, some – both locals and imports – who are playing in second-tier professional leagues in Australia such as the SEABL, Big V, South Australia Premier League or WA’s SBL, others who are juniors at State or National level including several from Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence (CoE), and even four players from India looking for professional opportunities within FIBA’s Asia Region, which now includes Australia.
Richard Bolaffi of Australia and New Zealand Basketball Scouts, has assisted W Sports & Media’s Olaf Borutz (Event Founder) for the second straight year now in recruiting suitable players to take part in the Combine.
“At last year’s event we had a discussion with Jeremy [Loeliger] who said ‘this is a such a great concept that we want to take it over and put it on steroids.’” Bolaffi told NBL Media. “And this year the NBL has done exactly that. They’ve taken it and they’ve enhanced it.”
Running the show on-court is the President of FIBA’s World Association of Basketball Coaches, Patrick Hunt who is the Camp Director. Hunt developed the program for the two-day event, which comprises athletic testing, skills, Q&A with coaches as well as live games with the players split into eight teams.
Hunt delivered some key messages to the players on the opening day; telling them of the importance of stepping up every second they’re on that court, ensuring they compete at a level expected of an NBL player.
“What distinguishes better players from others are those that can absorb information, understand it and then apply it,” Hunt told NBL Media.
“That was the case here in the morning session with most of the players. There was a good approach to physical testing. There were some new tests that they hadn’t seen or done before, they asked good questions, but then they all got stuck into the tests and did a good job with that. So it’s a promising start.”
It’s a jam-packed schedule and the players need to adapt quickly if they’re going to succeed here and get the most out of this opportunity. It’s not just about getting noticed, but also a chance to benefit from the outstanding coaching provided to each of the eight teams.
For each player, a successful Combine will look slightly different depending on where they are in their careers, but Hunt knows that consistency is important for all who attend.
“Consistent performance in every aspect of the Combine,” Hunt described as key for each player to get the most from the event.
“There’ll be physical testing, they’ll have a few talks by the Australian Basketballers’ Association (ABA), there’ll be a skills development session, and there’ll be games. So all of those elements, having a consistent performance and approach in all of those and making the most of those opportunities will define success.”
As with any camp, playing with new players is a challenge. This is especially true at the NBL Combine with such varied backgrounds and levels coming together.
“In any team there’s always a bit of a hierarchy,” Hunt explained. “There are your better players, support players and some who are coming into teams, and such is the approach here. There will be a variety of ranges of skill-sets, experiences and mindsets in each of the teams that have been put together for the Combine.
“So players will have to adapt and adjust to those roles as they would with any NBL club. So that will give us a good indication and for the coaches that are watching, about how flexible and adaptable these players are to playing different roles.”
Amongst the 60 players on court is current scholarship holder at the CoE and Australian U-17 player, Sam Froling. A 6-foot-10 post player, Froling is well known already, but sees the Combine as another chance to be seen and play against more experienced players.
“Just exposure to new teams that maybe haven’t seen me,” Froling told NBL Media of what he hopes to get out of the Combine.
“Also getting some more experience playing against men. If I get picked up by a team or not, it doesn’t matter. Just getting better is why I’m here.”
Four other players who are here to get better have travelled considerable distance to do so. They are members of their National Team in India and, with Australia now part of the FIBA Asia Region, could play in Australia as a local player if seen to be good enough.
Amjyot Singh Gill is one of those four who is looking to seize this chance at exposure to Australian coaches.
“It’s a very good thing for us that we could play as a local, so it’s a good opportunity,” Gill told NBL Media on Day 1. “We are really excited to be a part of the NBL Combine because we’ll get exposure and we can do good for India too.”
The Indian players come from an environment where Basketball is an emerging sport. Gill and another participant, Amritpal Singh, have both played professionally in Japan but understand that testing themselves against strong competition is important and it may lead to further opportunities professionally.
“Even if we don’t get selected, we’ll get more exposure and we’ll know what our weaknesses are and what we have to work on,” Gill said. “If by God’s sake we do get selected [get an opportunity to play in Australia], we’ll improve a lot because we don’t get that much exposure [to good competition] in India.”
A player with a different perspective coming into the Combine is NBL veteran and current Frankston Blues (SEABL) swingman, Bennie Lewis. Now 29, Lewis played four years with the Melbourne Tigers before heading overseas to play in the NBA D-League and the British Basketball League. He spent last season with Melbourne United as an injury replacement player, but is looking for a full-time opportunity back in the league, which he hopes the Combine may provide.
“Just getting myself a chance to be seen by other coaches,” Lewis told NBL Media of what he hopes to achieve at the Combine. “I’ve been mainly a Melbourne guy and haven’t really had a chance to get out and see other clubs and workout with other clubs, so this is a chance for them to have a look at me and see how I’ve grown over the past couple of years.”
As one of the veterans of the 60-strong contingent, he knows he can have a positive impact in other ways than just his on-court play and helping the younger guys on his team is something he focused on early on the opening day.
“Just try and bring the guys up to speed,” Lewis explained. “Let them know that you don’t have to play fast or in a hurry. You know basketball is basketball at every level; it’s just a matter of the game speed that you’re playing at. So, just letting the young guys know to go out there and play your role, do what you do best and if you do that, you have the best chance of being successful.”
Lewis’s view on a successful Combine is different from that of the younger players.
“I’m getting a bit older, so making it through the two days will be good,” he said jokingly.
“Coming out of here with a couple of handshakes and a couple of ‘good jobs’ from the coaches, I’ll feel like I’ve done well. I’m here to be seen as much as I can, get my name back out there after being gone for a while.”
Of course, the Combine is as much an opportunity for NBL clubs to observe and potentially find new talent as it is for the players to develop. It’s a pathway for players and coaches who ordinarily may not cross paths, to come together.
One such coach who is a big supporter of the event is Australian Boomers and Brisbane Bullets Head Coach Andrej Lemanis
“I’m here as part of the NBL and Bullets Program and wanted to come down and support the event, see some of the talent and perhaps find someone we haven’t seen before,” Lemanis told NBL Media on Day 1.
Scouting players at the Combine is just a start though, but it’s a good way to get a read on players from a variety of perspectives and Lemanis sees it for exactly that.
“In the condensed format, it can be difficult, but I guess what you can do is get some sense of general skill level, game understanding, perception, the way people carry themselves, the way they interact with their teammates, the way they react to bad calls – all that sort of stuff. And then if you get a sense of something that you like, then you can start doing your research and dig in and find people who know them and give you a bit more information on them.”
Being around Basketball Australia as the Boomers’ coach, Lemanis is well aware of the young talent being developed and recognises the need to be able to assess that talent in different situations to where they’d normally be seen.
“It’s a good opportunity for those guys to come in and a good opportunity for the NBL coaches to get an appreciation of how good some of those kids are at the Centre of Excellence,” Lemanis explained.
“I know in my last three years when I was based out of there, one of the things I was trying to do was to encourage the NBL clubs to give those kids a legitimate look, because I think they’re good enough to come in and help.
“If we truly want to give those kids an alternative pathway to College, then as NBL teams we’ve got to be prepared to invest in them as well and give them some opportunities to stay and play in Australia; give them opportunities to develop here.
“I think it’s good for the kids to come into this environment, pit themselves against other players who are suggesting that they’re good enough to play in the NBL; you know Indiana Faithfull you see here – he’s played in the NBL. So for the CoE kids to pit themselves against that sort of competition, it gives the NBL coaches something to measure them against, cos when you just see them play against each other sometimes you go ‘oh they’re good in this environment, but how does that translate?’
“Now you see them playing against men and guys that have played in the NBL, you get a good feel for it and some of the kids that are here so far have been doing really well.”
Aside from representatives from NBL clubs, also on hand at the Combine were several scouts, college coaches and agents. Each is there for the same reason; to assess talent and offer them a pathway to further their basketball careers.
“We have to be able to assist them in developing their careers,” Bolaffi said. “There has to be an avenue and a support mechanism to assist them in what happens next as they’re developing.”
For some players, the NBL Combine is their first experience in a professional setting and gives them a sense of what is required to compete at that level. For others, it’s just another test; an opportunity to prove to those watching that they have what it takes.
“They’re [coaches, agents, scouts] looking for a variety of different things when looking at players in a professional sense,” Bolaffi continued.
“It’s different when you’re looking from semi-professional to a true professional basketball player. The style of play is different, the aggression is different, the pressures are different, so we need to look at players who are not only physically tough and good team players, but the people who are also mentally tough; people who can handle it.
“The people who can handle the rejection as well as the acceptance, as well as the stresses and the battering and bruising that go with it. And this is one thing that we also need to train our players on – how to take that next step.”
For those with NBL aspirations, that opportunity starts here.
Written for NBL.com.au by Tom Hersz