On an unseasonably moody Sydney afternoon, the National Basketball League (NBL) launched the 2018/19 season at Luna Park with former NBA #1 draft pick Andrew Bogut the star attraction.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on October 8, 2018

The assembled media swamped the giant Bogut, but the three-time Olympian’s looming debut in his native national league is one of just many juicy storylines that will colour the NBL’s 41st season.

Earlier, NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger had told reporters “these are truly exciting times for Australian basketball” and said that initiatives like NBL teams playing their NBA counterparts had seemed a pipe dream just a few short years ago.

Similarly, he said having Australia’s most recognised athlete be a basketballer in reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons represented exciting new territory for the sport.

“We have a chance to take this game to a new level and inspire generations to come,” he said.

Andrew Bogut on the NBL: “The fans like seeing people that are passionate and competitive”

Bogut promised fans an uncompromising, highly physical brand of basketball in the coming season and acknowledged there had been ‘scuffles’ at training and in pre-season action but said that was all part of the fun.

“That’s what you pay to see as a fan,” he shrugged. “The competition is at a very high level in the NBL. They’re physical games…The fans like seeing people that are passionate and competitive.

“If it was all smiles and handshakes throughout the game, you’d question it. But guys are going to get into it. Guys are going to get mad at each other.”

He swatted away a suggestion that his Sydney Kings outfit was the best NBL squad ever assembled, saying they had not won anything yet and that having a great team on paper ultimately means little come tip-off.

He did, however, nominate his young teammate Tom Wilson as a name to watch in the league. Joining the NBL after winning MVP in the second-tier SEABL competition, Bogut said he expects Wilson “to give (Sydney) a lot of punch off the bench”.

New faces in the NBL

Another new face at the Sydney Kings, Brian Bowen II, will also be one of the most hotly watched incoming players. Joining the NBL after a vaunted high school career, Bowen has already impressed in pre-season fixtures with his high-octane athleticism and almost limitless potential.

He joins the NBL through its new ‘Next Stars’ program which aims to provide an alternative pathway to the NBA for college-age players. Already, the NCAA’s loss is looking like Australian basketball’s gain.

Speaking to The CEO Magazine, Loeliger said he couldn’t wait to see more of Bowen. “He’s a great athlete. He’s slight, though not as slight as Terrance Ferguson (a former NBL player now playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder) when he came in and I think he’ll have a similar trajectory. He’ll take time to adjust to the refereeing and physicality…but once he finds his feet he’ll be a really important part of that team.”

He also nominated Illawarra Hawks duo Emmett Naar and Dan Grida as players who will attract NBA attention and is looking forward to seeing what Sudanese-born Australian Kuany Kuany can do as a contracted player at the Cairns Taipans.

Makoto Hiejima is one of the league’s most intriguing new players

It only takes a short chat with Loeliger for his inner basketball fan to emerge. Another player he is effusive about is Japanese guard Makoto Hiejima, who joins the Brisbane Bullets after a successful stint for Japan’s SeaHorses Mikawa.

Hiejima could have made more money plying his trade in other leagues but he has chosen to test himself in the NBL and Loeliger says his decision to step out of his comfort zone is admirable. He joins the NBL under the Asian Player rule, which enables each team to contract one player from Asia outside the salary cap.

“If his basketball is going to progress at the rate he wants and expects it to, he knows that he needs to challenge himself by playing against the best in the region,” Loeliger said.

“Brisbane have acknowledged that there is value there both in his capability and his marketability and we’ve already seen a huge uptick in interest in the NBL out of Japan.”

Speaking to The CEO Magazine through a translator, Hiejima said he had seen a lot of leagues around the world but considered Australia a “pretty tough” competition.

“Playing as a point guard and obviously providing a lot of voice and telling the team what I want them to do, that will be challenging with the language barrier,” he says. “But we’ll see how it goes.

“It takes a while to learn everything on court, but so far it’s been an exciting and enjoyable experience.”

Header image credit: WNBL