Next Stars align for NBL’s greatest season yet

The NBL is relevant again.

The early off-season signings of LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton have sent anticipation levels through the roof months out from season launch.

The pair are touted as the 3rd and 6th picks, respectively, in ESPN’s latest 2020 NBA Mock Draft.

Credit goes to the league brass for implementing the ‘Next Stars’ program last season. This followed the exposure and success of Terrence Ferguson at the Adelaide 36ers, when he chose to bring his basketball down under instead of playing college.

Ferguson – still only 21-years-old – was the 21st pick of the 2017 NBA Draft and now starts regularly for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Acting quickly to establish a system to attract this class of players, there will be four players in the NBL’s Next Stars program this season.

2020 NBA Draft prospect Terry Armstrong has committed to the South East Melbourne Phoenix, while Didi Louzada – Brazilian international and the 35th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft for New Orleans – has already made waves for the Sydney Kings in preseason.

With the NCAA refusing to budge on player payments – and players barred from making the jump from high school directly into the NBA – NBL Commentator Josh Garlepp says the league deserves credit for their intuition.

“They’ve taken advantage of this window because the opportunity to get players that can’t go to the NBA but don’t want to go to college, that’s not going to be there in a couple of years when high school guys can go straight to the NBA,” says Garlepp.

“There is a limit to how much [the NBL] can do because these guys are getting paid by the NBL, but that’s why it’s so appealing for a team like Illawarra who don’t have the same amount of money as the big clubs.

“If they take a youth route and then get a guy like Melo [Ball], it makes sense.”

ESPN’s acquisition of broadcast rights in Australia has also contributed to the legitimisation of the league as global media moguls recognise the allure of the NBL and its potential in years to come.

2009/10 NBA Most Improved Player Aaron Brooks’ signature is another coup, joining Illawarra alongside Ball.

With the initial success of the Next Stars program – and fringe NBA players including Bryce Cotton and Jerome Randle finding stardom in Australia – is the NBL becoming a legitimate option for athletes at any stage of their career?

According to Garlepp, “it’s definitely a case-by-case situation.”

“If I was a teenager and I wanted to make some money and was looking at all the leagues around the world, China’s great.

“But as a 17-year-old kid, coming to Australia during the summer, everyone speaks English and you train three times a week.

“Compare that to Russia, where you train twice a day, there’s a language barrier, there’s a chance you won’t get paid. I completely see why it’s appealing to guys who have their head screwed on.

“[For the older guys] the NBL is never going to be able to compete money-wise, but what they can compete with is a pretty short season and very favourable living and league conditions.”

All of the 10 All-NBL players of 2018/19 are running it back this season. Athletes including reigning league MVP Andrew Bogut (Sydney Kings), 2018 MVP Cotton (Perth Wildcats), and Lamar Patterson (Brisbane Bullets) will return to their 2018/19 teams, while Casper Ware (Sydney Kings) and Melo Trimble (Melbourne United) will suit up for different clubs this time around.

The addition of the South East Melbourne Phoenix adds a Victorian rivalry to the mix, while the addition of a Tasmanian team draws closer.

“The storylines are deeper this year,” says Perth-native Garlepp.

“There’s more levels to them. Four years ago, the NBL were essentially giving away the [broadcasting] rights and now there’s a market with people arguing over it.

“There’s a product that people are not just happy to watch but are now demanding.”

Image by Rachael Sharman

Information updated on 03 October, 2019