'We blew up at each other': The practice battles that drove Landale, Lual-Acuil

Melbourne United star Jo Lual-Acuil. Kelly Defina/Getty Images

The best big man duo in NBL21, Jock Landale and Jo Lual-Acuil, were dominant on gameday and at each other's throats on the practice floor for Melbourne United.

"There was three or four times where it boiled over and we blew up at each other. It was in each other's face," Landale tells ESPN.

"Both of us refused to back down the entire season. That's why that United team was so good, we had guys going at each other like that at practice. A lot of people in this day and age want everyone to be buddy-buddy, but I brought in the attitude of 'f*** that, we go at each other first and take care of the rest later'."

Those confrontations began in offseason scrimmages before Landale signed with United, carrying on throughout the season as the pair went on to collect Grand Final MVP and Best Sixth Man respectively.

"I'm a massive believer of iron sharpens iron, so why wouldn't you go at the guys in practice?" Landale says.

"My most intense practices ever by far were at Melbourne United. That's how it was. Me and Jo boiled over, but we'd come in the next day, and we'd be back on the same page. It was an intense relationship and I credit Jo big time for helping me get better and I'm sure he'd say the same thing.

"I really feel like I'm one of the most competitive people and I think Jo is the same. I wanted to get the best of him every session. I respected him; he wouldn't back down."

With Landale now at the San Antonio Spurs Lual-Acuil has stepped into his role in the United starting lineup this season, posting averages of 17.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and a league-leading 2.6 blocks per game.

The competitive nature is somewhat of a contradiction of his personality off the court.

Quiet, humble and a self-proclaimed home body, finding a connection with Lual-Acuil took time for coach Dean Vickerman after they first met ahead of the 2018-19 NBL season.

"He was playing out on the backcourt at MSAC working out. We heard he was in town, and we didn't know what he was going to do next. We had some open runs, invited him and I could just see him wondering who this coach was trying to talk to him," Vickerman recalls.

"There was just a wall in front of me, I thought 'wow, he's just not going to be excited about the opportunity to practice with us.'

"I started to learn a bit more about him and I remember the first practice he came to, he tried to score every time he touched the ball. I could see the talent, I just wondered whether he could be a guy who could play with others and all these questions went through my mind."

The 27-year-old has become an unstoppable force with the ball in his hands, rendering opponents helpless with his ability off-the-dribble and to score on or around any big man in the league.

"He's one of the most talented scorers I've played against or with," Landale says. "He's also probably the toughest big man I've had to go up against outside of the NBA.

"I'm not surprised in the slightest. I think he's a hell of a player and he probably deserves to be over here."

The skill was never a question for Vickerman, but there was a need for patience and understanding as the big man attempted to find his feet at the NBL level.

"It was different to a lot of other players in terms of how important the trust was. The trust that you believe in his game and the trust to let him play through some mistakes. He believed he had to make a major impact every time he stepped on the floor and sometimes early in his career it was to his detriment," Vickerman says.

"He had a high turnover rate and didn't share the ball as well as he is now. Over the last couple of seasons, he's settled into a regular playing role that is expanding and he's seeing the results.

"To me, the change is that he has the ability to be more critical of himself now. When you're playing fewer minutes and wanting more usage; you probably don't see some the things you can do better or voice them as much. Now, he gets to an elite level and he's happy as a leader vocalising what he needs to do better."

Perhaps the scariest part for the rest of the league is the growth Vickerman believes is still to come for Lual-Acuil. Finishing 57.7 percent of his attempts within the arc, the next step is to expand his touches to the perimeter, where he is only attempting a shade over one shot per outing.

"The elite skill that Jock had for us was his pick-and-pop three ball and his post-game. For Jo, it's always been the opposite, he can take people off the bounce and that skill has been his elite factor as a big.

"We are certainly pushing the three-point shot. We want to increase the usage; we want him in more pick-and-pop situations. Any time we can find more opportunities we will because not only can he shoot the three, but he can also use the shot fake, and we think that's really good for him getting into the paint as well."

With several NBA teams said to be keeping an eye on JLA, future battles between Landale and Lual-Acuil could be on the cards in a resumption of a rivalry the San Antonio big man would enjoy with his championship teammate.

"He's quiet, humble and he keeps his cards close to his chest. That's the way he is. As soon as he's on the court he's a competitive beast," Landale says.

"There's a stigma around that you have to be best friends with everyone on your team and I think me and Jo really didn't see that the same way as everyone else. When we got on the floor and played together, we knew what the job was, and we got it done and ended with a championship."

Currently sitting on top of the standings, back-to-back titles might well be on the cards for United in NBL22, as might a Most Valuable Player trophy for Lual-Acuil.

"He's got to be talked about, he has to be, he's playing at a super high level," Vickerman says.