Every week, ESPN's Olgun Uluc runs through what's catching his eye across the NBL, and takes you inside the conversations trickling around the Australian basketball ecosystem.
As the NBL season heads into Round 4, we dive into Jordan Hunter's contract year, the upshot of Dejan Vasiljevic's return to the league, and deja vu in Perth.
Jordan Hunter's leap has him highly sought after
There's a fairly good chance Jordan Hunter will be one of the most important players this season.
Assuming the Sydney Kings remain where we think they will be on the ladder -- they're looking like a top two or three team -- then Hunter is someone we should get used to. He's the anchor for what's currently the second-best defence, and plays a key role in the second-best offence... and that's led to what is, so far, a career year for the 26-year-old.
Hunter is averaging a career-high 11.6 points, to go with 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists a game. He's sixth in the league in block percentage (6.0 percent) and second in PER (27.3); the Kings' are a well-above-average offensive team with him on the floor, and slightly above average defensively.
Stringing these great games together will be the key, but he's easily looking in career-best form.
He's also in a contract year.
And that makes this season even more intriguing for Hunter. High-level local centres in the NBL are a really valuable commodity; in Hunter, you have one who you know you can have success with as a starter.
The Kings have a desire to extend him and make sure he doesn't even hit free agency, sources told ESPN, so those discussions will pick up at some point, and it's not hard to see why they're so intent on retaining him. He's an elite roller, protects the paint, and the role he's playing in Mahmoud Abdelfattah's offence isn't just incidental; we're seeing him as a creating type of centre more than we ever have.
Hunter's usage is the highest it's been over his time in the NBL, and he's averaging a career-high 12.6 assist percentage; he'd previously never been out of the single digits.
There are NBL teams that are already discussing internally how to approach Hunter's free agency, and his play so far this season has only bolstered that interest.
Once just a rim-runner, Hunter is all of a sudden this multidimensional big whose trajectory is clearly upwards. He's from Sydney, and playing for his hometown team, but other teams are already preparing to put feelers out there for him.
DJ has Sydney fallin' out of love
Dejan Vasiljevic isn't a name we thought we'd see in the NBL this season. We haven't even hit November and, somehow, he's an Adelaide 36er.
The 36ers have, easily, the worst offence in the league (100.5 points per 100 possessions - last in the NBL), so adding a starter-level local player who's averaged double-digits every season he's been a pro does make sense. Whether it's the type of player they needed to get over the hump is a different question; we'll see how it all plays out, but you can understand the thinking behind it.
The other side of the coin was the Kings' role in all of this, and how not-thrilled they are with the circumstances, which is an interesting topic to delve into.
Here's the simple version of why the Kings aren't happy. Vasiljevic had two seasons remaining on his contract with the Kings -- with a mutual option on that last year -- but wanted to explore his NBA and European options. The Kings obviously signed him to that multi-year deal because they wanted his services, but didn't want to hold him back from chasing those other dreams. The team amended his NBA and European out deal so that Vasiljevic could explore those options -- while holding his right of first refusal if he chose to return to the NBL -- but obviously didn't expect him to return to the league this season. If they did think he'd return to the NBL, they probably wouldn't have allowed him to leave in the first place.
The right of first refusal effectively became redundant, because Vasiljevic had already agreed to terms with Adelaide, so there's no point bringing someone in when: 1) your roster is already full, and 2) that player's desire is to be somewhere else.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement can only wield so much power; ultimately, Australia's restraint of trade laws come into play, so all the Kings could do is have a reasonable amount of time to consider re-adding Vasiljevic, then let him be on his way.
In hindsight, maybe the Kings would be more strict with the outs they allow. They amended his deal to allow Vasiljevic the opportunity to exercise the out -- with a fee -- but without a European or NBA team in place to sign him, so, theoretically, this scenario was always possible.
Ethics and career implications aside, Vasiljevic was technically in his rights to make the decision he did. The Washington Wizards aren't happy that he won't be playing for their G-League team, the Capital City Go-Go, but it's not illegal for him to renege on a presumed promise.
The upshot of this is that we should expect teams to be more heavy-handed with potential outs moving forward. Self protection is key, especially in a league with only 10 teams. Because of this situation, we may see a franchise stand in the way of a player's 'dream' if they don't feel comfortable with the protections involved, and fans will have to get used to being sympathetic to that.
As for Vasiljevic, we'll see how he looks in Adelaide. It'll be odd not seeing him in a Kings jersey, but the 36ers could use his scoring, and he'll be an intriguing free agent to keep an eye on once the season is over. He says he'd like to use this NBL season as a platform to make the Australian Boomers team for the 2024 Paris Olympics. A career decision that's displeased a team part-owned by Andrew Bogut and Luc Longley mightn't be a great start in that regard, but more power to him.
Deja vu for the Wildcats
Off the top, I'll just say that it's not ideal for the Wildcats to go through some rough early season teething while Trevor Gleeson and Damian Martin commentate from the sidelines.
Here, you have a team struggling while the ghost of the franchise's past successes are sitting right there, all while the Red Army continues to call for the heads of those in charge. That doesn't feel like a healthy set of circumstances for anybody.
The problem -- good or bad -- is that this franchise will always be haunted by its expectation of its successful history, which makes this 2-3 start to the season tough for that fanbase to swallow. They want results now and, given the roster construction, perhaps rightly so.
The worrying thing is that some of the issues we saw over the last two seasons -- the Wildcats missed the playoffs in both, breaking the franchise's 35-year finals streak -- are seeming foundational. They're a bottom-three defence against -- they were dead last, last season -- and have the worst rebound percentage in the league (45.2 percent).
Both were big issues last season, and some of the personnel changes gave us confidence that they wouldn't be there again. The addition of Jordan Usher, Keanu Pinder, Alexandre Sarr, and even Hyrum Harris were supposed to bolster things, but, so far, it's been more of the same. So, what's the deal?
One concern is that the level of Usher's defence hasn't been where the team perhaps expected it to be. He projected as this team's primary point-of-attack defender, but hasn't been particularly great on that end of the floor to start the season. The bigger problem is there's really no-one else who has the capacity to step into that role; when you can't defend the point of attack, that hurts everything, and particularly rebounding. Guys get into the paint, the help comes over, then everyone's out of position to get defensive rebounds.
Usher has the tools to be their go-to on-ball defender, so him stepping up in that regard will help alleviate a lot of their issues.
It's early, and the Wildcats are coming off losses to Melbourne and Sydney -- probably the two best teams in the league -- so there's no point overreacting. There are just some not-so-great indicators that this team would do well to amend as quickly as possible.
My favourite plays of the week
Clint Steindl has every trick in the book when it comes to getting open. Here, he just really sells the jab across his body to get Reuben Te Rangi completely out of the picture. A look this wide open is a layup for Steindl.
Clint Steindl jabs himself wide open. pic.twitter.com/G4E4Kq2eDp— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) October 18, 2023
Chris Goulding comes off a flare and you can see how far behind Nathan Sobey is. You just can't be that detached to Goulding in a situation like this. Sam McDaniel is in two minds: he has to help but can't leave a potential Luke Travers cut. So, he gives the tiniest dig to make Goulding think twice. That almost-faux dig was the split second Goulding needed to see the tiny window for the beautiful assistant to Travers for the dunk.
Chris Goulding only needed the tiniest hint of a dig from Sam McDaniel to get an open window for this pass to Luke Travers. pic.twitter.com/JHilnMc3ZV— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) October 18, 2023
Here's Angus Glover looking like Josh Giddey on the inbounds. Rocco Zikarsky is attached to Jonah Bolden, leaving the paint wide open. Jaylin Galloway only needed that little bit of contact from Jaylen Adams' screen to get separation from Mitch Norton on that cut to the rim. The credit goes to Glover for passing Galloway into the open look, which ended up being a big two-handed dunk.
Angus Glover with a Giddey-esque inbounds pass. pic.twitter.com/tLT6HOA6uO— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) October 18, 2023