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. This week, we look at how a star fell through the fingers of one NBL team, Melbourne United's secret weapon, and the numbers behind a confusing trio.
Jack McVeigh just needed someone to believe in him
Let's rewind back to the 2021 NBL Free Agency. McVeigh was coming off his third season with the Adelaide 36ers, averaging 9.4 points in just under 20 minutes a game, on great shooting splits. You could see the level of player the then-24-year-old was turning into; he was one of Australia's best junior players, and the production over his professional career was growing as his opportunity rose.
The 36ers' GM of Basketball at the time, Jeff Van Groningen, made it clear to McVeigh and his camp that the 36ers would table an offer for him to return.
The start of free agency rolled around, and there was no offer. It was probably coming -- and best to keep in mind that teams can negotiate with their own players prior to the start of free agency -- but it seemed clear that it wasn't at the top of the 36ers' list of priorities.
It was at the top of Tasmania's.
The JackJumpers' then-CEO, Simon Brookhouse, made contact with McVeigh as soon as free agency opened and sold the forward on the league's newest franchise. The team made clear how much they wanted McVeigh; there was a bigger opportunity available -- his minutes were up and down under Conner Henry in Adelaide -- and drew a clear picture of where they saw his development and ceiling. He became the first player to put pen to paper on a full roster spot contract with the JackJumpers, and signed an extension during the middle of last season to stay in Tasmania for two more years.
Fast forward two seasons, and McVeigh has transformed into what the JackJumpers knew he'd be: one of the NBL's premier local players.
McVeigh is averaging career-highs across the board -- 16.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game -- and is tied with Chris Goulding as the league's leader in total +/- at a +99. It's not just the improved counting stats -- they can be redundant at times -- because it's clear McVeigh is impacting winning as well as anybody else in the NBL right now.
And, after an offseason playing basketball in Germany, McVeigh knew he'd be a different calibre of player.
"I feel like, when I step out on that court now, I'm an import," McVeigh told ESPN at the NBL Blitz in September. "That's who I can go toe to toe with.
"I went and proved that in Germany when I was an import in a really good league."
McVeigh's buzzer-beating game-winner against the Cairns Taipans last week is that growth in a microcosm. Under-utilised and forgotten in Adelaide, McVeigh's since been an invaluable piece on a team that's been to two straight playoffs; and, with him in an expanded role, is likely headed for another.
Shea Ili, the neutraliser
Melbourne United has had the best defence in the league all season, and it's largely due to what Shea Ili is capable of doing.
The word 'capable' is deliberate, because there aren't many players across world basketball with the capacity to play the type of defence Ili does. Ili's pressure on and off the ball almost single-handedly stops opposing offences from functioning, because teams are unable to get the ball through hands, and his ability to use his body in a plethora of ways to get into advantageous defensive positions is an example of how underrated an athlete he is.
Dean Vickerman also knows that, in order to effectively take an opposing player out of a game, he just has to turn to Ili.
Think back to the first matchup between United and the Illawarra Hawks. Ili was tasked with guarding Justin Robinson, and held him to nine points on eight shots; Tyler Harvey had 19 points -- 6-of-16 from the field -- in that game.
The second time those teams met, Vickerman decided to take Ili off the ball and put him on Harvey. Harvey was held to just 10 field goal attempts in his 19 minutes. Ili's ability to manoeuvre through screens to stick to his man made it difficult for Harvey to get good looks; job done.
Against the Sydney Kings in Round 8, Ili was tasked with neutralising Jaylen Adams, who's an MVP candidate and one of the best scorers in the league. Adams entered the fourth quarter of that game with just two points; he'd finish with nine points, shooting 4-of-13 from the field. United switches a lot of those guard-to-guard screening actions, but Ili's initial defence is taxing, so he led from the front in slowing down one of the best players in the NBL.
Here's Vickerman's postgame response, on the neutralising effect Ili can have on players: "Jaylen Adams is a pretty special player, and I think he probably scored most of his points in the fourth quarter there... the commitment he's made into stopping people catching the basketball, his agility to slide with people, not get bad cut, and still stop them from getting catches is amazing."
Adelaide stops import search
When the 36ers brought in Dejan Vasiljevic, multiple sources told ESPN that they had their sights set on an import centre. The team was able to replace Jamaal Franklin with a high quality local player, so they had an import spot up their sleeve and planned to utilise it.
At least for now, that search is no more, sources say.
The idea was to bring in an import to back up Isaac Humphries at the five-spot, bolstering a frontcourt that's somewhat lacking in size.
The team went through the usual back and forth of being offered, and inquiring about, players, but didn't find what they liked. So, they ultimately decided to move on and go on with the remainder of the season with the roster as currently constructed.
The Miller-McCall-Armstrong trio: what the numbers say
A lot has been said of how the trio of Patrick Miller, Tahjere McCall, and Taran Armstrong play alongside one another.
The criticism is pretty simple: here are three ball carriers, all of whom aren't prolific (or even adept) spot-up shooters, on the floor at the same time.
This wasn't really a conversation we thought we'd be having, because the assumption was that their minutes would be staggered, but Adam Forde has been trying to make it work. He started all three guards alongside each other for the Taipans last two games: a pair of losses, to the Perth Wildcats and JackJumpers.
The sample size is still small, but the early returns haven't been amazing.
In 55 possessions with the trio on the floor together, the Taipans have an adjusted net rating of -21.7, according to SpatialJam. Unsurprisingly, the adjusted offensive rating in those possessions is 80.6, which is well below the team's already-struggling offence.
Each of those guards surrounded by shooters feels like the best way to get this Cairns offence clicking, but they've had a top-two defence all season long, so there's reason to have hope in what the Taipans are doing. How Forde finds that balance moving forward will be interesting to track.
My favourite plays of the week
I was in the building for this one. The angle on this pass was almost impossible to thread the needle through the opening, and the weighting on it had to be perfect. Denzel Valentine somehow gets it through.
The weight Denzel Valentine put on this pass is insane.pic.twitter.com/Y6WfgkHXuJ— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) November 22, 2023
Whatever the counting stats say, this play here is why NBA teams are falling in love with Alex Toohey. The positional versatility, on both ends of the floor, is off the charts.
Alex Toohey switches onto and blocks Lual-Acuil pic.twitter.com/duRQCD83A1— Jordan McCallum (@jordanmcnbl) November 19, 2023
This, from Jesse Wagstaff, is the perfect example of an effort play that isn't sexy or fun to do, but wins a team basketball games. Wagstaff does his work early to get position on this offensive rebound contest, and somehow gets it right into Bryce Cotton's shooting pocket for the dagger. Elite stuff.
Jesse Wagstaff, in year 15, making winning plays. pic.twitter.com/z8j6sXkiKj— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) November 16, 2023