Melbourne appeared to be a step ahead of the competition in the early part of last season with a high-level offense that included a barrage of three pointers (1st for percentage of team points scored from 3PM), plenty of individual shot creation, and a solid defense. The season eventually hit a speed hump, before they steadied and then eventually fell victim to a New Zealand team that was seemingly built more for the playoffs than them with their experience, rebounding and defense. The late pre-season swap of Ekene Ibekwe for Hakim Warrick never delivered the perfect fit up front as Warrick came off the bench and couldn’t contribute defensively next to Daniel Kickert like Ibekwe would have. United forced tough shots on defense for the most part (opponents posted the 2nd worst TS% against them) but they struggled to end possessions in other ways (8th DREB%, STL%, BLK%, opponent TOV%) which capped their defense overall. Over the off-season they’ve reloaded with more experienced play-makers and have added an import big that will be sure to lift their rebounding, paint scoring and free throw attempts.
Cedric Jackson brings a huge reputation with him as a play-maker, winner and stat-sheet stuffer. His poor outside shooting and disastrous free throw percentage didn’t fit well with the Breakers roster last season but this Melbourne squad has the shooters and weapons around him on offense to make the transition a seamless one. Jackson loves to penetrate in the paint, find the open man, he’s quick and can get a bunch of steals, whilst he also helps out on the boards. He has the task of keeping everyone happy with their touches whilst United even have the luxury of being able to sit him down the stretch if his free throw shooting becomes a target of opposition coaches.
Nate Tomlinson is the backup point guard who knows his limitations and is also someone who has played extended minutes in the past. He doesn’t possess blinding quickness or scoring ability but he’s a reliable ball-handler, a willing passer and can also spot up off the ball in the corners. He gets most of his looks from deep so he needs to be at least an average shooter from there to hold his own. Defensively, he competes decently given his physical tools which makes him a fine low minutes option this season.
Few players have the crowd in the palm of their hand more than Chris Goulding does when playing at home in Melbourne. He has the charisma, shot-making, and creativity that puts his game in the fan-friendly mold, even if he is a little streaky with his scoring. He now has an Olympic campaign behind him and has completed the transformation from the bottom to the top of the league’s hierarchy of players, which has also included developing into an OK defender. We likely won’t see as much over-dribbling from him as last season, given that he is playing with a genuine point guard (Stephen Holt was very capable off the ball), so higher percentage spot up attempts, as well as more work off screens and cuts, rather than contested off the dribble shots could become more the norm.
The Ramone Moore signing is the work of the new three import rule and he signifies this team’s plethora of options. He’s an aggressive shooting guard who looks to be score first but can also create some for others. Given the personnel available to Coach Demopoulos, Moore needs to be versatile and play well both with and without the ball at point guard, shooting guard and small forward. He has lots of weapons offensively with an ability to make a play out of the pick and roll, hit a pull-up or off the catch jumper, show decent speed in transition, cut and finish going to the basket, and he’s even shown a liking to backing down his opponent for a fade-away or spin in the post. If he can use his extra size to defend point guard well enough, and also run the team and get guys touches, he could be an option to log some late game minutes over Jackson if the latter’s shooting is an issue.
Todd Blanchfield’s per game numbers took a predictable dip last season (given his team and role change) but there’s no point in getting down on him. He’s a fine role player who is a real worker on defense, a good athlete, a floor spacer and rebounder, whilst having the ability to step up his contribution if needed. He’s improved his play off the bounce in recent seasons and is capable of attacking a closeout as well as being a threat as a cutter along the baseline where he converts at a high level at the rim.
Given his age, David Barlow could be more suited to playing power forward (although his rebounding might not quite be there), but given the roster, he looks likely to log more minutes at small forward than power forward this season with everyone healthy. He’s an elite outside shooter and can handle the ball and make a play off the bounce quite well for a guy his height. He looms as a superb backup at both forward spots where he can go at and defend second unit opponents, whilst he’s a capable role playing starter who will happily defer and play a low usage role when needed. If anyone was going to comeback from injury well at this age, it’s Barlow who is known to look after his body.
Owen Odigie could eventually get to the level but he’s now 23 years old and appears somewhat a long shot in my mind. Physically, he has the body to compete but the feel for the game and the skills just aren’t there. Even at SEABL level he has struggled to be a consistent impact player on defense, whilst his offensive game remains limited outside of the odd three or cut. He still puts up the odd really bad miss (airball or brick) from deep and that’s the sign of a shaky shooter that may not be able to turn the corner.
David Andersen is the offensive replacement in the front-court for Daniel Kickert and it will be an absolute treat to watch him work his magic with that patented low post fade-away jumper. Even at an advanced age, Andersen can handle a higher volume scoring role with some more tricks in his game, although Kickert’s ultra-efficiency as a scorer will be almost impossible to match. Andersen can pick and pop, spot up out to three point range, and is super smart and creative with shot fakes and footwork inside. On the defensive end, they both have similar issues with movement but Andersen brings a definite upgrade in cleaning the glass. The mix and match of bigs defensively will be a task for Demopoulos as he searches for the right balance of scoring and defensive mobility against each squad.
Devin Williams addresses some significant holes in last season’s roster with his thick body and high motor set to produce a massive amount of activity on the boards and at the rim. He didn’t finish at a good rate from the field (he also only had a mid-sixties FT%) at college level but his ability to grab an offensive rebound off his own post-up miss, draw free throws, or tip-in a teammates miss helped bump his scoring up to a reasonable level. He runs hard, is energetic and can get some dunks due to his brute size and competitiveness, but he’s more a banger than an above the rim type player. His strength, as well as his lack of shot blocking (only 22 blocks in over 2500 college minutes) and consistent jump-shot (30.8% on FGA away from the rim) make him more in the thinking of a center in today’s game but Andersen’s outside shooting balances that out on offense. Defensively, he’s maybe a better mover for his size than you would first expect, and he will need to be to avoid opponent’s targeting a vulnerable big man unit on defense in a playoff series like last season. He rates himself as being able to guard small forward through to center and this kind of good movement with his feet would certainly be welcome given his lack of upside as a rim protector. Regardless, Melbourne have got their inside man who will do all those dirty things that they desperately lacked last season.
Tai Wesley will come off the bench at power forward and is certainly a change up from Devin Williams with his slimmer physique and more finesse type play. He stretches the floor a little but still needs to bump those numbers up some, he can pass, and he loves working in the post with a spin move. He looked in good condition at the preseason game I went to recently so that looks like a positive for him, especially on the defensive end.
Majok Majok is mostly going to be a role player at this level unless he can lift his below average finishing numbers on the offensive end. He got some regular post ups at times, and flashed a promising spin move on occasion, but for the majority of his first NBL season he didn’t quite have the required touch to catch and finish at the rim at even an average level. Rebounding is always valuable and translatable in any league though and he was a pillar for Melbourne in that area next to Kickert. He’s slightly undersized for center but competes very well on that end and was the man to guard the most dangerous (or most nimble) big each trip down the floor.
Melbourne are deservedly the title favourites with their roster boasting an inside-outside balance and a number of options at each position that will allow them to deal with injuries and net them a high win total in the regular season. Rebounding and experience has been upgraded with an eye for the playoffs, with the key questions now being how well everyone sacrifices and buys in on offense, as well as how the big men do defensively against some interesting frontcourts and talented guards that are in the league this season.