Cairns Taipans Season Preview

Cairns’ 2015-16 season was more disappointment than success after expectations were raised following their Grand Final appearance in 2014-15 where they maxed out and overachieved. Boasting an abysmal 1-13 road record, the worst three point percentage in the league, a downgrade at point guard, and an aging front-court landed them a bottom two rank in both offensive and defensive efficiency during the regular season. On offense, they were second for percentage of team points from mid-range, and also from the free throw line, whilst they protected the ball and played at a slow pace again (8th in Pace, 1st in TOV%). Defensively, they performed well with Matt Burston in the game and rebounded or forced enough turnovers, but when the opposition shot went up it was generally good (8th for opponent eFG%). The roster has had an overhaul with some extra zip in the backcourt, some of the aging front-court squeezed out for the return of Nate Jawai, and three fresh imports added.

POINT GUARD

Travis Trice certainly appears to be an Aaron Fearne type point guard with his excellent low turnover numbers fitting into the slower and more controlled offense that Cairns run. Physically, Trice is similar to Markel Starks with his small stature and speed being a factor in everything he does. From a playing perspective, he’s impressive at using a ball screen and navigating gaps with swift changes of direction, and he throws perfectly timed passes to cutters. Trice projects as a better option spotting up from three but his inside finishing in the half-court and a love for the pull-up mid-ranger can cap his shooting percentages (53.7% at the rim, 35.5% on non-rim twos).

Jarrad Weeks gives Fearne a totally different look to that of Shaun Bruce with his relentless energy a change of pace to the Taipans more controlled playing style. His top end speed, elite athleticism, quick hands and feet, plus the ability to create plays make him a true spark plug off the bench. He’s certainly more score first than pass first with his play out of the pick and roll likely resulting in a pull up jumper or him slicing to the rim. He can however create a little for others and is definitely a capable shooter off the ball who can do well alongside the rest of their guards who like to handle the ball.

WINGS

Cam Gliddon is now in the prime of his career and plays with the veteran poise and all round capabilities of a leader, and quite incredibly he was the only player in Cairns’ rotation who shot at least 30% from three point range last season. Gliddon has good size for shooting guard and is decent athletically (without blinding speed) and a competitor on the defensive end. With the ball in his hands, he can play out of the pick and roll and make plays driving at the rim, whilst he has hit some big step back threes in his young career. He’s just as capable off the ball with his three point shooting where he can act as the secondary ball-handler.

Fuquan Edwin is a prototypical 3-and-D wing with his speed, athletic and long body, as well as his confident outside shooting allowing him to easily fill a role. He won’t rebound at the same elite rate as Torrey Craig, but he boasts a similar physical profile and ability to guard multiple positions, he’ll shoot it better from deep, and he comes in with some elite steal numbers. From a scoring perspective, he’ll mostly get his points spotting up, running off screens, and at the rim via a pass or straight line drive. His shot creation off the bounce, ability to get to the free throw line and play-making for others isn’t at the level of some other imports, but his ability to fill his role on the wing fits in perfectly with Cairns’ ball dominant players.

The first thing that strikes you with Mitch McCarron is the power with which he does everything on the court. His athleticism and strong body really stands out as he either overwhelms the opponent finishing at the rim or gets up in their face guarding on the ball. His game screams of a high ceiling and it’s likely only his three point shooting (decent 3P% but low volume) and being undersized (6-3) for a shooting guard that has held him back from higher levels. In the NBL, his height won’t be a factor as he should comfortably defend both guard spots, turn defense into offense, finish at the rim, draw plenty of fouls, rebound, and handle the ball well. His arrival alongside Weeks gives the Taipans unmatched energy off the bench in the back-court and it’ll be interesting to see how much free rein Fearne gives them to press and run.

It seems forever ago that Stephen Weigh won the three point shootout at All Star weekend after he finished last season with just 14 made triples compared with 18 mid-range makes. His upside is limited given his age but if he can sort out his shot distribution and post strong three point shooting numbers then he definitely has good value. Weigh’s got a solid build and can use that strength to his advantage to fit into different line-ups and even play up a position against some second units and hold his own.

Damon Heuir played under 100 minutes in his rookie season but did OK in that limited time and should be better for that experience this season. He’s a combo-guard who had some success as the primary ball-handler in the preseason tournament although that kind of action is going to be limited when the real stuff starts. Heuir is a good athlete and can knock down spot up threes so he will be ready when an opportunity arises.

BIGS

At this point of his career, Nate Jawai is somewhat of a polarising player with injuries and health a constant talking point. At his best, you can build an offense around him with his power play inside mixed with impressive passing out of the post causing a defense to react in a way that they don’t have to with many other players around the league. At his worst, his conditioning restricts him to a low minute total, he’s a liability with pick and roll defense, or he is too slow up and down the floor. Looking back on last season, he was clearly outplayed by his backup Tom Jervis over the course of the season, but he did display spurts of form that were critical to Perth’s title run. Cairns’ traditionally slow pace fits in well with the signing although logging minutes with Weeks and McCarron could be interesting or unlikely.

Mark Worthington’s debut season in Cairns was a tough one with his production not matching his effort. In idea, he’s a perfectly mobile, shooting and passing power forward but the numbers don’t quite fit. His rebounding is more in line with what you would want out of your small forward (10.2 TREB%) whilst his lack of outside shooting (22-90 on 3PA) makes him a less appealing option at small forward. Looking at the roster, he’s still their best option at power forward though so they need him to defy age and hope that a preseason injury doesn’t follow him through the regular season. The effort level with Worthington is definitely still there, and likely always will be, as he was as pesky as ever on defense whilst he did manage to knock down some mid-rangers. If Worthington and Alex Loughton struggle then Fearne may have to run with some creative line-ups that he trialed over the preseason with Jawai on the sidelines.

Nnanna Egwu was the first of the new imports to catch my attention as he struggled up and down the court and with changing direction in an early preseason game. Fast forward about three weeks and he appears to have worked into better shape and was a contributor at the preseason tournament. Given Jawai’s injury status, Egwu needs to be in top form to start the season and anchor the defense with his strong shot blocking and size at the rim. He’s just an average rebounder for his position but is certainly an upgrade on Cam Tragardh in that and other defensive areas. On offense, he’s low usage but he isn’t your typical big who just finishes at the rim. He’ll throw down a two handed power dunk from a dump off pass but he much prefers playing away from the rim with three quarters of his FGA coming from non-rim twos or 3PA in his final college season (he hit 37% of the twos and had 10 3PM). I’m struggling to shake that first impression and wouldn’t bet on him being the difference maker that Tom Jervis was behind Jawai last season.

Alex Loughton, like Worthington, had some toxic shooting numbers last season which really held back this team. Couple this with his age, declining movement and athleticism, some poor rebounding and shot blocking for his position, and you have a hard time arguing that Cairns have enough up front. His play as the pick and pop big can be a weapon and he’ll need to make more than last season to stick in the rotation given his minimal impact inside and awkward ‘tweener’ positional status.

OUTLOOK

The good form of this team in the preseason tournament turned some heads, but with rosters constructed the way they are at present, Fearne will still need to coach his tail off early to prove they’re a playoff contender. A slow start is a possibility with the injury bug already hitting the trio of Jawai, Trice and Worthington, who all have to be great for this team. In the backcourt, there’s somewhat of a style clash with the more free-wheeling and athletic additions in contrast with Cairns’ regular pace of play and current personnel in the frontcourt, so that looms as an intriguing point to follow. The big man upgrade depends a lot on Jawai’s form as without an improved season from him, there probably hasn’t been enough done to move the needle. The shooting is upgraded from one through three so surely they can’t put together as poor a 3P% as last season, but an extra stretch-four may have been handy to get with the 11th roster spot, rather than taking an extra guard.

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