Between Dante Exum, Ben Simmons, Thon Maker and most recently Jonah Bolden, the stream of talent from Australia to the NBA has become well-established. Is there a place for Australia’s league in that flow?
The NBL has produced players who have gone on to long NBA careers, including the likes of Stephen Jackson. But rather than being a stop for hoops vagabonds, the league hopes to position itself as a destination on basketball’s developmental ladder. The possibilities were evident with Terrance Ferguson (inset), the American who bypassed college to play for the Adelaide 36ers last year. The teen was expected to be chosen in the NBA Draft after spending the mandatory year out of high school, and he was duly picked no.21 last June by Oklahoma City.
In a fillip for the NBL, another of its players from last season, Brisbane import Torrey Craig (below), landed an NBA deal with the Denver Nuggets. It illustrates how the pathway to the NBA has become a dual track: teams still prioritise young, raw talent such as Ferguson, but rather than pluck the next guy out of college, they take a longer look at seasoned pros such as Craig.
Andrew Gaze had an up-close view of the NBA’s personnel process while working as a coach for the Indiana Pacers in Summer League. “It’s a pathway which the NBA teams like because they see guys developed who are role-specific, they understand what it takes to be a professional on and off the floor,” Gaze says. “That pathway wasn’t there 20 or 30 years ago, or wasn’t as heavily monitored ... You look at these kids like Terrance Ferguson, they’re seeing the international route as not just saying ‘this is going to be my lot for the rest of my career’."
Gaze has his own interesting prospect at the Kings, as highly touted Aussie big man Isaac Humphries returned home to start his pro career. Humphries made a surprise decision to leave Kentucky, college basketball’s premier finishing school, having never quite found his footing.
“But, he’s only 19 years of age,” Gaze notes. “Whether it’s here or in Europe, if his ultimate goal is to get to the NBA, he’s got the skill set and if he builds up his body, there’s no reason to think that goal isn’t an unrealistic one.”