(All images: Benjamin Parker for ASternWarning.com)
Friday night saw the eventual return of NBL action in Sydney, albeit the pre-season. The Sydney Kings hosted the Wollongong Hawks at the Gosford City Basketball and Sports Stadium in sunny Terrigal.
This game provided us with the first look at most of the Kings' new men, being Darnell Lazare (import), Corin Henry (import), Kevin Smith (NZ naturalised), Ian Crosswhite (ex-Cairns Taipans) and James Harvey (ex-Gold Coast Blaze). The only signed squad member missing was forward Tom Garlepp (ex-Gold Coast Blaze).
As always, the scoreboard during pre-season action means little. However, the Hawks definitely got the better of it in this clash, coming off 74-67 victors. Putting those insignificant little numbers to one side, what did we learn?
Chemistry and Cohesion are 90% of the battle
Almost exactly one year ago we saw a similar pre-season battle, as the Kings visited the Hawks at the old Snakepit. The Kings entered the game with a vastly overhauled roster, whilst the Hawks were rocking out with essentially the same core of Aussie talent that has served them for some years now. Just to recap what I wrote a year ago, to save time:
How it was won
The Hawks simply looked like the team that had played together, whilst the Kings are in a state of "pre-cohesion". The size of the likes of Saville, Forman, Gruber and Davidson, coupled with their ability to mostly play on the perimeter, meant that the Kings defence was stretched at all times. Defending a team like this requires a defensive machinery that has been honed by many hours of playing together -- the Kings do not yet have that advantage.
As I mentioned earlier, it will be very interesting to see how long it takes for the Hawks imports to fit into this well-established system. No doubt their talent will be appreciated, but much of what makes the Hawks so good is their teamwork, which they showed tonight in spades.
Whilst Dave Gruber was out injured and Mat Campbell retired at the end of last season, the Hawks core of Glen Saville, Oscar Forman, Larry Davidson, Tim Coenraad, Rhys Martin, Tyson Demos and coach Gordie McLeod were doing what they usually do. They managed to space the floor and run their offence in such a way that allowed them to win the three-point shooting battle 11/17 to 4/10. Rhys Martin hit 5/7 from deep, whilst Forman (3/3), Davidson (2/2) and Saville (1/1) were all perfect from that range.
The Hawks also won the turnover count eight to eleven, despite only managing two steals. As you would expect, the newly-curated Kings squad was not as cohesive in their offensive sets as they will be when the regular season rolls around, in this, just their first pre-season hit-out together. As such, they commited turnovers that coach Shane Heal would be very disappointed to see in two months' time.
Corin Henry is fast.
New Kings import point guard Henry may not be the full 5'11" that hes' advertised as, but boy, he is fast. His speed both up and down the floor and laterally is of a level rarely seen in the NBL.
It is the type of speed that causes headaches for opponents on both ends of the floor. Henry played full court defence for most of the game and literally was dripping with sweat as he left the court each time he sat -- no doubt this is the type of effort that a coach like Heal loves. Offensively, Henry has the ability to put opposing defences on the back foot as he explores the possibilities of a fast break on each possession, bringing the ball up the court at pace.
Floor general is the toughest position to enter a new team and new league in, and accordingly, Henry's performance against the Hawks was no world-beater. In his 23 minutes of game time, he contributed seven points and four assists on the positive side of the ledger. More importantly, he committed a big fat ZERO in the turnovers column -- no mean feat in your first game. To pick flaws, Henry occasionally hesitated on his shot, ultimately shooting 3/10 from the field. In addition, he twice failed to take advantage of mismatches on the perimeter when Forman switched onto him on high picks. He also fouled out. All of these factors are expected in the early going and can be fixed with better knowledge of both his team and his NBL opponents.
Laz-are / Lazaré / Lazair can flat-out ball
I was fortunate enough to be part of the Sydney Kings Radio team, broadcasting this game alongside Matt McQuade and Kings CEO Moose Robilliard. During the call of the game we had a few different pronunciations of Darnell Lazare's surname. (I can't wait until Andrew Gaze wraps his tonsils around this one!) Make no mistake though, there was no difference of opinion on this 6'8" Louisiana power forward's game.
The man who was wearing number 0 can flat out play the game of basketball.
Let's start with the numbers. Lazare shot 9/14 from the field and 4/6 at the free throw line on his way to 22 points. He pulled down eight rebounds (including three offensive), plus one steal and one block. Despite intense pressure from the Hawks defence in the paint, he only turned the ball over once.
The majority of his shots came on contested mid-range jumpers, as he squared up his defender (typically Forman). At one stage, he seemingly was in a one-on-one battle with Hawks' star Forman (21 points on 8/11), as they traded shots at either end. Once he got into a groove, he looked like the type of player who will be very hard to stop in this league. If his shot (which has an interesting kick to it) continues to be this reliable, teams will be forced to close out hard on him, allowing him the opportunity to go hard at the basket -- he showed the ability to score off the dribble on the few occasions he was forced to.
Interestingly, when the big man got on a roll with his scoring, he pulled out a glare somewhat reminiscent of former Kings star Bruce Bolden. One thing is for sure: Lazare will be a huge centrepiece for the Kings this season.
Madgen: aggressive and ready to go
Ben Madgen spent part of the off-season selflessly giving of his time to help communities outside of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, alongside his sister Tess, Kings assistant coach Tim Hudson and Kings owner Steve Dunn. The 2011/12 Kings Clubman of the Year is respected by his teammates as a team player and all-round good guy. But that doesn't stop Madge from being all-out aggressive on the basketball court. As he showed in the second half of the 2011/12 NBL season, the shooting guard displayed a tantalising willingness to push hard at the basket and put points on the board against the Hawks. Named a co-captain of the Kings (along with Harvey) this season, the third-year man put up 18 points on 7/13 from the field. He hit two three-pointers in the flow of the offence and pulled down four rebounds.
2012/13 shapes up as a chance for Madgen to take another step in his career. Coach Heal touts him as a future Boomer and if his progression over his first two seasons continues, there is no reason to doubt that.
Harvey and Crosswhite provide more than veteran smarts
Whilst this game saw little court time for new acquisitions Harvey (14 minutes) and Crosswhite (19), there will no doubt come a time where that will change. Coach Heal had intended to limit Harvey's time to 10 minutes as he recovers from injury, but the veteran shooter ultimately put up five points in the time he was afforded on court. With the choice of Harvey, Madgen and Aaron Bruce on the wings, point guards Henry and Luke Martin will have a greater ability to find shooters than the Kings were presented with last season. In addition, Harvey clearly played a key role in team huddles, providing vocal leadership.
Crosswhite enters the team with big shoes to fill as the replacement for star Julian Khazzouh. Whilst no one expects Crossy to provide the same offensive punch as the Big Sneeze, his size inside will certainly be relied upon to clog the paint, pull down rebounds and block shots. During his limited minutes in this game, the Kings returnee was credited with four rebounds, whilst he surely tipped a handful more to teammates on the defensive end. He missed all four shots that the took, but did provide two assists. He is the type of centre who will form a key cog in the offensive schemes, often through his outside shooting or passing ability. There were glimpses in this game of his high-low potential with Lazare on offence.
Bruce will get there
As he returns from a leg injury, guard Bruce looks to recapture the form which made him one of the hottest guards in the NBL early last season. The combo guard will have a lot more opportunity to play off the ball this season and we saw that during this game, as he played on the wings, presenting himself as an option to Henry. Coach Heal had emphasised this as a key to unlocking Bruce's potential before taking over the reigns of the Kings. Bruce played 29 minutes, with his only made field goal being a three pointer on the final buzzer, as he finished with five points on 1/6 shooting. He did however grab five rebounds. With more game practice Bruce will undoubtedly be in form by the time the regular season rolls around.
Kevin Smith: too early to say
Forward Smith enters the Kings squad as a naturalised New Zealander, and should provide some scoring ability and versatility off the bench. At 6'5" and 32 years of age, Smith will see time at both forward positions, as he did during this game. He made one two-point shot and pulled a single rebound in five minute of action.
Luke Martin and Graeme Dann are reliable
As they have been so many times in the past, Dann and Martin will be reliable components of this Kings squad. Both will likely remain as backups at forward and guard respectively, until fortunes dictate otherwise, but importantly coach Heal knows what he is getting with these guys. Martin, as backup point guard contributed four assists, two rebounds and two points, whilst committing two turnovers in his 17 minutes. Dann put up six points and six rebounds in 23 minutes, backing up both front court positions.
For a much more complete game recap, head over to Matt McQuade's article at the official Sydney Kings site.
The win was the third straight for the Hawks, after two wins over touring US college teams. The Kings now go on to play two games in Tamworth against the Cairns Taipans.
Wollongong Hawks 74 (Scoring: Forman 21, Martin 19, Davidson 13; Rebounds: Saville 5, Coenraad 4; Assists: Saville 3) - Sydney Kings 67 (Scoring: Lazare 22, Madgen 18, Henry 7; Rebounds: Lazare 8, Dann 6, Bruce 5; Assists: Henry 4, Martin 4).