Save the date in your calendar: 5th February 2023. For that is the end date of the upcoming Australian NBL basketball regular season.
There will be a postseason, of course, yet even that will finish early, at least when compared to the NBA. By the end of February, the entire NBL postseason will be complete. And for NBA teams, this means Australian NBL players can then, assuming their particular NBL contracts and teams allow for it, sign with NBA teams for the remainder of the NBA season, with enough time left to either get settled before the playoffs or to audition for a spot in 2023/24.
Australia’s NBL has been on a decade-long resurgence, going from almost bankrupted around the time of the global financial crisis – punctuated by the ignominy of the Melbourne South Dragons going out of business within weeks of winning the 2008/09 title – to being a premier world basketball destination. Stability, widespread coverage, favourable weather and no language barrier for American players, plus Australia’s own ever-improving development pipeline of domestic talent, has seen the league grow year on year to the point that it now regularly houses some of the best former NBA players, and produces some of the best NBA prospects.
By way of example, of the nine teams currently in the NBL, there are 30 players who have signed NBA contracts at some point (including multi-year veterans such as Tyler Johnson, Aron Baynes, Matthew Dellavedova, Zhou Qi, Jarrell Brantley and Derrick Walton), and two unsigned draft picks (Luke Travers and Hugo Besson). Other valued world prospects such as Kai Sotto, Ariel Hukportl and Nikhail Mikhailovskii have taken to switching hemispheres, too, so as to take advantage of the NBL’s development pipeline.
In recent NBA Drafts, players such as Josh Giddey, R.J Hampton, Ousmane Dieng, Dyson Daniels (via the intermediate stop of the G-League Ignite) and LaMelo Ball have all come from Australia, spending at least one season with an NBL franchise. They add to a list of current and former Australian NBL players that is trending upwards at quite a rate, plus another list of international-calibre Australian players who have chosen to stay home. After all, with the league going from strength to strength, there is no reason to leave.
Not bad for a league that was selling franchises for a mere A$20,000 barely a decade ago.
Concurrent with this – but not coincidental to it – NBL teams have also frequently been taking part in preseason games against NBA opposition. It is not a surprise to see that NBA teams usually win these games, and sometimes handily. But the gap is ever-closing. And this year, the NBL broke its duck, as the Adelaide 36ers came to Phoenix to take on the Suns – and won.
The 36ers’ victory in that game came from an outside barrage worthy of, and perhaps derived from, the NBA’s own modern focus on shooting from range. Former Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic forward Robert Franks combined with former Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks wing Antonius Cleveland to shoot 9-14 from three-point range, while reigning G-League Most Improved Player Craig Randall II hit a massive 9-17 of his own. At the same time as the NBA is prising away the best parts of the Australian game, the NBL is having its choice of the NBA’s residual excesses, too.
Because of the high level of international exposure that the NBL has, helped immensely by these preseason games and the availability of its broadcasts online, the NBL is a good place to go for any player with NBA aspirations and borderline talent, looking for an opportunity. This is also where the date mentioned in the introduction comes into play. The 5th February end date of the regular season is a considerably earlier one than all other leagues of comparable standard, whose seasons end at either roughly the same time as the NBA’s does, or later.
In some cases, then, the NBL can be seen to function as something of an extra G-League. Not by design (the NBL is in no way an official subsidiary of the NBA), but through circumstance, calling someone up roughly March-time from the Adelaide 36ers is not much different in function than calling them March-time from the Ontario Clippers.
NBA teams can monitor the play and development of NBL players they have an eye on – the 36ers’ trio of Cleveland, Franks and Randall II are a good example of such – and then, because of the relevant dates, pick them up in the second half of the season. Not all NBL players are eligible or capable-enough to merit signing in this way, but then, neither are all players in the G-League, either.
Contrary to the common misconception, there is no date by which players must be signed to be eligible for the NBA playoffs, other than the final day of the regular season (i.e. before they start). The only rule is that if a player is on an NBA roster by the close of business on 1st March, that team is the only one they can play for in the postseason. But if they are in Australia at that time, there is no such issue. And so if your NBA team is looking for some mid-season reinforcements by the time 2023 rolls around, don’t forget to look down under.