SYDNEY, Australia, Aug 30 – If you ask Australian youngsters who their favourite basketball player is, US superstars such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant are likely responses, with the mere mention of the NBA creating a buzz.
But home-grown talent Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers), Patty Mills (San Antonio Spurs), Dante Exum (Utah Jazz) and South Sudanese refugee Thon Maker (Milwaukee Bucks) have swelled Aussie numbers in the world’s top league and heightened the hopes of young Australians playing the game.
“It definitely gives you something to aim for, knowing that they have started where you started and they made it all the way to the top,” Austin Bradtke told AFP after a narrow win at a recent basketball carnival in suburban Melbourne.
“Experiencing American basketball, and also the crowds and stuff, it looks really enticing for a young player, that is where I am keen to go,” added the 17-year-old, whose father Mark was among the earliest Australians to play in the NBA.
Once a far-flung dream for young hopefuls, technology is giving scouts greater access to international talent, while an elite junior program is putting promising Australians at the forefront of the game, with courts Down Under proving fertile ground for US recruiters.
Australia’s national side “the Boomers” were earlier this month crowned FIBA Asia Cup champions despite fielding a second-string side because their top international stars were unavailable.
A record eight Aussies (excluding Maker who was listed as South Sudanese) were listed on NBA rosters at the start of last season and hundreds of young men and women are now competing in the US college system, with many progressing to professional careers internationally.
While no basketball nation can match the athletism of the US, coaches say Australians have earned a reputation for selflessness and being team players.
“I know that when we take kids to tours in America, the main thing that we struggle with is defending those super-athletic kids.
“But then down the other end (Americans) struggle to defend our structure and our skill, and our decision-making,” said Melbourne Tigers coaching director Nick Abdicevic.
– Australia’s golden era –
“When they have guys that are prepared to sacrifice for their teammates and put their team above the individual… I think that attracts all the NBA teams to look to those characteristics,” said Andrew Gaze, one of the first Australians to play in the US college system.
“It is great for our national team and it provides tremendous inspiration for the youngsters coming through, who know that if you play basketball in Australia, there is clearly a pathway you can end up as an NBA player.”
The 1990s were a golden era for Australian basketball, with a handful of trailblazers, including Gaze (Washington Bullets and San Antonio Spurs), Bradtke (Philadelphia 76ers) and Luc Longley, who won three championships with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan, playing in the NBA.
The Boomers reached the Atlanta Olympic semi-finals in 1996 before losing a memorable encounter to the USA “Dream Team” and took fourth-place at Sydney four years later.
Standards during this period were also bolstered by US talent looking for game time elsewhere, said Marty Clarke, associate head coach with Saint Mary’s College in California, where Australians Mills and Milwaukee Bucks’ guard Matthew Dellavedova graduated.
– Strong at the grassroots –
“Partly because of the influence of the USA, with import players going overseas and the coaches going to coach elsewhere, the distance between the USA and the rest of the world certainly shrunk,” said Clarke, also a former Boomers assistant coach.
While Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) struggled after the turn of the century as attendances dwindled, grassroots participation remained strong, producing a new generation of talent.
“Whereas people (once) played another sport and made a transition to basketball, these kids have been around these big stadiums since they were babies,” Clarke added.
Exum, Simmons, and Jonah Bolden, who was recently drafted to the Philadelphia 76ers, are all sons of former NBL imports.
The elite training program in Australia’s capital Canberra can take much of the credit for producing the country’s top talent.
“We have got this hidden gem sitting in Canberra,” said Basketball Australia chief Anthony Moore.
The academy has been lauded for producing an NBA talent pool whose numbers compare with some of the top US colleges.
Recognising this, the NBA in June teamed up with Basketball Australia to launch the NBA Global Academy there.
“(Australian players in the NBA) have all had a touch point at some part with the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) basketball programme, so that holds us all in really good stead, and that certainly has drawn the NBA to us,” Moore added.