While NBL have been making big noise signing established stars like Josh Childress, Chris Goulding and Nathan Jawai this year’s crop of NBL rookies have been able to fly under the radar and help teams like Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth cement themselves at the top of the NBL ladder.
Three rookies from the city of churches have become part of a young rookie core ready to help the 36ers in this years playoff hunt while also putting the squad in a good position for future seasons.
Matthew Hodgson, Nathan Sobey and Daniel Carlin all had very successful college basketball careers prior to transitioning to the NBL, but the move from student-athlete to a professional basketballer has it’s challenges.
“The toughest thing about being a rookie was adjusting the intelligence and free reign that players in this league have. American college systems are usually very structured and don’t allow a lot of opportunity for free thinking, so the players can become predictable. In the NBL, the players all understand the game extremely well and have freedom to make their own reads, so that makes everyone harder to guard” said Adelaide 36ers rookie Matthew Hodgson.
“Game speed is a big deal too” added 36ers teammate and fellow rookie Daniel Carlin.
“I think adjusting to the game speed is one of the big things you need work out. It’s definitely a step up from the college level I was playing. Here you need to make a lot more decisions in a shorter space of time.”
Hodgson spent last season as a development player with the Melbourne United but due to health issues was never able to take the court. His departure made way for Melbourne to acquire talented rookies Majok Majok and Igor Hadziomerovic.
“I’d say biggest adjustment is having to bring it every day in practice. Just making sure you are always locked in and ready to go” Melbourne United guard Igor Hadziomerovic noted.
Which shouldn’t be a surprise coming from the guy who is matched up defensively against one of the best perimeter scorers we have in the league in Chris Goulding.
Even though his Melbourne United teammate Majok Majok starts most games this doesn’t mean he doesn’t face the same challenges in finding his role as a rookie.
“For me the toughest thing is being limited. From making a mistake on the court, to taking limited shots, to playing limited minutes, and to playing a limited role…but at the end of the day it’s what rookies have to play through to earn their spot” said Majok
The league doesn’t get much easier for an NBL rookie who also are regularly subjected to numerous “rookie hazing’s” from veterans around the league.
United’s rookie Igor Hadziomerovic has been forced to wear a Cinderella backpack as a rite of passage.
“I’m not complaining though, the girls love it” Igor tells us with a smirk and a laugh.
Adelaide guard Nathan Sobey was a development player last year with the Cairns Taipans is still considered an NBL rookie due to playing only a limited number of games.
He has felt the wrath of the emasculating back packs as well.
“Last season they made (the rookies) wear pink Dora backpacks with our faces cut out on them, so I can understand what the other rookies are going through” said Sobey.
“Even though I was a contracted player last year I’m still technically a rookie this year, so unfortunately I still have to do all the duties that rookies are expected to”.
Daniel Carlin was able to further explain the duties expected from the 36ers’ rookie crop.
“Rookie duties mostly include carrying team bags when we go on the road and splitting time with some of the other younger guys getting the gym ready before practice by sweeping the floors, bringing out the towels, and water” He explained.
“Yeah, the fellas have been pretty light on me with the rookie duties, so I’ve been lucky. The only thing I really have to do is carry more bags at the airport, so I’ve kind of gotten off the hook” added Hodgson.
Perth Wildcats’ rookie guard Jarrod Kenny finds himself in an usual rookie situation as well due to his age and experience playing in the New Zealand NBL.
“I’m 30 years old so I don’t feel like a rookie, but I know I am when I walk into gyms I’ve never played in before” said Kenny.
“The guys have been pretty good to me when it comes to being a rookie. I tend to cop it more for being a kiwi really rather than a rookie.” Kenny explains.
The life of an NBL rookie can be an adjustment. Every game is tough when you don’t know if you’ll be getting 30 minutes, 20 minutes tonight or sitting on the pine all game.
So how does a rookie self-evaluate what games he delivered his best performances?
“I think our game against New Zealand at home was probably the one I was happiest with” said Hadziomerovic.
“We managed to chip away and stay in the game. We were lucky to have some calls go our way at the end but I thought our guys showed great fight and stayed with it.”
The games you’re happiest with as a rookie don’t necessarily include the ones you have the best numbers.
“The game I am most happiest with this season would probably be Melbourne game at home just before Christmas” said Sobey.
Sobey has delivered some strong performances this season, 11 points against Perth, 7 points and 3 rebounds against New Zealand, but the game he is most proud of this season happens to be a game where he couldn’t even make a shot.
Against Melbourne he may have scored “donuts” on the scoresheet but being able to play 13 key minutes in a win against one of the leagues best teams allows a rookie to walk away feeling more confident than scoring meaningless points in “junk time”.
A rookies most memorable game may simply be the first time suiting up for a team you grew up idolising.
“In our first game at home against NZ, I didn’t do anything special in it but just being out on the court in a 36ers jersey in a real game was pretty special as I grew up in Adelaide and the 36ers have always been my team” he said.
Majok Majok has also had some big games this season, but guessing which one stands out to him the most isn’t as difficult to guess. And it shouldn’t be… it’s not every week you make a game deciding play.
“The game I have been happiest with is the game against Perth in Melbourne where it came down to the wire and having to block a game winning shot to win the game” said Majok.
It’s not every day you’re NBL debut is one for the record books either. Matthew Hodgson’s 18 points was good enough to the the third highest debut point total in 36ers history.
“I am definitely most happy with my first game of the season against the NZ Breakers. It was a dream start that I didn’t really expect at all. What made it even more special was that my idol and mentor, Chris Anstey, was in attendance for the game too. To have a game like that in front of a man who gave me my first professional opportunity at United and then was integral in getting me this spot at Adelaide was really special” said Hodgson.
Unfortunately after years of hard work required to make it to the NBL, the “real” work only starts once they are in the league and a rookie has to always be working on developing themselves as a player in order to ensure they are one of the select 60-70 Australian’s good enough to earn an NBL contract.
“Right now I think we have so many offensive weapons on the team, I need to find other ways to contribute besides scoring and helping the team in any way I can. There are a lot of great players in this league. Every day I go against Chris Goulding and that’s tough” Hadziomeroivic said when asked about what he feels he needs to improve in order to become a larger part of his team’s success.
This current crop of rookies certainly have the talent to be big time players in this league, at this stage of the career being able to deliver that every night is something they are still learning.
“I think for the second half off the season I just need to more consistent from game to game so the team can rely on me for my strengths.” said Kenny.
Matthew Hodgson agrees. “I need to develop a consistency in my effort in every game. After playing this first half of the season, I understand the effort that you have to bring each night if you want to contribute to a team win but I want to make sure I bring that effort every night”.
For some developing a specific part of their game is what’s likely to get extra minutes.
“I think it’s definitely on the offensive end making sure I’m knocking down open jump shots, and finishing around the rim” noted Carlin.
And for others it’s the reality that adding something to your game each week is not simply what’s best but a requirement in order to become a bigger part of the team’s game plan.
“I personally have to continue to develop my game in all aspects, just keep working at everything. Nothing major for one specific thing just continue to add pieces everywhere in order to become a complete player” Sobey said.
“Same for me, for the second part of the season I just need to be aggressive on the court on both ends of the floor” added Majok.
All these things considered its clear even from a fan’s perspective that the biggest hurdle is surely facing some of the greatest basketball players in the world every week.
“Corey Webster is another great offensive talent. I was really impressed with what Kirk Penney can do at his age. Jermaine Beal is also a handful when he gets going. I think guarding Jerome Randle though for a few possessions was a challenge I looked forward to” says Hadziomerovic.
Facing quality point guards each round makes it easy for Nathan Sobey to agree. “There is a lot of talent in this league right now so it’s fun just getting out there and competing against any of the guards in our league”.
Being a New Zealander Jarrod Kenny has that added feeling of national pride so going head to head with the many New Zealand born NBL players provides something for him other players don’t get to experience.
“It’s been really cool to play against all of my Kiwi brother’s when we go up against another team. It’s always good to get a win and have a bit of banter after the game” he said.
Sometimes the players and opponents make that deliver the biggest thrill from being around are those which were dominant international players while these rookies were still playing junior basketball.
“Someone I’ve enjoyed being around is Matt Nielsen” said Kenny.
“Seeing him captain Australia against the Tall Blacks and knowing the success he has had as an individual in his own right, and now getting to play against him and now coached by him is awesome. He’s quality on and off the court!”.
“I probably get the biggest buzz at practice When I look around and see that Gibbo is our point guard or when I’m matching up against guys like “Peach” and “DJ”. Those are the guys who have helped bring the Sixers back to NBL relevance and since I’ve been a 36ers fan all my life it’s pretty cool that the guys I used to cheer for are now my team mates” noted Carlin.
It’s surely a thrill when those players you looked up to as a junior become your teammates, but sometimes those players end up being your defensive assignments and that can create a whole different situation.
” I got a big buzz when we faced Perth and I matched up on Jawai for the first time. I used to love watching him tear the NBL apart when he was at Cairns and I’ve been following his career closely since then. So being able to clash heads with him was a really cool experience” added Hodgson.
Majok Majok was in total agreement.
“The toughest opposing player to guard is Nate Jawai easily… he is just so big and strong”.
It’s only a matter of time before young basketball players are getting excited to play against names like Majok, Hadziomerovic and Sobey… and the basketball tragics like you and I will be lucky enough to witness it unfold.