With nine players on deck for the 2018/19 NBA season, this year shapes up as one of the biggest from an Australian perspective.
Ben Simmons' Rookie of the Year campaign grabbed the headlines last season and the Philadelphia 76ers point guard is set for another big campaign, with the Eastern Conference crown in his sights.
While he leads the pack, the likes of Joe Ingles and Dante Exum in Utah both look to take their games to a new level. Thon Maker and Matthew Dellavedova are bracing for bounce-back seasons under new Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, rookies Ryan Broekhoff and Jonah Bolden look to make their mark in their debut seasons, while Patty Mills and Aron Baynes are set to play big roles for the Spurs and Celtics.
Let's take a look at the challenges and opportunities for each Aussie player this season.
Ben Simmons - 76ers
Coming off a blistering rookie campaign, this season will bring something different for Ben Simmons. Expectation.
This time last year, no one knew exactly what the Sixers would achieve, but now the organisation, the city and the rest of the NBA are expecting them to be one of the best teams in the league. And rightfully so.
As Simmons continues to develop, as will his leadership, and as the floor general for this team, late game execution will be one of the big areas to watch. The Sixers took some lumps late in games against the Celtics in the playoffs and those experiences will be all to valuable for Simmons who will continue to have the ball in his hands at the end of games.
The obvious improvement for Simmons this season will be the jump shot, which will take time, but there are some quick fixes that we can expect him to make, that can vault his game to another level.
Limiting turnovers and getting to the free throw line.
Last season Joel Embiid and Simmons were 4th and 5th in the league in turnovers per game, and as a team, no one turned the ball over more than the Sixers in the regular season. The addition of Markelle Fultz as another primary ball handler should alleviate some of that pressure as they look to transition from young team to Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Can Simmons become a 20-point scorer this season? His game isn't primarily about getting buckets, but there's an easy win to be had at the free throw line, both in terms of getting there and converting. Simmons shot just 56% on 4.2 attempts per game in 2017/18, so expect that number to rise as he becomes more aggressive with the ball in his hands, attacking the rim.
#TBT to him tearing down rims all summer!
Ben Simmons at Rico Hines UCLA Run! pic.twitter.com/jnPYVs374A— Home Team Hoops (@HomeTeamHoops) August 24, 2018
The sky is the limit for Simmons this season, with a strong team around him and a year of experience under his belt. Flirting with averaging a triple-double in his second season could well land him a spot on the All-Star team.
Joe Ingles - Jazz
The Utah Jazz are going to be a League Pass must this season and Joe Ingles is a big reason why.
The big difference for Joe this season is his confidence. He is already one of the best shooters and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, now he has enough of a body of work behind him to talk the talk.
Jazz sharpshooter Joe Ingles says he’s the best shooter in the NBA. “I feel like they’re all gonna go in when I shoot the ball,” Ingles said. pic.twitter.com/icdM6CQvY5— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) October 5, 2018
In all seriousness, through the pre-season Ingles showed an increased aggresiveness with the ball in his hands and almost no conscious letting the three-ball fly. Expect his usage rate to jump again this season, as it has every year he's been in the league. The Jazz will need Ingles to take on an even bigger role if they are to be the 50+ win team they want to be.
While Rudy Gobert is their best defensive player and Donovan Mitchell their best scorer, Ingles is the metronome of the Jazz, keeping things in check on both sides of the floor. He has emerged as maybe the strongest voice in the locker room and has made the leap from glue guy to leader.
I truly look forward to 82 games of Ingles irritating everyone he guards.
Jonah Bolden - 76ers
After struggling in Sumer League, Bolden's brief appearances in pre-season have been encouraging, in particular, his efficiency on offence. Bolden knocked down 4-of-9 three-point attempts (44.4%) and continuing to do so will go a long way to determining how much he plays this season.
He will be fighting Mike Muscala and Amir Johnson for backup minutes at the four and five, with his defensive ability giving him an edge over both. Bolden is long and springy, can protect the rim, grab rebounds and get out in transition, but the big thing for him will be how he adjusts to switching out on the perimeter and defending quicker, smaller players.
It's safe to assume, coach Brett Brown will give Bolden a clear role as a rim-running big to start the season, but it's on him to expand that and get his offensive production to a level where he can command 15+ minutes a night.
Philly is no longer a young, developing team. They're an elite team that just happens to be run by a bunch of young guys in Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and hopefully Markelle Fultz, so the margin for error is a lot thinner now as they look to contend with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors at the top of the East. What that means for Bolden is that it will be harder for the Sixers to let him 'figure it out' on the floor. He will need to come ready to play and contribute right away.
Having said that, Bolden may well end up splitting his time between the 76ers and their G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats, where he will be able to get plenty of run and build his confidence.
Dante Exum - Jazz
The Utah Jazz backcourt is overflowing with talent, so minutes will have to be earned, but the early signs point to Dante Exum being a key figure in what will be a big season for the Jazz as they look to finish in the top four in the Western Conference.
Exum signed a three-year, $33 million deal in the off-season, and with that deal comes expectation. Now that Exum is fully healthy and in his fifth year, he has a real opportunity ti imprint himself on this team.
Between Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, Alec Burks and Grayson Allen, there is plenty of offense at their disposal, but what will keep Exum on the floor is his defense. The 23-year-old is the best defender of the group, which gives him an edge over the likes of Allen and Burks.
Don't be surprised to see Exum in some three-guard lineups, utilising his size and speed on the perimeter, something the Aussie says he is looking forward to.
“I think it’s going to be really good. It gives me the chance to run the floor on kick-aheads and show my speed in transition,” Exum said via the Salt Lake Tribune . In that scnario, Exum will likely be guarding small forwards and bigger guards, but after his display agianst James Harden in the playoffs, he is confident he can do that job.
“I’ve been playing this summer in L.A. against a lot of the threes, and I’ve been doing well."
Matthew Dellavedova - Bucks
After an injury-disrupted campaign last season, Dellavedova will look to gain his spot back in the rotation under new head coach Mike Budenholzer.
The Bucks' offense already looks night and day from 2017/18, with increased ball movement and a TON more three-pointers getting hoisted, playing right into Dellavedova's hands. Delly has knocked down 36.9% of his threes over the past two seasons and last year he buried 40.3% of his catch and shoot triples.
His minutes will largely come with the second unit, putting more pressure on his playmaking, but if Delly can re-discover his shooting from deep and become the leader of the bench mob, he will have a clear role on this team.
Health will be the big concern, having missed 44 regular season games last year, so a good start to the season will go a long way to breaking back into the roatation.
Thon Maker - Bucks
Heading into year three, there's plenty of pressure on Thon Maker to make 'the leap' and turn his potential into production for the Milwaukee Bucks. So far we've seen flashes of what he is capable of on both ends, but this is the year where consistency will be key.
No one will benefit from the arrival of new coach Mike Budenhozer more than Maker, with his modern floor spacing principles, which look set to be the key to unlocking the seven-footer.
Last season, the Aussie converted 29.8% of his threes, down from his blistering rookie campaign where he shot 37.8%. The new-look Bucks offense will prioritise opening up the floor from the perimeter and the message from coach Bud has been simple. LET IT FLY.
“Tell them to keep shooting,” Budenholzer told Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about his mentality with the three ball.
“I think lots of people, bigs in particular, probably, they miss one or two and they may expect [us] to say, ‘Stop’ or ‘We don’t want that.’ I think right now we’re very much in an encouragement mode. We want guys to expand their range, expand their games. I think when you give them confidence and they know that you want it that’s the biggest thing you can do.”
Defensively, Maker's block-a-palooza in the playoffs against Boston showed how much damage he can do on defense, however during the regular season, former head coach Jason Kidd's defensive schemes left Maker on an island at times, caught in between the perimeter and the rim, which didn't really maximise his strengths.
Maker will be competing for minutes with newly-acquired Brook Lopez and John Henson (who has also been working on his range from deep), so competition for minutes will be tough. If Maker can consistently produce, it will be hard to ignore, but for a team with high playoff expectations, there won't be as much room to 'figure it out' as there has been in year's past.
Ryan Broekhoff - Mavericks
Fit is everything in the NBA and Ryan Broekhoff and the Mavs might just be a match made in heaven.
Dallas doesn't have a ton of depth at small forward, nor an array of three-point shooting after Doug McDermott, Seth Curry, and Yogi Ferrell all left in free agency, giving the Aussie an opportunity to carve out a role from the jump. Dallas was fourth in three-point attempts per game last season and fifth in three-pointers made, so there's plenty of long range shots to go round.
He's already shown that the NBA three-point line is no problem, knocking down 6-of-13 triples in pre-season. Between Harrison Barnes, Doncic and Broekhoff, the Mavs' wings are super interchangable and that flexibilty could see him playing the two, three or four at different times during games, depending on matchups.
A strong rebounder at 6-foot-7, Broekhoff has a knack for getting involved on the offensive glass and creating second-chance opprtunities. He will need to hustle to stay on the court and that type of extra effort will be hard to ignore for coach Rick Carlisle
Patty Mills - Spurs
With Dejounte Murray sidelined with a torn ACL and Derrick White going down with a foot injury, the Spurs' point guard stocks are severly limited, putting a ton of respoibility on Mills' shoulders.
It's unclear whether Mills or Bryn Forbes will start, with Gregg Popovich's prefence to have the Aussie running the second unit, but expect to see him playing career-high minutes. The Spurs simply need him to until they get healthy.
Now one of the elder statesmen in San Antonio, Mills' leadership will be more important than ever this year. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are gone, leaving the 30-year-old as one of the most important voices in the locker room.
Aron Baynes - Celtics
After a strong debut season for the Celtics, Baynes quickly became a vital cog for Boston, especially on defense and we can expect much of the same from the big man this year.
Having said that.....I am all here for the season of Aron Baynes launching a ton of threes after his absurd 11-of-23 shooting performance in last season's playoffs.
In all seriousness, if Baynes can keep up his long-distance threat and draw the opposing big man out of the paint, the likes of Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving can run riot at the rim. If opposing coaches have to start game-planning for Baynes threes, Boston's offense will be adding a hilarously unexpected wrinkle to their game plan.
"I'm not going to shy away from it this year, and I'm not going to live by it, either," Baynes said of his three-point shooting at Media Day. "I’m not gonna try to live off it either"
The NBA season tips off Wednesday 17 October and you can catch all the action on NBA League Pass.
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