Written for nbl.com.au by Liam Santamaria
The Illawarra Hawks have assembled a fascinating roster for the 2019-20 NBL season.
Their import signings, NBA award-winner Aaron Brooks and highly-credentialed centre Josh Boone, generated plenty of buzz during a wild NBL off-season.
They also have a returning core of experienced veterans – sharpshooters Todd Blanchfield and Tim Coenraad and big men AJ Ogilvy and David Andersen – who are expected to provide steady production and valuable on-court leadership.
But it is the Hawks’ cast of talented youngsters that is perhaps the most exciting element of their NBL20 roster.
Illawarra’s ‘Flight Academy’ – made up of Dan Grida, Emmett Naar, LaMelo Ball, Sam Froling, Angus Glover and Sunday Dech – is an eye-catching ensemble of six prospects all set for take-off in either their first or second year as a fully-contracted pro.
Each Academy member is aged 25-or-under – Ball, who will turn 18 later next month, is the youngest – and yet each has the potential to play a valuable role for the club this season.
The Hawks were plucky last season. They beat every team in the league at least once and showed signs of challenging for postseason action. But they were also terribly inconsistent, eventually finishing outside the playoffs with a 12-16 record.
There were some positives though, and the encouraging play of Grida and Naar in their rookie campaigns was arguably the biggest one.
Ball is an elite NBA prospect while Froling is also hoping to parlay a successful rookie season into a selection at next year’s NBA Draft.
Glover, who is returning from a horror run of injuries, has long been considered one of Australia’s most promising young talents and the Hawks locked the 20-year-old up on a multi-year deal last December.
As for Dech, the Hawks secured the defensive-minded guard during free agency after he flashed his potential last season as an injury-replacement for Perth.
The reigning champs wanted Dech back – they even offered him a multi-year deal – but Illawarra swooped in and signed him.
“The word exciting always comes up whenever you’re talking about young talent,” Hawks General Manager Mat Campbell told NBL Media.
“And the fact that we’ve locked up a good portion of it from the league point of view, is pretty exciting for our club.”
It goes without saying but that hasn’t happened by accident. Campbell, along with newly-appointed head coach Matt Flinn and owner Simon Stratford, entered this year’s free agency period with a long-term game plan in mind.
Thanks partly to the foresight of former coach Rob Beveridge, they already had Naar, Grida and Glover on the books. And while the rest of the league came into this off-season zigging, out-bidding each other for win-now stars like Casper Ware, Nathan Sobey and Tai Wesley, the Hawks zagged; zeroing in on promising youngsters like Froling and Dech.
“For me it’s about the long-term plan of trying to get a championship,” Campbell explained.
“We are not going to be able to compete with the bigger markets like Sydney, Melbourne and Perth as far as expenditure.
“So let’s look at how we can try and find the best talent that is coming through that we think suits the hard-working style the Hawks have traditionally played with.
“It’s about trying to find a good bunch of guys who all fit together and, hopefully, can stick together for a little while and give us that opportunity, within the next two to three years, to win a title.”
Of course, therein lies the rub: keeping talented youngsters at small-market clubs is never an easy task.
After all, the Hawks were planning to build around rising stars Mitch Norton and Nick Kay a couple of years ago but were left reeling last year when the duo decided to go west.
It’s been a recurring theme throughout Illawarra’s history.
Nonetheless, while Ball is clearly a one-year proposition, the other members of the Flight Academy are all seen as potential building-blocks for the future.
The Hawks, particularly Stratford, constantly talk about wanting to develop their youngsters into NBA players, but if they’re not in the Association the challenge will be to keep them in Wollongong.
“We’ve got five retired singlets up there on the rafters and I’m like, ‘Well, who is going to be next?’” Campbell posed.
“Obviously we wanted that to be either Mitch or Nick and they chose a different pathway. So for me it’s about asking: who is next? Who are the fans going to be able to go, ‘This is the guy that we know and are going to be able to support and follow along their career path.’
“I want to see some of these young kids going out there and making mistakes. I want to see them develop and get better year-in, year-out and I also want to see them not take a backward step.”
According to Campbell, the Hawk who embodied that approach most of all last season was Grida.
The then 20-year-old showed no fear when taking on vastly more experienced opponents throughout his rookie campaign. Whether he was splashing threes or aggressively driving to the cup, Grida was in attack mode whenever he stepped onto the floor.
Campbell loved it and points to one particular Grida highlight as being symbolic of the culture the Hawks are trying to re-build.
— NBL (@NBL) December 23, 2018
“To put himself in that situation with Terrico White where he risked being put on a poster to save two points, those are the kind of guys you want in your group to establish that stuff,” Campbell said.
“Traditionally that is what we have had from our club. They’re the kind of guys and that’s the kind of formula that, for us, allows our club to be competitive year after year.”
Grida’s situation is an interesting one, especially given his deal with the Hawks will expire at the end of this season.
After playing spot minutes throughout his rookie campaign, the multi-skilled wing is looking to play a bigger role in year two and, beyond that, is set to become hot property on the 2020 free agency market.
“After last year people know I can play against these guys and hold my own,” Grida said.
“I really tried to give it to players last year. I don’t think I took a backward step and I hope to continue that and be more respected around the league and be more of a consistent contributor.
“Last year I kind of played spark minutes to get some energy and try to get some buckets. But this year I’m hoping to be more of a consistent guy and more of a go-to guy especially.”
Something that might help the Hawks retain Grida is his familiarity with the rest of the Flight Academy. He has built a friendship with Naar over the past twelve months and it wasn’t long ago that he was balling at Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence alongside Froling and Glover.
Having the group of them together in the ‘Gong has Grida pumped for the year ahead.
“I’m really excited to play a fast, up-tempo brand of basketball with these guys,” he said.
“Having all of us together we can try and hunt guys in packs. We can all go out there and play super hard and super-fast for however many minutes.
“Teams will be running out of gas and we’ll still have our young legs behind us. I think we can really shake it up and upset a lot of teams and hopefully make a push ourselves.”
Glover agrees, adding his own air of excitement to the mix.
“I don’t think any of our guys are going to be a pushover in this league,” he said.
“The young guys we’ve got will all step up, we’re not going to take a backward step to anyone. Any of us can step up and play big minutes in any given game.
“It’s the energy thing as well. You’ve got a bunch of young guys who all want to prove themselves in the league. That is definitely an upside.”
That ‘upside’ – that collection of promising prospects all wanting to prove themselves – is reminiscent of another NBL team which memorably punched above its weight a few years ago: the 2015-16 Townsville Crocs.
The Crocs finished outside the playoffs in 2016, their final year of existence, but they became everybody’s second team that season as they pulled off a series of impressive upsets.
Like the expectations of this year’s Hawks, it was a squad that featured a bunch of younger players in key roles. Three of those guys, Norton, Kay and Clint Steindl, all won a championship with the Wildcats last season.
The Crocs’ feisty play in 2015-16 earned their coach, Shawn Dennis, Coach of the Year honours – the first and only time in NBL history that award has been given to a coach whose team had a losing record and failed to make the finals.
Why’d he win it? Because that team played the right way and over-achieved, as Dennis helped kick-start the careers of a number of first and second-year guys.
Dech, who won an NZNBL championship alongside Kay this off-season, digs the comparison.
He and Kay were actually housemates in Wellington throughout the NZNBL season, and Dech says he’s been picking the All-NBL First Team forward’s brain about the mentality of that gutsy Crocs squad.
“We’re going to go in with that same underdog mentality,” Dech explained.
“I think a lot of teams might write us off early but we want to go in, play with a lot of energy, get after it defensively and surprise them.
“We want to be the team that everyone roots for and people don’t want to see on the calendar.”
A whole new Ball game.
— NBL (@NBL) June 17, 2019
For Froling, who was chased pretty hard by a number of NBL clubs, there were a few key elements that helped lure him to the Hawks.
The first was the club’s pitch in terms of preparing him for the NBA Draft. Campbell, Flinn and Stratford sold the promising youngster on their ability to get him ready, both on the court and in the gym.
Froling’s existing relationships with Glover and Grida also helped, as well as a desire to learn under Andersen, one of Australia’s all-time great big men.
Now, with Ball signing on as the team’s headline-grabbing Next Star, Froling says he’s also excited for a year of development alongside a fellow draft prospect.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun (playing with LaMelo),” Froling told NBL Media last week.
“We’re both guys who are going into the Draft next year so I know he wants to work really hard and I want to work really hard.
“I’m looking forward to that dynamic and just putting in the work every day with him.”
What makes the Flight Academy even more intriguing, is the fact that they’ll be led by a rookie head coach.
Matt Flinn has taken the reigns in Illawarra following the departure of Rob Beveridge and the long-time assistant says he’s willing to give his young guys minutes.
“These young guys demand some time to play,” Flinn stated.
“Whether it’s premature or whether they need to be held back a little, I guess time will tell. But as a rookie coach myself, I’m certainly not afraid of the youth.
“While we may lack a little bit of experience in terms of closing games out, we’re going to make up for that with enthusiasm. I’m excited about it, I really am.”
So are the rest of us. Time to take flight.