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NBL Blitz Recap
The NBL Blitz tournament was loaded with 2024 NBA Draft prospects ranging from Alexandre Sarr to Taran Armstrong to Trentyn Flowers and many more who all impressed in some form or fashion.
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The NBL Blitz kicked off last week and did not disappoint. The talent spread throughout the NBL feels like the most that the league has maybe ever had. While there are former NBA journeymen and college stars scattered throughout the league, it is the plethora of young 2024 NBA Draft prospects who really stood out. Prospects like Alexandre Sarr, AJ Johnson, Trentyn Flowers, and many more made an impression as they began the start of their journey to the 2024 NBA Draft.
Alexandre Sarr: 7’1” C, Perth Wildcats
Sarr took the draft world by storm the other week in their exhibition games against the G-League Ignite. In those games, Sarr dazzled on both ends as his physical tools and overall versatility allowed him to dominate while shooting up draft boards. While Sarr’s NBL Blitz performance was less explosive than what he showed against the Ignite, he still performed at a very high level.
Even though Sarr’s performances weren’t quite as electric, there wasn’t much of anything that engendered concerns about his potential. There were stretches where Sarr’s defensive fundamentals got very sloppy, but that felt more like a symptom of fatigue than anything else. If these were the first games of the year for Sarr that may be a bigger red flag, but it is important to remember that this summer he was playing in Hungary at the FIBA U19 World Cup, in Vegas against the Ignite, and is now back in Australia for the NBL season. That’s a lot of travel. If it continues to be an issue then we’ll talk; otherwise, I’m filing it under me being extremely nitpicky.
Aside from that, Sarr was a really solid performer. He continues to excel as an off-ball scorer and play-finisher, which is likely what his ultimate role will be. He’s a real threat as a pick-and-pop option and spot-up shooter. His success in those realms also allows him to use his decent handle to attack closeouts. In these games, Perth used him in really fun ways by moving him off-ball and to different areas of the floor. His scoring threat in all three levels helps create a myriad of scoring opportunities for everyone on the floor.
Something new that arose in this tournament, though, was some creative passing flashes from Sarr. There wasn’t primary or secondary creator stuff being shown, but there were times when Sarr’s connective passing looked like a real tool. If he continues to be more willing and consistent with passing to attack defensive rotations in his pick-and-pop possessions or when he drives, it will really expand the overall impact he could have on an offense.
Taran Armstrong: 6’6” PG, Cairns Taipans
After being the best playmaker in college basketball for two straight seasons at Cal Baptist, Taran Armstrong decided to head back closer to home and play this season in the NBL. If there were any concerns (and there shouldn’t have been) about how real Armstrong’s playmaking was, they should now be immediately squashed. Armstrong continued to shine as a passer as he consistently carved up defenses with his creativity, vision, accuracy, and manipulation.
The major leap in Armstrong’s play, though, is how his frame has developed. Armstrong has added significant muscle and it’s making a difference on both ends of the floor. Offensively, Armstrong consistently used his strength to displace defenders on drives and keep them in jail after coming off a screen. Attacking the rim and the paint is now even easier for him, which in turn forces defensive rotations and increases his playmaking opportunities.
Armstrong’s improved strength was evident on offense, but it looks to be a game-changer on defense. Armstrong was one of the most impactful point-of-attack defenders throughout the tournament. His footwork and anticipation were menacing, his off-ball rotations, communication, and timing were on point, and his physicality, as well as his ability to absorb and initiate contact to disrupt drives, was meaningful. If Armstrong can continue to defend at this level, he’ll enter the 2024 NBA Draft with two elite skills.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine for Armstrong. Coming into this year, and throughout his two collegiate seasons, the big question and red flag was Armstrong’s shooting. Armstrong showed some better scoring instincts around the rim, but the jumper still doesn’t seem to be there. More frustratingly, though, Armstrong passed out of numerous open jumpers. He would go through the effort of losing his defender and creating an open shot, only to then pass out of it. Armstrong doesn’t need to be Steph Curry, but when he has a wide-open jumper either off the catch or pulling up, he must be willing to take it.
Lachlan Olbrich: 6’10” C, Illawarra Hawks
Lachlan Olbrich was the easy standout of the NBL Blitz. Olbrich joined Illawarra this year after spending one season at UC Riverside where he averaged 11.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.2 stocks in 27.8 minutes across 34 games. From the first step he took on the court in this tournament, Olbrich looked the part of a potential first round prospect. A platitude you’ll often hear from scouts about international (and now domestic) prospects is “well, he was really productive in a professional league,” which is exactly what Olbrich was during the NBL Blitz.
The first thing that stands out in Olbrich’s game is his mobility. At 6’10”, Olbrich is insanely light on his feet and has an unstoppable motor. Olbrich’s fluidity gives him defensive versatility and fascinating offensive upside. Not only does Olbrich move exceptionally well for someone his size, but he also has the ball skills that make him a real offensive threat. Olbrich is more than comfortable pushing in transition, attacking closeouts, and creating his own shot in the post. His ball skills also extend to his passing ability. Olbrich wasn’t afraid of kicking out of drives or setting up teammates in transition.
That’s all before we even dive into his scoring versatility. Olbrich’s efficiency in this tournament was outlandish as he shot 86.4% from the floor on 7.3 attempts per game. Olbrich has an insanely impressive scoring touch as he finished through contact, out of spin moves, in transition, off of Euro steps, out of the short roll, and on offensive rebounds. It became more of a surprise when Olbrich missed at the rim than when he scored.
While Olbrich’s performance was incredibly fun and is worthy of skyrocketing him up boards (he sure did on mine), we still need to look at some of the concerns with his game. This isn’t to diminish what he did, but instead to provide some areas to keep an eye on as the season progresses since this was only a three-game sample. Olbrich got to the line an impressive 3.3 times per game, but he only shot 50%, which unfortunately is consistent with his 55.6% from the line his freshman season. Olbrich’s scoring efficiency could be in for a major drop-off, or he could just be scratching the surface. A lot of what he showed was similar to how Naz Reid plays, but even Reid shot 33.3% from three and 72.7% from the line in his lone year at LSU. Additionally, Olbrich is still very raw on defense. He improved as the tournament progressed, and his motor and mobility covered up a lot of holes, but he still has a ways to go. His awareness and timing on rotations were inconsistent, and his perimeter footwork on closeouts was suspect. These are all things that can and should improve throughout the season, but they are worthwhile to keep an eye on going forward.
AJ Johnson: 6’5” G, Illawara Hawks
Like most high school players who make the leap straight to professional ball, Johnson looked overwhelmed by the physicality and speed of play. The good news, though, is that Johnson’s work rate never fell off, and he adjusted and improved throughout the tournament.
Johnson never really showed extended stretches of production, but he did have some of the most exciting flashes of the tournament. The biggest hurdle for Johnson is his lack of strength. It was obvious that it hindered him on both ends of the floor as he really struggled to finish through contact and create his shot in the interior. Thankfully, almost every teenager ever, especially those in a professional sports setting, has gotten stronger as they get older. As Johnson continues to get stronger, it would be surprising if his shooting, scoring, shot creation, and defense don’t all improve.
Despite his struggles, Johnson still showed that he has extraordinary potential as an on-ball creator. He was at his most effective in transition, as he could leverage his athleticism more effectively in the open court. Even in the halfcourt, though, he had plenty of possession where he’d dissect his defender to create either a nasty step back or an open three for a teammate. Johnson will have longer to go to be a capable defender given the lack of fundamentals in his footwork and screen navigation, but he at least showed the effort and give-a-damn factor that a lot of offensively focused prospects fail to possess. Johnson could be in for a rocky season, given the strength disparity, but there is a real chance that he could make a massive in-season leap once he adjusts to the speed and physicality.
Bobi Klintman: 6’10” F, Cairns Taipans
After receiving very real first round consideration in the 2023 NBA Draft, Bobi Klintman decided to join Cairns after one year at Wake Forest. Klintman wasn’t necessarily a standout during this tournament, but he also wasn’t invisible.
Unfortunately, Klintman hasn’t seemed to have taken a major leap. However, he also looked like he belonged on a professional court. The main selling point with Klintman is still his defense. He was yet again one of the more versatile and impactful defenders on the court as he led the tournament in steals. He was reliable away from the ball and made his presence felt when on the ball. If Klintman continues to defend at this level for the whole year, which he basically did all of last season too, he should be at very worst a fringe first round pick.
The questions with Klintman remain on the offensive end. He did average 13.3 points, but it was on just 38.7% from the field and 12.5% on 2.7 attempts from three. Klintman was aggressive in taking his shots, which is important and encouraging from a confidence standpoint, but he’ll need to start proving he can reliably score. Klintman’s cutting was really promising, especially if the outside shot starts to come along, but some of the on-ball creation that he experimented with was really intriguing. Klintman’s handle is still too loose, and the passing decision-making isn’t always on point, but he was trying some advanced moves that he’s clearly been working on. If he can continue building confidence and effectiveness in those areas, he’ll only improve his offensive impact as attacking closeouts, kicking out of drives, and creating in transition will quickly become very real tools.
Trentyn Flowers: 6’7” G, Adelaide 36ers
The Trentyn Flowers NBL era couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. The initial decision to play the 6’7” teenager at point guard from the start was met with plenty of skepticism, which was immediately justified. In Adelaide’s first game, Flowers had seven turnovers, and it could’ve been a lot worse. His handle was extremely loose, he really struggled under pressure, and he was getting bullied by Parker Jackson-Cartwright who is listed at 5’11”. Flowers struggled in every aspect of that game, and his confidence was visibly shaken.
Flowers and Adelaide, wasting no time on making an adjustment, agreed to move him more off-ball going forward. Typically, these “mutual” reports are far less than mutual, but given the change in Flowers’s demeanor and effort, it certainly feels like this was the case. Moving more off-ball is not only better for Adelaide in the short-term, but it is also going to be extremely beneficial to Flowers’s long-term development by learning to play more off-ball.
In the remaining games, Flowers didn’t set the world on fire, but he did look significantly better. He looked more comfortable, and his work rate noticeably improved. He was an active rebounder, had some well-timed cuts, played harder on defense, and was still able to flash some creation with attacking closeouts, second side creation opportunities, and running in transition.
Flowers still has a long way to go, as his handle and off-ball movement need substantial work. There were flashes, but Flowers also had far too many possessions where he stood in the corner with his hands on his hips or fumbled the ball off his knee. Additionally, Flowers’s work rate improved game by game, but his footwork, screen navigation, and off-ball consistency were lacking. This season could be a nightmare for Flowers, but the fact that he immediately humbled himself while raising his effort level gives me hope that the switch is going to flip at least at some point this season.
Alex Toohey: 6’7” F, Sydney Kings
After seeing Alex Toohey up close all week at the Nike Hoop Summit in April, it was clear that his decommitment from Gonzaga was going to hurt the Bulldogs. After the NBL Blitz, it looks like it will be a devastating decision. Toohey was highly impressive throughout the tournament.
Toohey could be a fascinating case study this season because it wouldn’t be shocking if he doesn’t put up major numbers, even though he did in a few games of the tournament. However, he is consistently doing all of the little things that coaches dream of that carry over from game to game. The immediate selling point with Toohey is his defense. Toohey was consistently directing teammates, communicating switches, and timing his rotations to perfection. His off-ball defense looked far more mature than his age suggests it should be. Even though he isn’t a premier athlete, Toohey was still a highly impactful and versatile on-ball defender. He regularly switched with ease, blocked pull-ups, and denied drives. Toohey will struggle with the quicker guards, but there doesn’t seem to be much that he can’t do on defense.
On offense, Toohey is a bit more limited. He isn’t an on-ball creator, but there is legitimate upside with his off-ball offense. He is an excellent off-ball mover with his cutting and relocations. Additionally, Toohey’s passing was impressive. The ball rarely stuck with him, and he was comfortable passing out of drives. Toohey shot well in this tournament for the most part, but that is still going to be the big question with him. If the shot continues to trend in this direction, he could make some serious noise come draft time.
Ben Henshall: 6’5” G, Perth Wildcats
Ben Henshall was one of the pleasant surprises of the NBL Blitz after he had a solid performance against the Ignite. Henshall is one of those players that consistently and quietly produces. He is more of a shooting guard in most lineups, but Perth has also experimented with him at the point a good amount. While Henshall likely isn’t a point guard in the long run, he’s still shown plenty of competency with his passing and scoring.
Henshall exudes confidence when he plays. He struggles to consistently create space because he isn’t a very explosive athlete, but he is a shifty and creative ball-handler. Henshall consistently got to the rim using his tight handle and size while also occasionally flashing fun perimeter creation. Henshall isn’t shy about launching deep from three and is a more than competent passer.
Defensively, Henshall is going to get targeted a lot, at least early. He currently doesn’t have the strength or athleticism to deter larger opponents, and quicker guards may give him trouble. However, Henshall is a really smart and physical defender. He isn’t afraid of matchups and is consistently in the right spot away from the ball. Henshall likely won’t be a defensive stopper, but it would be surprising if he’s a detriment.
Ariel Hukporti: 7’0” C, Melbourne United
In full transparency, I was pretty out on Ariel Hukporti entering the season. That is no longer the case. Hukporti was really impressive during the NBL Blitz and has seemingly improved in vital areas of his game.
Hukporti is still the prototypical rim-running, shot-blocking, athletic center. However, he is significantly more refined on both ends of the floor. Offensively, it looks like Hukporti’s game is always going to be a pretty simple one. He still doesn’t have much of a scoring touch and the ball skills are lacking. However, he is an active rebounder, a reliable vertical spacer, a solid screener, and someone who catches everything. Players have carved out careers with far less.
The truly exciting development with Hukporti, though, is on the defensive end. He’s still an athletic shot blocker and effective rebounder. However, his drop coverage and off-ball awareness have improved tremendously. Hukporti was constantly turning away shot attempts and protecting the rim on his own. His footwork, balance, and positioning in drop coverage were sound, and his weak side rotations were impactful. If Hukporti can maintain this defensive effectiveness all year, he has a real case of carving out a career as a solid backup center in the NBA.
David Okwera: 7’0” F/C, Perth Wildcats
It was a quiet tournament for David Okwera as he missed the first game. Once he played, it felt like Okwera struggled to find his place on the floor. It didn’t seem due to a lack of awareness or basketball IQ, but more so a symptom of a lack of reps and chemistry with his teammates. Even though Okwera played spot minutes in their last two games, it was tough to get a sound understanding of who he is on this team.
From some of the flashes, though, there are encouraging signs. For starters, he is an exceptionally fluid athlete. He runs well in transition and screams of versatility on defense, which pairs delightfully with the energy he plays with. There were also some really fun flashes of connective passing. As the season progresses, it will be fascinating to see the role he carves out.
Jaylin Galloway: 6’7” SG, Sydney Kings
If Jaylin Galloway can figure out his outside shot, he has a chance to get drafted. The cliché of “if he can only shoot” is always annoying, and I always feel lazy about using it. A lot of the time it’s applicable, though. Galloway does a lot of really fun stuff on the court, but the shot just doesn’t seem to be there yet.
Aside from the shot, Galloway is an electric offensive tool. He was an active rebounder and reliable cutter. His calling card, though, is his driving. Galloway got in the lane essentially whenever he wanted to. He has tremendous physical tools and a solid handle. What’s more encouraging is that Galloway didn’t have blinders on when he drove. He consistently read the weak side and was an accurate and creative passer when setting up teammates.
Rocco Zikarsky: 7’2” C, Brisbane Bullets
We unfortunately didn’t get to see a ton of Rocco Zikarsky due to an ankle injury, but he had some encouraging flashes, especially in his first game. Zikarsky is a massive human being, and he makes full use of his size. In his only full game, Zikarsky showed solid rim protection and a really impressive scoring touch. Some of the scoring versatility and play finishing that he flashed suggests that there is a fun offensive upside to his game lurking beneath the surface. At his size, though, Zikarsky did struggle to defend when he got pulled to the perimeter. He was a bit stiff and got moved too easily for someone his size. He needs to get stronger in the lower body to prevent this, but some of his struggles may have been a symptom of the ankle injury. Raising a red flag on it feels hasty, but it will be something to keep an eye on.