The Perth Wildcats opened their account with a relatively easy victory over the Brisbane Bullets. After a sluggish start to the game on the offensive end, the Wildcats eventually found their rhythm and were never truly tested, winning 96-86.
The two-time reigning champions again entered the season looking like a contending team, and nothing we saw on Friday night changes that.
And while we saw mostly positive things from the ‘Cats, it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Here are some of the good and one, maybe, not so good from the opening game.
Cotton Gonna Cotton
The re-signing of Bryce Cotton came as quite the shock. After such an impressive performance in last season’s finals and the latter part of the regular season, the thought was that surely he’d done enough to warrant a spot on an NBA roster. Or at least a big European payday.
Of course, that didn’t eventuate and the Wildcats are the beneficiaries.
If there were any doubts ( And there shouldn’t have been) about last season being a fluke performance, Cotton certainly put those to bed in the opener
He does everything you want in your star playmaker: He shoots 3s, can create his own shot, gets to the line and gets his teammates involved.
It’s all those things that make him not just a great player but a super efficient one. It also makes him the best player in the NBL.
Barring an injury, the smart money is on him adding a regular season MVP to his Finals one from last season – the current king of the NBL, until proven otherwise.
JP Tokoto’s tenacity on the defensive end was never in question. You’d be hard pressed to find many wing defenders, not just in the NBL but anywhere, better than Tokoto.
There was, however, some questions around his offensive game; mainly his outside shooting, dribble penetration and creating his own shot.
While he’s deadly in the open court due to his athleticism, he’s half-court game is still a work in progress.
The good news is he has plenty of room for growth and he seemed to show some of that in his NBL debut.
While there are still lingering questions about his outside shooting (although he did shoot 1-3 from 3pt line, which is OK) Tokoto showed nice touch in the mid-range, knocking down jumpers off the dribble. With his huge vertical leap, he makes these shots look like open jumpers, even with a defender in his face.
Continuing to knock these mid-range jumpers down means his defender won’t be able to sag off, which should open up driving lanes for easier layups. Which in turn unlocks another key part to his offensive development – attacking the rim off the dribble.
Add to that an effective 3pt shot and all of a sudden Tokoto becomes a more difficult prospect to defend.
Lack of rim protection confirmed
With Jameel McKay not returning for this campaign it left a rather large hole on the defensive end.
In today’s basketball it’s almost impossible to have a great defence without a Centre who can protect the rim.
You don’t necessarily need someone who is a super shot blocker, although it certainly helps, but the player manning the middle needs to be at least able to curtail the opponents from getting easy buckets at the rim.
Sure, that can mean blocking or altering opponents shots but equally important is being able to stop the penetration on a pick n roll or knowing when to help off your man.
Jameel McKay is really good at all of the above. In fact, protecting the rim is his biggest strength on a basketball court.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the Wildcats big men this season.
None of the three bigs in Angus Brandt, Matty Knight or Derek Cooke Jnr are natural shot blockers or rim protectors.
And that was evident on Saturday night with the Bullets, mainly Travis Trice, getting to the hoop almost at will.
By the end of the game Brisbane had scored a whopping 36 points in the paint, and most of those were easy uncontested layups.
Those easy layups were the predominant reason the Bullets shot an impressive 57% from the field.
You don’t win championships by allowing the opposition to score 36 points in the paint and shoot 57%.
In an ironic twist, Perth’s poor rim protection might have helped uncover a killer weapon.
With the team leaking points in the paint, and after watching Brisbane cut the lead down to just 6 points to start the 4th qtr, Trevor Gleeson made a change.
The change was to not play a Centre at all. Instead, he decided to play Lucas Walker as the big man, alongside Jesse Wagstaff, in a super-small lineup which had devastating results.
A six point lead quickly turned into 19 in just a tick over 2 minutes, and the ball game was over.
Credit to Gleeson for giving the small unit a crack. He’s generally been a coach who likes to play a traditional two big-man lineup. Seeing him change up his approach was great to see.
More smallball please!