Credit: Getty Images | BasketNews illustration/M.Bertys
Credit Getty Images | BasketNews illustration/M.Bertys

Former AX Armani Exchange Milan player Trey Kell left the European basketball market this summer to sign with a team in Australia.

It was an unprecedented move for a EuroLeague prospect who certainly had interest from teams in the top European league and the EuroCup.

Kell has never been to Australia but chose the NBL and the South East Melbourne Phoenix to continue his career.

Patty Mills, Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Aaron Brooks, Josh Childress, Joe Ingles, Miles Plumlee, Hakim Warrick, and Matthew Dellavedova are just a few NBA names that have played in the Australian Basketball League (NBL).

In addition to Kell, former EuroLeague and Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Walton signed with another team from the league - the Sydney Kings.

What is this mythical creature called the NBL? Many have heard of it, but few know the delicate intricacies of the tournament. Let's take a look at the league in depth.

The Competition System

The league was founded in 1979 with 9 teams. Seven of those nine teams have ceased to exist, and one of the remaining two didn't play for almost a decade and was only brought back due to public demand.

There are 10 teams in the NBL now - Adelaide 36ers, Brisbane Bullets, Cairns Taipans, Illawarra Hawks, Melbourne United, New Zealand Breakers, Perth Wildcats, South East Melbourne Phoenix, Sydney Kings, and Tasmania JackJumpers.

Each team plays 28 games in the regular season - 14 at home and 14 away. The season starts in December and typically ends in May. After the regular season, four top teams advance to the Best-of-3 semifinals, where the #1 seed plays against the #4 seed, and the #2 seed competes against the #3 seed.

The two series winners then advance to the Grand Final, a Best-of-5 series that determines the ultimate winner of the competition.

Starting with the 2022-23 season, NBL is ready to introduce a Play-In tournament. First introduced in the NBA, it was a highly successful addition to the regular season of the top league in the world.

"We are very excited to announce that our Finals campaign will include a Play-In from next season, and we believe it will add greatly to the excitement and intrigue as the season's finalists are determined," NBL Commissioner Jeremy Loeliger said in April.

Currently, the league hasn't announced the exact method of the way it is going to play out, but the front office views the play-in tournament as a necessary step in the league's further development and attraction of fans. 

The JackJumpers are the newest team in the league, with the 2021-22 season being the team's inaugural year in the NBL.

After the team's successful debut in which the JackJumpers not only placed fourth in the regular season but got into the Finals without having home-court advantage, the league is currently exploring one additional option.

In recent years, current or former NBA players like John Wall, Dante Exum, Zach Randolph, Al Harrington, Josh Childress (all South East Melbourne Phoenix), Victor Oladipo, Shawn Marion (New Zealand Breakers), Kevin Martin, Khris Middleton, and Thaddeus Young (Brisbane Bullets) have all purchased ownership stakes in various NBL franchises.

Darwin is being considered as a potential expansion option for the NBL, commissioner Loeliger announced several weeks ago. Darwin will also hold the NBL Blitz tournament this year.

NBL Blitz

NBL Blitz is a special pre-season tournament for all 10 NBL teams with a totally different format than basketball fans are usually accustomed to.

It is run in three different Australian states - Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales - during the month of November each year. 

All 10 teams play 4 matches each, and the winner of the tournament depends on the total number of points collected by the teams. NBL Blitz adheres to the following points system:

  • 3 points - awarded to the team that wins the game
  • 1 point - awarded to the team that wins each quarter of the game (without overtimes)
  • 0.5 points - awarded to both teams for a drawn quarter

In the case of overtime, no additional points are handed out to the winner of the game.

  • Example #1:

Cairns v Perth (Q1 30-25, Q2 21-20, Q3 25-20, Q4 22-18)

Final Score 98-83

Result: Cairns 7 points (1 for each quarter win and 3 for the overall win) & Perth 0 points

  • Example #2:

Sydney v New Zealand (Q1 25-30, Q2 20-21, Q3 24-25, Q4 30-18)

Final Score 99-94

Result: Sydney 4 points (1 for Q4 and 3 for the overall win) & New Zealand 3 points (1 point for each winning quarter)

The team that collects the most points throughout the matches wins the NBL Blitz tournament.

The Financial System

Arguably, the most important and, at the same time, confusing aspect of the league is its financial system.

NBL basically has a three-part system. Everything starts with a salary cap, but it's split into two parts - a soft salary cap and a hard salary cap. 

The soft salary cap is the bare minimum the teams must pay their players throughout the season. It is set at 90% of the regular salary cap. The teams that cannot reach the mark are then subsidized from the funds collected from the teams that pay a luxury tax.

The regular salary cap is a figure above which all expenses are subject to the luxury tax.

The NBL set its 2021-22 cap ceiling at $1,637,893.94, while teams must pay players at least $1,474,104.55. These figures will rise by four percent for the next season, with the ceiling being set at $1,703,239.36 and the floor at $1,533,068.73.

Each team must have at least eleven players plus at least one development player. The maximum number of developmental players each team may have is four.

Each of those eleven fully-contracted players is given a player value by an independent Contract Review Committee. This value is then divided by 28 - the number of games played in NBL.

This separate value multiplied by games played is counted towards the salary cap and not the actual amount the player is being paid for his play. However, the league's history shows that it is most often tightly correlated to the actual value of money the player is getting. If the team chooses to pay more, that amount is then counted towards the cap.

The exact spending of the teams is often kept under the rug. However, sometimes the management reveals the numbers, as Andrew Bogut did last month.

However, under the NBL's rules, teams can pay several players outside the cap, including marquee signings and upcoming stars.

A marquee player must be an Australian or New Zealander that is being considered of a higher value. Including marquee players and the so-called imports, each team can only have four of them.

Andrew Bogut himself has been marked as a marquee player throughout his playing days in the NBL. No matter what marquee players are getting, only a certain set value is counted towards the cap. This allows the teams to pay the big local stars as much money as they are worth without being restricted to the league's standards.

All contracts of the import players, which are usually foreigners from the USA, are counted as 92 cents to the dollar. It offers teams some relief from paying luxury tax on the full amount.

There is also the Next Stars program – an initiative aimed at attracting some of the best talents from across the globe to come to the NBL to develop their game and prove themselves instead of doing so in the US college system.

The league itself pays for these players. When the league signs such a player, the league, all clubs that want him, and the player himself then work together on the best fit for the player.

Lastly, there is what is called a Special Restricted Player. Teams can sign players from China, Philippines, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan - those players are exempt from the salary cap.

If a club signs a player from one of these countries, they are exempt from the Salary Cap and are generally treated in the same way as a local player. One of them is the 2022 league MVP Kai Sotto.

Finally, the five lowest-paid players on each roster cannot have a combined player value of more than 40% of the salary floor, preventing the teams from signing all the best players to one team who would otherwise be starters on the other league's teams.

Being a country far, far away, Australia has figured out a way to subsidize its teams to include local players in the league's teams and attract foreign prospects at the same time.

The Next Stars Program

The NBL launched a special Next Stars program in 2018. In essence, it was created to lure young international prospects away from NCAA and into Australia as a path to getting drafted to the NBA.

The program gained its ground after Terrance Ferguson, a promising American prospect, decided not to go to college in the US, instead spending the 2016-17 NBL season with the Adelaide 36ers straight out of high school. Despite averaging only 4.6 points in the NBL, he was drafted number 21 in the 1st Round of the 2017 NBA Draft.

This inspired the league to create a program that would, at the same time, help young talents get noticed without trying their luck in the vast pool of NCAA while getting the league more exposure if the player turns out to be a success.

According to the league, the talents are selected by a hand-picked panel of experts. Once selected, the pool of Next Stars players enter into a contract with the league, which then places the Next Stars in NBL teams.

Despite cases of Brandon Jennings playing in Italy and Emmanuel Mudiay trying his luck in China, college basketball has historically been the default route to take for NBA hopefuls. How are the prospects lured into the league, then?

To bring players like LaMelo Ball to Australia, the NBL had to offer something more than they could get in the USA. To start off, a $AU100,000 (~€67,500) salary and various perks are one of the primary reasons.

Next Stars receive an apartment, car, flights, and individual development training in addition to their salaries. The league fully pays the players' salaries and international travel expenses, while the team assigned to the player takes care of travel and accommodation expenses.

Clubs are asked to commit to weekly individual training sessions to complement those that are attended as part of the team. A panel of experts also selects the coaches who facilitate additional training opportunities for the player.

The players can also negotiate contracts such that their parents and relatives can visit them by not paying the full amount of travel expenses or even live with them in some cases - all these details can be included in the contracts.

Next Stars are not guaranteed any playing time as they have to earn it themselves. However, the league mandates the clubs that the prospects go to every away game and are not excluded from matches.

"What we're offering is an opportunity to play at a very high level in an English-speaking country in a competition that is almost a hybrid of European and American basketball," commissioner Loeliger said to ESPN a year ago. "Australian basketball is known for being based on fundamentals and physicality, whereas Europe has always stood for discipline, technique, and fundamentals. The U.S. is very much based on athleticism and raw talent."

The player can also negotiate a buyout for getting into the NBA. However, it cannot be higher than the NBA's Maximum Excluded Internation Player payment amount, which is set to be $800,000 next season. The limit increases by $25,000 each year.

The LaMelo Ball Effect

At the start of the program, the incentive was attractive for almost any prospect from any continent in the world. Guaranteed money, guaranteed individual work, no worries about having to go to school, everything is paid for, just basketball every single day, the thing you love the most.

Brian Bowen was the league's first Next Star. Although he did not get drafted in the 2019 NBA Draft after playing in Australia for a season, this did not deter future prospects from choosing the down under as a preferred path to the NBA.

The following year, a five-star recruit R.J.Hampton was joined by probably the biggest young star in the league's history - LaMelo Ball. He already was a global basketball name by then.

He had his own show, videos of him playing went viral almost instantly, and his dad, LaVar Ball, made headlines whenever he spoke.

He joined the Illawarra Hawks to play in the NBL. Ball made his debut against the defending champion Perth Wildcats in the NBL Blitz tournament, finishing with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 7 assists. Everyone was hooked.

Australian basketball was mainly a place for local players to prove their worth and former US college and European league players to squeeze out additional career years. When LaMelo came, the entire basketball world's eyes were on Australia.

"If you told someone twelve months earlier that the Illawarra Hawks game against Didi Louzada, Andrew Bogut, and the Sydney Kings was going to be the most-attended, most-watched NBL game in history and two million of the viewers would be watching from the USA, nobody in their right mind would have believed you," commissioner Loeliger said to Quinton Wash of NBA.com.

"His matchup against RJ Hampton was our second-most watched game in history. The media attention here in Australia was really significant and noticeable from the USA and around the world in terms of new engagement on our social platforms and digital broadcasts," Loeliger commented.

A record-setting crowd of 17,514 came to see the league's best team and Illawarra's Next Gen star play. The Kings were then led by a now-familiar NBA name - Jae'Sean Tate. The coach of the Sydney team - the newly-appointed Paris Basketball head coach Will Weaver.

No game expressed the fascination with LaMelo better than the matchup against Cairns Taipans. Down by three with under nine seconds to go, Hawks' guard Sunday Dech drew the opponents' defense and kicked out the ball to LaMelo for an open three-pointer. Ball knocked down the game-tying triple, sending the arena into an absolute frenzy.

"LaMelo… AHHHHHHHH!!!! ICE THROUGH HIS VEINS!!!! EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD AND THE THREE HEARD AROUND THE WORLD," the commentators were shouting. The Hawks went on to win the game behind LaMelo's triple-double of 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, becoming the youngest player in NBL history to achieve a triple-double.

LaMelo showed Australia that basketball can be beautiful, sometimes effortless, and an amazing sport to watch. Ball played just one more game after the famous game as a bone bruise in his left foot suffered during a practice that stopped his basketball career in Australia.

Ball finished his NBL career with averages of 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 1.5 steals, easily running away with the league's Rookie of the Year Award. However, one more thing left a considerable impact on the hearts of Australians.

At the time LaMelo was a member of Illawarra Hawks, the Australian countryside was suffering from fires of historical measure. One of the members of the team's coach Matt Flinn lost a house during the fires. LaMelo was reportedly touched by it. The young star ultimately donated a month of his salary to fight the wildfires.

It might not be much in the grand scheme of things, but the hard-working blue-collar community of Illawarra felt it. Ball then traveled back to the USA and later went on to be drafted No. 3 overall by the Charlotte Hornets.

The Future of Next Stars

After LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton were successfully drafted in the first round, the bright star of the newly drafted no. 3 overall pick attracted high amounts of attention to the NBL and its Next Stars program. However, the fans were not the only ones that paid attention.

The NBA struck back with the invention of G-League Select contracts in 2018. The benefits were eerily similar - a $125,000 salary in addition to basketball development and life skills mentorship. Sounded good, didn't work. Not a single player from the 2019 US high school class committed to the deal ahead of the 2019-2020 season, while the NBL landed Hampton and Ball.

The following year, the NBA decided to increase the stakes significantly. It was a success this time. The newly-created G-League Ignite team, where the prospects would play the largest role, landed Jalen Green, the number one ranked player from the high school class of 2020. The G-League reportedly offered the player a whopping $US 500,000 per year salary.

Jonathan Kuminga also joined the new G-League team. He was drafted 7th overall while Green was selected at an impressive no. 2. NBL had its own answer - Australian mega prospect Josh Giddey, who went 6th overall in the 2021 NBA Draft.

However, the landscape was already changed for the foreseeing future. That summer of 2021, another Australian prospect Dyson Daniels chose the G-League Ignite, ultimately turning down the NBL and their offers.

There are a couple of reasons for his decision. First of all, the salary - NBL offers approximately $US 73,000 while Ignite is ready to give $US 500,000. This salary allows the prospects to immediately provide for their families and have guarantees in case of an injury or falling draft stock.

Second, and one of the most important ones - winning doesn't matter in G-League. Mojave King was a player that appeared in ESPN mock drafts long before Giddey did. However, he played for a struggling Cairns Taipans team.

With the team having a worrisome win-loss record, the team's head coach had to search for wins in order to keep his job and didn't have time to search for minutes for an 18-year-old.

King changed the teams in the 2021-22 season, but it didn't help. His playing time even went down while being a part of the Adelaide 36ers. In the end, he only averaged 3.6 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes of play.

Russian talent Nikita Michailovskii came to the NBL as a Next Stars, having become the Best Young Player of the VTB League the season prior.

He only logged 6 minutes of total play during the 2021-22 NBL season before parting ways with the Tasmania JackJumpers in March. The team went on to play in the Grand Final, so finding time for a foreign prospect was never a priority.

On the contrary, the entire premise of G-League Ignite is letting the young guys play. Although some veterans are on the squad, the main focus is on the youngsters and their playing time. While playing more, the prospects are closer to the local NBA scouts, an underrated aspect of getting drafted to the NBA.

"I feel like with the NBL, it's more about the team and winning – that sort of thin, Dyson Daniels explained his decision to Australian basketball website The Pick And Roll last summer. "And I think in a young guy [like me], still getting that individual development is a key for me, as well as being able to play against high-quality players and getting high-quality looks from NBA scouts who live over in America."

With American prospects getting easier and more prominent exposure with the NBA's program, the NBL has recently shifted to acquiring European prospects for its Next Stars program.

Ousmane Dieng (New Zealand Breakers), Ariel Hukporti (Melbourne United), Tom Digbeu (Brisbane Bullets), and Nikhita Mikhailovskii (Tasmania JackJumpers) were the four Next Stars from Europe during the last NBL season.

Dieng went on to be drafted 11th overall by the New York Knicks and then was immediately traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year's draft. Digbeu and Michailovskii were not even in consideration to be drafted, and neither of them is part of NBL clubs anymore.

Hukporti is being projected as a late second-round pick for the 2023 NBA Draft, but that is also a non-guarantee. The unofficial Next Star Hugo Besson was drafted 58th overall this year, but it should not instill much confidence in the upcoming slate of NBL's Next Stars.

G-League Ignite team has a limited number of spots on the team as obviously not all players can be featured parts of the squad in each game. NBL's promise is a proven record and an ability to accommodate a larger amount of talent. The league is now searching for the next Josh Giddey, and overwhelmingly the trend has become to look to Europe.

18-year-old French prospect Ryan Rupert has joined the New Zealand Breakers for the 2022-23 season. A projected first-round pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, Rupert possesses an imposing presence on the court at 2.04m tall and a staggering 2.22m wingspan.

If the players carve themselves a role in the NBL, they can expect their stock to remain stable or even improve. It takes tremendous talent to become a solid rotation player at the age of 18 or 19, but if you are willing to do the work to achieve such a feat, your path to the NBA is right there.

Kai Sotto

A big hope of Australian basketball last season was the 2022 league fans' MVP - Filipino prospect Kai Sotto. Elite length, a 7-foot-5 wingspan combined with good shooting mechanics and soft touch around the rim have dazzled Filipino fans who are crazy about anything basketball.

Hired as a special restricted player under the league's salary cap rules, in his maiden season in the NBL, Sotto carved himself out a role at Adelaide 36ers, averaging 7.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 0.8 blocks in 15 minutes of play.

However, the dreams of becoming the first Filipino player in the NBA did not materialize as the 2.18-meter center was not drafted in the 2022 NBA Draft.

After he went undrafted, he changed his agency to Wasserman this summer while parting ways with his previous handler Joel Bell of Bell Sports.

The divorce ended in a little public conflict, with Bell stating that Sotto would not play in the Summer League to play for the Phillippines national team. The prospect quickly denied it and said that his agent misspoke. Ultimately, Sotto played neither in the Asia Cup nor the Summer League.

Sotto still has many flaws in his game, both offensively and defensively, as detailed in a comprehensive breakdown by BasketNews last month. With his future in the NBL uncertain at this point, his future in the NBA is also questionable.

An Unprecedented Move

The league is also involved in an NBLxNBA project- an annual pre-season series where the top NBL clubs meet NBA teams in the USA. First established in 2017, there have been 15 games so far, with the Australian teams losing all of the previously held games.

NBL is set to return to the US this year for the first time since 2019, as all subsequent efforts were previously stopped by COVID-19.

"We will be playing at least two games, but we are still in discussions with a few further teams, so it could be more," commissioner Loeliger said back in March.

"The reception from the NBA clubs has been absolutely outstanding – a number of them have reached out to us directly or via NBA head office requesting that NBL teams travel for their pre-season competition," Loeliger noted.

The NBA is often times the innovator in today's basketball, but some tournaments sometimes have to catch up to what the top league has been doing for decades.

This summer, the NBL decided to go where no Australian sport had gone before. The league has announced that it will hold a game between Sydney Kings and Melbourne United on Christmas Day.

"We are a changing society. Christmas isn't a holy event for all of us, and it can be a lonely day for many people," Kings co-owner Paul Smith said. "To be able to come out to a world-class venue for a world-class game of hoops, or just watching the Sydney Kings at home on television, it's a game changer."

"We are thrilled to be bringing such a massive encounter to Christmas Day, particularly given we will be the first professional sport in this country to do so," commissioner Loeliger told.

Additionally, a game on Christmas Eve between the Adelaide 36ers and South East Melbourne will also be held.

"Sports fans across Australia and New Zealand have been asking for live sport on Christmas, and we are excited to bring them world-class basketball and entertainment on what is a very special day for so many," Loeliger continued. "Christmas Day has become a marquee day on the NBA calendar, and we're confident it will have a similar impact for our clubs and us."

The league is not afraid to innovate and search for new ways to attract local and international basketball fans. Some of the decisions might have been flops, but we must admit that the vast majority of them have been overwhelmingly successful.

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