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Trusting the process

When we think of professional basketball players, we tend to focus on their size, athleticism and skill with the ball. We evaluate them by how high they can jump, how strong they are and how well they can put the ball in the basket. It’s not often that we stop to ponder the mental preparation our favourite players go through week after week, so they can put themselves in the best possible situation to utilise those physical traits. For Matt Hodgson of the Adelaide 36ers, that mental side of the game is much more important, especially given what he’s endured just to get to this point. Hodgson had a knee injury misdiagnosed when he was in College that led to him sitting out the entire 2014/15 NBL season as a development player with Melbourne United. Joey Wright took a chance on him last season and signed the seven-footer to a two-year deal without ever having seen him play a game in the NBL. Hodgson repaid that faith in the opening game of the season – his first career NBL game – announcing himself to the league with 18 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and 1 steal in just 18 minutes. “I felt pretty vindicated,” Hodgson told NBL Media ahead of the 36ers clash with Melbourne United on Sunday. “It definitely just helped me believe that I belonged at this level, especially being out for so long.” That would be the highlight of Hodgson’s rookie season as inconsistent minutes and production ensued. “It was disappointing, but I think that was on me,” Hodgson admitted. “I was still trying to solidify my approach to the game that would allow me to have the best performance. If I approached the game with a little more consistent mindset that would allow me to perform well and showcase what I had, I would’ve had the opportunity to do it.” That mindset is a big part of what Hodgson worked on this past offseason. Between playing for Waverley in the Big V, working on his speed and athleticism with Christian Woodford and getting some skills coaching from his former United Coach, Chris Anstey, Hodgson spent time with famed Melbourne strength and conditioning trainer, Bruce Gray and sports psychologist Peter Gibbs. Gray helped Hodgson rehab and strengthen his knee so that he no longer had to worry about it when playing, while Gibbs worked with Hodgson on the mental side of the game. “The biggest part I wanted to work on coming into this season was more a mentality thing than anything else,” explained Hodgson. “I think skill-wise I’m able to hang, but just being able to be consistent with my mental approach to the game. “I think they helped me to no end,” said Hodgson. His Coach agrees. “His offseason workout, he got down here in Melbourne and worked with Bruce (Gray) and got his strength up and that’s what he really needed,” Joey Wright told NBL Media after Adelaide’s win over Melbourne. “Through building his strength I think that builds some confidence upstairs. His skills are just as good as anybody in the league – any big man. His jumphook with his right hand or left hand, his turnaround jump shot, his ability to block shots are all as good as any big man in the league, so with him it’s just getting his body right which will then get his head right and get him going, and I think he worked for it,” Wright said. Coming into this season, his second, Hodgson and Coach Wright laid out a plan for how he could maximise his impact on games. “It’s all process based goals with me and Joey. He just wants me to come out there and play, sort of like a Mika Vukona role, where it’s super active, affecting the game in a lot of ways.” Process over results. Focus on doing the things he’s supposed to do each time he steps on the floor, rather than the outcome of each play. In other words, trust the process. “We need consistent effort. Whether he shines or not, is irrelevant,” Wright explained. “Last year his effort was kind of in line with his results. So if he played well, he gave more effort; if he didn’t, he didn’t give effort. So this year we’re trying to get him to say ‘Hey, you’re seven foot, 7’3” wingspan, you can shoot free throws, you can jump, just play hard and good things will happen most times.’ So if we can get him to buy into that, he’ll be ok.” Hodgson’s focus before the game against Melbourne was simple and very much process based. “Work rate against them,” Hodgson said. “Their bigs are really good workers, so I have to out-work them. I think fighting fire with fire is the best approach for these guys, so just try and keep them off the glass and then at the other end, challenge them to play me and keep me off the glass also.” Using that approach, Hodgson made an immediate impact with 5 rebounds in just 3 minutes in the first quarter. Two of those were on the offensive end, one leading a second chance basket for his team. He also scored 2 points on an aggressive low post move over Devin Williams. Trust the process. Do what’s needed to impact the game. Hodgson made a further impact in the third quarter as he stayed aggressive, making two more big baskets. One was from a gorgeous spin-move over Tai Wesley, finishing with what may become a patented lefty hook. The other, a put back off a huge offensive rebound between three United defenders. All the while, he played tough defence, challenging United’s big men with his length and athleticism. Hodgson finished the game with 8 points and 6 rebounds (3 offensive) in just 10 minutes of action and made it tough for United to get going offensively. He challenged a lot of shots and was into the game from the get go, whether on the court or not. His impact led to him being the player chosen to accompany Coach Wright to the post-game press conference. There, Wright spoke of how Adelaide’s bigs did a great job of going after the ball once it hit the ring on both ends of the court, getting opportunities for easy put backs and controlling the tempo through rebounding the basketball. That included the “big fella next to me.” Post-game, Hodgson was very happy with how he approached the game. “I thought it was good,” Hodgson told NBL Media after the win. “Like I said before the game, everything was process based and I thought I achieved that. I played really hard, was aggressive and I think when I do stuff like that – kinda sounds corny but good things happen. “So, that was my main focus to come in being really aggressive, not to be tentative on anything, chase as many boards as I can, block out, be more physical and outwork their bigs and I think I did that.” His teammates are noticing the change too and excited by how he can help the team this season. “Hodgy’s being super aggressive on offence, protecting the rim on defence,” teammate Brendan Teys told NBL Media post-game. “Last year he had the ability but didn’t get as much court time to prove what he can do. This year I think he’s taking it to his opponents and really showing what he can do.” That confidence allows his teammates to focus on their own games, knowing they have a seven footer manning the split lines, ready to help on defence. “It allows us to be aggressive on the court,” Teys explained. “If we get beat we know Hodgy’s standing down there and it’s still a tough finish over the top of the big fella. So it really gives us confidence to get up and down the court which is the way we like to play.” The difference in the defensive approach between the 36ers opening loss at Illawarra and this win over Melbourne was nothing short of phenomenal. The entire team was locked in and it showed just how good Adelaide could be this year. “This is a game where I thought we did a really good job of guarding maybe the best offensive team in the league, and it just shows us the power of playing really good defence and how we can carry that on to wins,” said Hodgson. He was a big part of that at Hisense Arena on Sunday and he knows that his role on this team is to facilitate that through his strengths. “Playing defence, just playing really hard. I feel like with my length, athleticism and skills as long as I’m playing my ass off, good things are going to happen.” Teys agrees and is hopeful that Hodgson’s mental focus continues as he has the opportunity to grow into a bigger role as the season progresses. “Continue doing what he’s doing,” Teys said of what he expects of Hodgson. “He’ll be pushing for a sixth man role in our team. Just continue to be aggressive on the low block and protecting the rim. He’s a real big presence down there which is good for us.” It appears that Hodgson and the 36ers may be onto a winning formula. For Hodgson to continue to have a positive impact, it’s all about trust. Trusting in himself and trusting in the process each and every time he steps onto the court. That will lead to success. “Just having a consistent style of play,” Hodgson reiterated. “Like I said, everything’s gotta be process based. If I start worrying about results, I really get nervous and too much pressure builds on it, so as long as I can find a way to consistently play hard all the time, no matter if I’m playing well or not, I’ll deem that as success.” Written exclusively for NBL.com.au by Tom Hersz
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