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Australian Basketball Challenge Preview

The Australian Basketball Challenge (ABC) tips off this week in Brisbane with all eight NBL teams competing, along with two teams from the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), as they do battle for the Loggins-Bruton Cup. Teams will be using the tournament to prepare for the season proper but make no mistake, these games matter. Maybe not in terms of wins and losses, but the foundations of championship success are laid during the pre-season. Coaches will be looking to sort out their rotations and develop chemistry among their squads prior to the start of the regular season. It’s also a chance for players, especially those new to the league, to showcase their talents. With that in mind, here are five burning questions ahead of this week’s Australian Basketball Challenge.   Who has the imported goods? With the new player contract and salary rules in full effect, NBL teams have attracted some exciting new imports. Familiar stars like Jerome Randle (Adelaide), Cedric Jackson (Melbourne), Casey Prather (Perth) and Rotnei Clarke (Illawarra) are back, but there are also plenty of new faces to get to know. To be precise, fifteen imported players will be playing in the league for the first time and the ABC will provide a great chance to get a look at them. The Cairns Taipans are the only team featuring three ‘fresh’ imports, with Travis Trice, Fuquan Edwin and Nnanna Egwu all brand new to the league. Trice will carry the load at point guard for the Taipans and coach Aaron Fearne is hopeful the former NCAA star can spark his team back to the post-season.   The Brisbane Bullets, meanwhile, opted solely for imports already familiar with the NBL, inking deals with two-time NBL champion Jermaine Beal and former Cairns Taipans swingman Torrey Craig. The other six teams – Adelaide, Illawarra, Melbourne, Perth, New Zealand and Sydney – all feature two import players new to the NBL. Which of them are legitimate game-changers? Who’s not quite up to the challenge? The ABC will provide some clarity.   How new and improved is Casey Prather? Consider this fair warning: Casey Prather is going to dominate this season. Last year’s Perth Wildcats MVP has returned to the reigning champs after almost claiming an NBA contract this offseason. As a starter for the Dallas Mavericks, Prather turned heads at the Orlando Summer League, averaging 11 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist and 1.6 steals on highly efficient shooting clips. At that point, Nick Marvin and the Wildcats thought he was gone.   But he’s back! And judging by his impressive play early in the pre-season, the high-flying swingman is ready for take-off. “I’m more of a threat offensively – putting the ball on the floor and making plays,” Prather told Perth media last week. “I feel like I got better in not just going straight to the rim, but creating a bit more with mid-range shots, three-point shots and off-the-dribble shots. “I’ve upgraded my whole arsenal.” Prather finished top-ten in MVP voting last season and was a huge part of Perth’s championship success. And with Trevor Gleeson looking to pick up the pace this year, number 23 is poised for a big, big season.   Willie or won’t he? This year the pre-season tournament will include an international flavour, with two teams from the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Zhejiang CB Golden Bulls and Tianjin Ronggang, competing. Tianjin, coached by Serbian Rajko Toroman, are believed to be bringing veteran American Tre Kelley to run the point while Zhejiang will likely feature high-impact scorer Willie Warren. Let me tell you something about Willie Warren: that dude can flat-out fill it up. Warren, A 26-year-old combo guard, has been top five in scoring in the CBA the past two seasons, putting up 38.9 points per game for Chongqing Dragons in 2014/15 before moving to the Golden Bulls and dropping 33.1 points per game last season.   A former college teammate of Blake Griffin, Warren was a projected lottery pick after his freshman season at Oklahoma but stayed in school and was eventually drafted in the second round by the LA Clippers in 2010. Since then, Warren has played in the NBA D-League as well as in Israel, Hungary, Italy, Lebanon and, of course, China. He is an excellent shot-maker off the dribble with a quick first step and the ability to finish athletically at the rim. He also has ridiculous range on his jumper, with the confidence to pull the trigger from way outside. Will he score as effectively against physical NBL defences? Well, it’s sure going to be fun finding out.   Can the Kings make it work? Let’s not mix words: the Sydney Kings are stacked. A two-time MVP, multiple Olympians, highly touted imports, proven locals… the Kings are absolutely loaded with talent. They’ve also recruited the G.O.A.T., Andrew Gaze, to serve as head coach and supported him with championship coaching experience in former New Zealand mentor Dean Vickerman.   The mix is seemingly there but as many teams have found out over the years, the Dr John Raschke Trophy is not won on paper. Far from it. It takes cohesion, buy-in, selflessness, intelligence and a whole host of other intangibles to win at this level. Can the Kings put it all together? The ABC will give us our first proper taste of what they’re made of.   Who will win Rookie of the Year? Each year the pre-season tourney gives us a good look at the young local faces set to make their professional debut.  Last year it was Nicholas Kay (now with the Illawarra Hawks) who impressed and the big fella went on to claim Rookie of the Year honours after an excellent regular season. Fast forward twelve months and all eyes will be on Adelaide 36ers duo Anthony Drmic and Majok Deng. Drmic, a 194cm swingman, finished his college career as Boise State’s all-time three-point record holder and just one bucket short of being the school’s all-time scoring leader. Brother of Frank can fill it up, put it on the floor and is an excellent passer – he’s ready to contribute straight away. As for Deng, he comes to the 36ers after putting up 19 points, 7 rebounds and close to 2 blocks per game during his senior year at Louisiana-Monroe. A 208cm Sudanese-born forward, Deng spent part of the offseason with the Minnesota Timberwolves at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, under the watchful eye of Adelaide head coach Joey Wright. “He has the ability to create and finish athletically in the paint, but can stretch the defence by shooting the three-ball at a high clip,” Wright said. “I feel he’s a great fit for our system… he has a bright future in the NBL” Others to keep an eye on include Brisbane’s Matt Kenyon and South Australian point guard Adam Doyle (Adelaide 36ers).   Bonus Question: Will Adelaide’s Terrance Ferguson compete in the slam dunk comp? Dear God, please let it be so.     Written by Liam Santamaria for NBL.com.au 
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