Hungry Jack's NBL
Contract Year: The NBL’s Most Intriguing Free Agents
By Liam Santamaria
The battle for a spot in the NBL22 finals is rapidly approaching boiling point.
With half of the league’s teams still a genuine chance of qualifying, almost every game right now has serious playoff implications.
Meanwhile, front office executives across the country are already looking ahead. Shortly after the champs are crowned free agency will begin, and the task of building next year’s rosters will be underway. As Adelaide 36ers CEO Nic Barbato told ESPN last week: “All of the work needs to be done now to ensure we are ready when that starts.”
This is always an interesting time. On the one hand, there are games to be won and, for many, a championship to be contended. However, the business element of pro sport is always in play. And right now, as GMs and CEOs are assessing their squads, a bunch of players across the NBL are looking to elevate their earning power ahead of free agency. After all, every baller’s career is finite, and they need to max out their earning potential while they can.
So, who is each team’s top player on an expiring contract? Well, there are actually plenty of big names set to become free agents.
Before we dive in, though, let’s flag a couple of things.
Firstly, we’re only looking here at the guys who are flat-out coming out of contract. That excludes all those players whose deals involve club, player or mutual options for the upcoming year. I’m leaving them out because there are still decisions to be made on those options, which will determine whether those players stick with their current teams or enter the market.
Secondly, it’s worth noting that all pending free agents have the option to re-sign with their current clubs prior to free agency opening. Plenty of those negotiations are currently taking place.
With all that in mind, here’s where each team currently sits in terms of expiring deals, including their most intriguing pending free agent.
Approaching Free Agency: Cam Bairstow, Isaac Humphries, Dusty Hannahs, Todd Withers, Tad Dufelmeier Jnr, Mojave King (Next Star), Hyrum Harris, Emmanuel Malou, Zac Gattorna, Nick Marshall, Lachlan Olbrich
Most Intriguing: Cam Bairstow
The 36ers hit a home run with the signing of Cam Bairstow last off-season. While the rest of the league overlooked him due to concerns about his injury history, Adelaide’s former GM of Basketball, Jeff Van Groningen, decided to take the risk. In this instance, fortune favoured the bold as the hard-working big man has proved to be Adelaide’s most consistent performer. He’s averaging 11 points per game and ranks inside the top ten for rebounding, grabbing 8 boards a night. All that means Bairstow will be firmly back on the radar for a lot of teams when free agency opens in a couple of months.
Most Intriguing: Nathan Sobey
It’s been a heavily disrupted NBL22 for Nathan Sobey, who has missed eight of Brisbane’s past ten games with knee soreness. What makes his situation more interesting is that the star guard is about to reach the end of the three-year deal he signed with the Bullets back in April 2019. Sobey will turn 32 in a few months and while Father Time remains undefeated, he’s still an elite operator. That’s why he’s about to become a highly sought-after free agent and why Brisbane are keen to get that extension done as soon as possible.
Most Intriguing: Tahjere McCall
Tahjere McCall has had some issues with efficiency over the course of the season, but he’s also given the Snakes great effort defensively, while also providing both a scoring and play-making punch. He’s also, by all accounts, a great teammate and just a really positive influence inside the locker room. The question is: will he be back in the league next season and if he is, will he be back with the Taipans?
Most Intriguing: Duop Reath
The Hawks have already started getting some extensions signed with youngsters Sam Froling and Dan Grida getting locked up on multi-year deals. The next task for the Hawks will be getting something done with Duop Reath to prevent him entering the free agent market. Reath has been a little up and down in his first NBL season but, at his best, he’s one of the top bigs in the league and provides a unique skillset with his ability to knock down shots.
Most Intriguing: Jo Lual-Acuil
Last off-season both Jo Lual-Acuil and Melbourne United sat at the table and pushed their chips in. For United, it was a case of betting on Lual-Acuil to become their starting centre and primary replacement for Jock Landale. They decided not to recruit an import centre and instead, trusted in JLA’s ability to take another leap. Lual-Acuil, meanwhile, bet on himself by only signing a one-year deal. Fast forward to now and Melbourne are on top of the ladder and JLA is an MVP candidate. Both of those wagers are paying off handsomely.
NEW ZEALAND BREAKERS
Most Intriguing: Finn Delany
The Breakers have several key guys locked away for next year although both Hugo Besson and Ousmane Dieng are clearly on their way to the NBA. Import Peyton Siva would be a great guy to re-sign but the key local that’s coming out of contract is Delany. The 26-year-old has seen his production dip this season but make no mistake: the talent’s still there for Delany, who received All-NBL Second Team honours last year. The question is: can anyone pry him out of New Zealand?
Most Intriguing: Vic Law
This one doesn’t need much explanation. As anticipated, Vic Law has been spectacular for the Wildcats this season and is the perfect running mate for Bryce Cotton as Perth’s import power forward. He’s also very comfortable playing in Scott Morrison’s system – a system that closely resembles what Law excelled in while putting up numbers in the G League. The challenge for the Wildcats, of course, will be bringing him back as he could potentially return to the NBA next season. Law has also increased his value outside of the Association, which adds an extra layer of complexity when trying to bring him back.
SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE PHOENIX
Most Intriguing: Mitch Creek
As their inaugural signing, the Phoenix built their roster around Mitch Creek right from the beginning and his stellar play quickly elevated them to a playoff team in only their second year. This season, the star forward has taken his game to yet another level, further developing his skillset and becoming a genuine MVP candidate. The good news for Phoenix fans is that Creek seems seriously invested in leading his team towards championship success. You can hear it whenever he talks about his role as a leader of that club, all of which bodes well for SEM’s efforts to extend him.
Most Intriguing: Xavier Cooks
All of Sydney’s ‘Big Three’ – Cooks, Adams and Martin – have been sensational this season and the Kings would dearly love to have them all back. Each of their situations are intriguing, but Cooks gets the nod here, largely due to his status as a local. The 26-year-old has been brilliant this season as his high-energy play, and multi-dimensional skillset, have made him a match-up nightmare. He’s been an all-league level performer across the season and is a candidate to receive this year’s Damian Martin Trophy as the league’s Best Defensive Player. The thing is, Cooks is bound to get some NBA interest this off-season as well as big money offers from European clubs. That’s just the nature of the business. The challenge for the Kings will be to ensure that if Cooks is not in the Association, he’s wearing purple and gold.
Most Intriguing: Will Magnay
The JackJumpers have been a revelation this season as they’ve surpassed expectations and won a whole heap of games. To their credit, Tassie have quickly developed a great culture within their organisation and, as a collective, currently possess an impressive work ethic and an unselfish approach to the game. What they don’t have, however, is a heap of flexibility within their roster. The Ants have almost their entire bench unit locked up for next season, with a couple of those guys also under contract for the following year. What will be interesting, though, is whether they’re able to retain Will Magnay. The big fella has a sore knee right now but, under the mentorship of Scott Roth, he’s shown flashes this season of returning to his shot-blocking best. With all that in mind, re-upping on a new deal would make sense for both parties.
The views on this page are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBL, its Clubs or partners.