Hungry Jack's NBL
Norton & Kay relish new start
They almost certainly won’t be in the starting five and their playing time will probably fluctuate from one game to the next But Illawarra newcomers Mitch Norton and Nick Kay are a big part of Hawks coach Rob Beveridge’s plans to challenge for the 2016-17 NBL title. A close friend of former Townsville coach Shawn Dennis, Beveridge made it clear to Kay and Norton that he wanted them at the Hawks when they became free agents in April and the duo quickly signed with the club. “I was talking to a couple of coaches so it was good to have that interest and it kept me positive, and then it was about trying to find the best environment that would suit me individually,” Kay said. “Having Bevo call was a real bonus. SD (Shawn Dennis) is tight with Bevo and I had a good bond with him last year, and he only had positive things to say. That was a big influence in me coming here.” Norton was similarly grateful to be thrown a lifeline by the Hawks. “Free agency had started and I was a little bit behind the eight-ball, so I was a little worried because I knew I had to find a job as soon as I could,” the 1.84m playmaker said. “Point guards in Australia are hard to come by so they get snapped up pretty quick. When Bevo made the call I was pretty excited. From the conversations we had, he was pretty keen to get me here. “The style we had at Townsville last year and the style here are pretty quick and up-tempo. Nick and I are used to that style so it was a bit of a no-brainer. I felt like I’d fit in well here.” Kay, 24, adds much-needed muscle, aggression and youth to Illawarra’s frontline. Unheralded at the start of last season, he established himself as a force in the paint and earned NBL Rookie of the Year honours after averaging 10.7 points and 6.6 rebounds over the 28-game season. His three offensive rebounds per game led the league. Kay believes his development was hastened by the axing of former Crocs import Brian Conklin a third of the way through the season. “I wasn’t sure what to expect going into that first season, playing behind a guy like Conklin was really good but also tough at the same time, because you learn a lot from a guy like that but you also have to play behind him,” Kay said. “I learnt a lot from him, and while it was unfortunate the way it worked out for him, it opened up a big opportunity for me and it really helped my development. “Playing basketball was always the dream, so being able to continue that for another couple of years is great and hopefully I’ll propel myself further in my development. “Playing for the Hawks is such a bonus and I’m just so happy to be here. Bevo has a history of developing players so hopefully I can work with him and develop my game. “I’ll use what I learnt last year, the offensive rebounding and playing hard, but also learn to play with these guys and bring whatever I can to the team. “The physical stuff often allows other guys to get open, so a little bit of hard work from someone can make the job easier for someone else.” Beveridge loves having Kay in his revamped team, which also includes fellow recruits Rotnei Clarke, Michael Holyfield and Marvelle Harris. “Nick brings genuine muscle and size and loves to mix it up inside, and I’m excited about what he adds to us with his rebounding, especially at the offensive end,” Beveridge said. Born and bred in the NSW Country town of Tamworth, Kay views the move to Wollongong as a homecoming of sorts. “Being a New South Country boy, I played down here that many times in juniors, so it’s good to live here,” he said. “I love Wollongong and have lots of nice little memories here.” Best of all, the 2.06m enforcer is confident the Hawks have the talent and depth to challenge for the title. “We’ve got a nice combination of shooters, big bodies and guards, so we’ve got everything we need to be a good team this year,” he said. “It’s just about how we work together and how we play together offensively and defensively. I think it’s all going to come down to our defence, so if we can get that to gel we should have a good year.” Norton, a former Australian under 17 representative, is a year younger than Kay but has already racked up five years in the NBL. He is proud of his reputation as a fearless competitor and loves nothing more than a tough defensive assignment - a fact which made him such an alluring prospect in Beveridge’s eyes. Last year the Hawks had hard-nosed import Kevin Lisch to fill the role of designated stopper, but with Lisch’s off-season move to the Sydney Kings, Beveridge was in the hunt for a new backcourt defensive ace. Norton’s ability to relentlessly shadow his opponent made him an ideal candidate. “I’ve been a fan of Mitch’s for a long time and it’s great to have him at our club and have the opportunity to coach him,” Beveridge said. Norton is relishing being an important part of a solid Illawarra backcourt which includes Clarke, Harris, Rhys Martin and Kevin White. “It’s kind of a tag-team mentality where you go as hard as you can as long as you can and then tag-team your mate in,” Norton said. “I’m not worried about going against imports or anything like that. I’m just out there to do a job and get under their skin, to play some defence and get out and run. “There’s a little bit of a difference between Shawn and Bevo. Shawn’s a bit more controlling whereas Bevo lets you get out and play. He’s really encouraged me to push the ball up the floor.” Most of the preseason polls and predictions have the Hawks finishing closer to the bottom than the top of the ladder. Not that it bothers them. “A lot of guys here like to be seen as the underdogs and come out and upset some people, but we’ve got a really good group we’re definitely aiming for the finals,” Norton said. “There’s been rumours and talk out there that we’re not as good a team as last year’s Hawks team, but being from Townsville, we were always the underdogs and I love that feeling and the challenge of proving people wrong.” The Hawks tip off the 2016-17 NBL season with an October 7 home game against the Adelaide 36ers.