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R12 Preview: Sydney v New Zealand

Who: Sydney Kings v New Zealand Breakers When: 3pm (AEDT), Sunday 27 December Where: Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre Watch: 9Gem; Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ; NBL Live App Last time they met: New Zealand 96 (Vukona 18, Cedric Jackson 17, Charles Jackson 14) d Sydney 84 (Cadee 19, Thornton 17, Khazzouh 15), Round 10, Vector Arena, Auckland THE MATCH-UP Damion James v Mika Vukona – Two of the premium physical specimens and most aggressive rebounders in the NBL are on a collision course this Sunday. Vukona’s all-court game has returned in recent weeks, while Sydney will be hoping for more than boards from their latest recruit. THE STATS James is averaging 15.3 rebounds per 40 minutes, placing him behind only Majok Majok and Tom Jervis as the NBL’s leaders. Vukona has averaged 9.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and a steal in his past six games, shooting 53 per cent from the floor. Before that he had connected on just 7-of-23 field-goal attempts. THE STORY In a year of troubles, the sight of Damion James flying into rebounding contests has been something for Sydney Kings fans to get excited about. With new coach Joe Connelly pressing his squad to board, James answered the call straight off the plane with 10 caroms in New Zealand, and he hasn’t collected less than eight in any game since. While James has impressed teammates with his intense glasswork and hustle, with Julian Khazzouh sidelined the Kings desperately need their new import to find his scoring touch. Against Melbourne a fortnight ago, James gave a glimpse of his talent, scoring 11 points including a superb left-handed finish on the fast-break. “I was really happy for him,” Kings captain Tom Garlepp said. “It’s so hard to come in mid-season, especially with all the ups and downs we’ve had. I was just really happy he’s figured out what he has to do to have an impact.” James averaged 18 points for the Texas Longhorns in college and 21.1ppg for Dallas Mavericks-affiliate the Texas Legends in the NBA D-League. After his first full week of training with the Kings, no doubt Garlepp is hoping to see more of that this Sunday. “I’ve followed his career since he was in that freshman starting group at Texas and he can go, and I think everyone knows that, we’ve all seen it,” he said. Where James has struggled is the speed of the NBL game, with the ball and players constantly moving in transition and the half-court. The aggressive defence of Wollongong and New Zealand also tested James’ composure – an examination he failed at times – so expect Mika Vukona to be upping the physicality on Sunday. Vukona’s teammates should follow suit after they were embarrassed by Illawarra, the Breakers grabbing just eight offensive rebounds and giving up repeated open looks in transition as Kirk Penney and Co ran up a cricket score. “We have prided ourselves on holding people to some of the lowest totals in the league, but we didn't start with the right intent,” coach Dean Vickerman said. “We felt like we've been playing well here, but we haven't played unbelievable basketball over the last few games. We've played in patches and you can't do that against a good team.” THE WRAP The Kings have shown some bright patches under Connelly’s reign, particularly in first halves, but with the exception of their win over Melbourne they’ve faded badly. The loss of Khazzouh obviously hurts, but it also allows Sydney to run more physical, athletic line-ups who can switch defensively and play faster offensively, something that should suit James, Jason Cadee and Marcus Thornton. That’s a two-edged sword with New Zealand, however, the Jackson ‘brothers’ arguably the best open-court guard-centre combo in the league, and Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie pretty comfortable in transition too. For the Kings to christen their new home in style they’ll need to play disciplined ball at both ends. Their zone troubled the Breakers in Round 10, can their man-to-man be similarly effective in nullifying Webster and Abercrombie and creating scoring opportunities at the other end?
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