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United's Coaching, Winning and Teammates Helping Hukporti's Growth

Written for nbl.com.au by Chris Pike

It certainly wasn’t the beaches that attracted Ariel Hukporti down under, but playing against grown men, being coached by Dean Vickerman and being teammate of Matthew Dellavedova among others were reasons why he always thought joining Melbourne United would help him achieve his dreams.

The 19-year-old powerhouse had options globally for where he would ply his trade leading up to the 2022 NBA Draft. He grew up in Germany and that's where he began his professional career as a 16-year-old in 2018 before going on to play in Lithuania for the 2020/21 season.

However, ahead of the NBA Draft where he could go as high as the first round, he had a big decision to make on where to play next. 

When an offer came in from the NBL to be part of the Next Stars program, Melbourne United came up and he spoke with coach Dean Vickerman and was instantly on board.

Top that off with the fact that United were defending NBL champions, they had just signed Matthew Dellavedova to a team that would include Chris Goulding, Brad Newley and David Barlow as veterans, and fellow big Jo Lual-Acuil, and Hukporti was pumped to be part of it.

The added bonus of Hukporti now sharing that centre spot with Lual-Acuil and helping Melbourne to an eight-game winning streak prior to Sunday's overtime loss in Adelaide is that should only help him attract more attention too.

Overall, it was being coached by Vickerman and to have the teammates he would have lured Hukporti to United, and it's more than lived up to his expectations.

"I talked to Dean a lot before I signed and for me the main thing about my decision was the coaches. Being able to have a connection with your coaches is the most important thing," Hukporti said.

"When a player don't got a good connection or any connection with the coach it's not really good. I had a good connection with Dean straight away and it's worked out well. So I decided to come to Australia because of that really and now here I am.

"It's always good to have experienced players on your team to help you out. With the experienced players, the good thing is that they always give you tips and want to bring you to the next level. 

"So it's perfect actually with the balance we have on this team. We have those veterans, we have a couple of young guys and then a couple of people who are around 27 and 28 so it's the perfect blend I think."

United placed a lot of faith in Hukporti for #NBL22 as well. It was Jock Landale who was the starting centre on the championship team of a year ago. 

With him now in the NBA at the San Antonio Spurs, Melbourne trusted Lual-Acuil to step into that Landale role but they needed a back up big, and it was Hukporti they backed in. 

He's delivering too with 6.5 points and 5.1 rebounds a game while shooting an impressive 55.1 per cent – helped by his powerful work on the rim. Hukporti is enjoying the role he's playing and the way his game is coming together.

"As a back up big I think I'm definitely using my minutes the best I can and trying to help the team as much as I can," he said. 

"It's definitely helping me to play against grown men to develop quicker with all the areas of my game. I'm playing against a lot of good players and good teams out here, and it's definitely helping me."

Hukporti might not be spending time on the floor during games alongside Lual-Acuil, but between the two of them they are proving one of the best big men combinations across the NBL.

They take pride in the different strengths each bring to the table while Hukporti is also grateful to get to battle Lual-Acuil at practice every day, and to learn from him and the rest of his teammates.

"Me and Jo, we're actually never on the court together. We are trying to do a great job of doing our jobs as a big to help the team out the best we can. He is a good shot blocker, he's a good scorer and I'm a good energy guy," Hukporti said.

"When I come on I try and bring the energy when it's not there at the beginning. I try to lift that energy and try to get my teammates motivated, and hyped. I definitely like to hype them up and just bring that energy whenever I come onto the floor.

"Jo's about my size, he's big as well and he's strong. He can shoot the ball, he can dribble and his defence is pretty good so he is definitely helping me improve my game. 

"Especially when I'm 19 and am playing against all these older, experienced guys. It's always good to do that especially when you are overseas and not in college like a lot of 19-year-olds."

Hukporti wasn't exactly sure what to expect from the NBL when he first signed on, but as it turns out, he has no question the style of play is more similar to the NBA and is helping prepare him for that future better than he feels he would have got by staying in Europe.

"The basketball here is definitely faster, it's a fast pace and it's not like as much of a chess game. In Europe the game is more like a chess game rather than a fast game like you see in the NBA," he said.

"I would say that the game here is more like the NBA than in Europe and I definitely like this, especially as a young guy. 

"The game even in the NBA used to be like a chess game too, but these days it's all about running, protecting the basket, making plays, running a fast pace, scoring on the fast break and all of that, you know what I'm saying."

Not only does Hukporti feel playing in the NBL is proving to be great for his development, but by being part of a Melbourne team playing such impressive basketball and having coming off winning eight straight will not only hasten his development, but help get him noticed more and more too.

"It is so much fun when you are winning, it's always a bit messed up when you lose. With this team we had some issues at the beginning but we just ironed that out at the start of the season and now we are on a winning streak," Hukporti said.

"We are trying to keep that up and it feels pretty good to be winning like we are, it's always good to be on a winning team. I think definitely it helps you get noticed more to be part of a winning team and especially if you can win a championship. 

"It helps you get more attention and especially when you are playing on a team with somebody who has won a championship in the NBA. That helps bring you more attention too and then obviously Melbourne won the championship last year. 

"So when you are on a winning team you get a lot of attention and people are talking about you and your team when you are on an eight-game winning streak like we are right now."

There is the life that Hukporti is enjoying in Australia right now. It's a far cry from the cold, the ice and the snow he'd be finding back home at this time of year. 

And while he might not get to the beach too often, he is enjoying the sun, the shopping and even the chance to get out and play football from time to time down under.

"It's good, the sun is pretty much up 24/7 and I have nothing to complain about when it comes to living here in Australia," Hukporti said. 

"I enjoy the sun shining and I've been outside a lot just to go for a walk, playing soccer or doing something like that. I just make the most of being able to do activities with this weather. 

"I'm not actually a big beach goer, I'm much more of a city person so I am enjoying getting out and about in the city as much as I can. I actually enjoying going shopping and going out into the city, and having a walk around and making the most of the different places that there are around."

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