There was a particular group of people who weren’t entirely shocked to see the Adelaide 36ers beat the Phoenix Suns in a preseason matchup on Monday: those who make decisions for NBA teams.
The NBL has been on an upward trajectory for close to the last decade and, while the result of this most recent ‘NBA vs. NBL’ preseason game was the tangible evidence the wider basketball world needed to wake up to it, NBA teams have been well aware of the continued growth for some time.
It’s not just talk or puff, either. Seven NBA teams were represented at the Australian league’s annual preseason tournament, the NBL Blitz, in Darwin, which is probably the most difficult major city in Australia to travel to. Some NBL teams didn’t even send executives to the Blitz because of how much of a hassle it was to get out to the Northern Territory.
The NBL isn’t, and shouldn’t be, defined by the NBA’s keen interest, but it’s an indication of how elite the league is becoming. LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey are anomalous touch-points, but the recent success of guys like Torrey Craig, Jae’Sean Tate, and Jock Landale – to name just a few – are telling, as well as the likes of Trevor Gleeson and Damian Cotter in the coaching ranks. When it comes to climbing the basketball ladder to the NBA, the NBL is proving itself to be the final step.
It used to be that the NBL was a drawcard for the elite Americans playing outside the NBA because Australia is an English-speaking country, it has beaches, and players get paid on time. Now, it’s seen as perhaps the best stepping stone to the NBA, and is genuinely getting closer to what’s been hyperbolically claimed for years: that it’s the best league in the world outside of the U.S..
The salary cap is increasing every year, and the valuations of teams have been trending in the same direction. There are countless investors looking to buy into the league, or expand it, and with that influx of capital comes the potential for better talent across the board. The players are getting better, the coaches being hired are more nuanced, and the pool of executives in the league has also seen significant improvements. Better talent generally equals a better product, and that ultimately leads to continued, sustainable growth.
The NBL isn’t perfect, by any stretch, but the potential of the league is immense, and the 36ers’ 134-124 win over the Suns really showed the fruits of that progress.
Robert Franks, for example, had all the signs of an import we usually see play a season in the NBL and then chase more money in Europe. While those examples do exist — the Sydney Kings lost two elite imports for that reason — it’s not as much of a given as it once was, because of how the NBL has placed itself in the grand scheme of world basketball. Franks clearly helped himself, too. He dropped 32 points and seven rebounds in Adelaide’s win, including 6-of-10 from deep, and looked every bit like the complementary three-and-D archetype NBA franchises are looking for. It wouldn’t be completely surprising if that performance gets him an offer from an NBA team.
Antonius Cleveland fits that same mold; he’s someone who can defend one-through-four, and who one NBA scout tells ESPN is a consistent three-point shot away from being considered a surefire player in the league. Craig Randall II led the scoring effort for the 36ers, scoring 35 points — including nine three-pointers — and was up there with Mitch McCarron as the two best guards on a floor that featured Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Yes, it was just a preseason game, and we all entered and exited the contest understanding that context, but no reasonable person would say the Suns weren’t trying to win.
When we talk about the gap getting narrower, it encompasses everything from the talent level of the Americans choosing to play in the NBL, to the level of coaching and development available outside of the U.S. The reality is that the gap really is closing every year. We’ve seen it at World Cups and Olympics over the past few years, where Team USA is no longer the overwhelming favourite to win every gold medal, and with games like this, where the talent difference between a good NBL team and an NBA team just two years removed from a Finals series isn’t obviously distinguishable.