AT first glance, COVID-19 hasn't done Illawarra any favours but the Hawks faithful will have the pandemic to thank should Akoldah Gak emerge as an NBL star this season.
The 6 ft 11 teenager went largely under the radar in his first campaign as a development player in Wollongong but those in the know will tell you locking him down for three years was as shrewd a recruitment manoeuvre as any made by the club's new ownership last season.
The 19-year-old stretch-four will move into a full roster position this year with the aim of showing NBL fans why he had a cavalcade of Division I programs chasing his commitment following his final year at New Jersey basketball nursery Blair Academy.
It could easily have seen the Penrith product follow his older brothers into the American college system, but the pandemic uncertainty prompted him to turn pro back in Australia with the Hawks.
"COVID was the number one thing that pushed me to turn pro because of all the uncertainty in America, whether they'd have a season or not and things like that," Gak said.
"There were new [Hawks] owners, with Goorj (Brian Goorjian) and what he's done with his history in Australia and China, the players they'd signed, it felt like the perfect spot for me to sign. Being an hour from home (Penrith) it was a no-brainer.
"I came in knowing I had to trust the process. I wasn't going to come in, be a starter and play however many minutes and score this or that. It was one of the early steps to the final goal.
"I came here to get better, work my game and I used it as that type of season. Work, get stronger, improve my shooting and just develop."
No one's setting a higher bar than Goorjian, who had no qualms about nominating the Australian Under 19s star as an NBA prospect.
The pro route through Australia has paid big dividends for a couple of teenagers in recent years, with LaMelo Ball famously parlaying half a season with the Hawks into the No. 1 Draft spot and NBA Rookie of the Year honours last season.
His successor as NBL Rookie of the Year, Josh Giddey, was drafted sixth overall by Oklahoma City at this year's Draft - dropping 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists in his pre-season debut on Tuesday.
Closer to home, Gak had a front-row seat to witness Sam Froling's outstanding sophomore campaign last season, something he's looking replicate and make good on Goorjian's wrap.
"Goorj saying that just makes me want to go out there and work 10 times harder to prove him right, and myself right too," Gak said.
"I feel like we're seeing the Next Stars program helping a lot of younger kids come in, make a statement and go to the next level straight away. We saw it with LaMelo [Ball], Josh Giddey. It's helping the NBL grow and helping kids get to the NBA sooner.
"I look at Sam and he made a great jump last season. His first year with the Hawks he was hurt and on and off the court, but his last season he played great and it's definitely the type of jump I'm trying to make.
"I'm confident in my game and I'm confident it's something I can do this season."
Front courts don't come more well-stocked than the Hawks', with AJ Ogilvy and Sam Froling returning alongside recruit Harry Froling and marquee chip Duop Reath.
Given the attributes he shares with the latter, there's no better training partner for Gak to work alongside as part of that rotation.
"He's a great dude to go at it with at practice," Gak said.
"He's the real polished version of what I'm trying to be, he's got a great jumper, his footwork's really good, he's patient on the block. He's someone I'm definitely trying to learn a lot from this year.
"I feel like our front-court is really good this year, with Duop, AJ, Sam, Harry, it's a mix of younger dudes and some vets.
"The older vets help me at practice, give me little tips and those things and young dudes, myself, Sam, Harry are energy guys that go out there and do what we do best. It's a perfect mix.
"We have a great mix of bigs and guards. It's a very well put together team."
A title contender?
"The title's definitely what we're chasing," he said.
"I thought last year we were right there to win the chip. We were up 1-0 playing at home so we gave ourselves a great opportunity to get to the finals and win.
"We bounced well from the year before where [the team] won five games all year. We made a really good bounce back and we can go even further this year. The title is definitely where all our mindsets are at."