It can seem like a gift from the basketball gods, but managing the demands of of having an NBL Next Star on your roster can be a tricky to say the least.
It's become even more so given the program has rapidly shape-shifted as a means of getting more overseas talent into the league, be it pre or post-NBA Draft.
The idea of a 'Next Star' isn't new in the NBL. The Hawks had the original in Doug Overton, the player many consider the best to ever don an Illawarra uniform, and the first to go from the NBL to the NBA.
Overton was drafted by the Pistons in 1991 but, unable to crack the roster, headed down under for a season with the Hawks in 1992. He averaged 24 points, five rebounds and six assists in a season that was the springboard to a deal with the Washington Bullets and an 11-year, 499-game NBA career.
In more recent times, the seed for the program as it currently stands was planted by Terrance Ferguson's arrival at Adelaide in 2016, having decommitted from Alabama and Arizona to turn pro in Australia.
A season later, Brian Bowen became the first NBL Next Star, with a subsequent six players drafted to the NBA from the NBL, including Illawarra's LaMelo Ball, who was drafted third overall by Charlotte in the 2020 NBA Draft.
On the surface, it seems like something every team would want on their roster, but it's never quite that simple.
A Next Star - and more to the point their minders - typically have different priorities than NBL clubs. Team success is a sweetener, but the priority is naturally increasing their own draft stock. Throw in the fact the NBL foots the contract bill and wants bang for its buck as far as publicity, particularly grabbing American eyes, and it becomes more of a puzzle.
Ball's stint with Illawarra is a case in point. It was a publicity juggernaut for the league and ticked every box on the individual front for Ball, who went from a projected second round pick to No. 3 overall after averaging 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists through 12 games.
On the team front, the Hawks went a then franchise-low 5-23 to finish last, while a 'sore foot' saw Ball on a plane back to the US before teammates knew he'd departed. By the end of the year the club's ownership collapsed with the franchise placed into administration (for which none of the blame lies with Ball).
Likewise, Josh Giddey was drafted sixth overall by Oklahoma City the following year after a season with Adelaide in which 36ers went 13-23. It's not a knock on either individual, it just illustrates the conundrum clubs face given team success, or lack of it, has little to no bearing on a Next Star's draft stock; which is naturally the priority of the individual and their agents.
He averaged 13 points and three rebounds in over 30 minutes a game through two seasons that saw the Hawks reach the playoffs in consecutive years. Personally, he's yet to debut in the NBA and is currently back in the NBL with New Zealand.
This season the Hawks are again along for the Next Stars ride with teen sensation AJ Johnson. The 18-year-old committed to the famed Texas Longhorns program before electing to turn pro with the Hawks. Current draft projections have Johnson as an 11th overall pick. Of the current Next Stars, only Perth big-man Alex Sarre is rated higher, with most ranking the Frenchman a No. 2 pick
Thus far, though, Johnson is averaging just five minutes a game for a point and a rebound. It's the lowest minutes of any current first-year Next Star, with Cairns' Bobi Klintman and Sydney's Alex Toohey currently clocking the most with 26 and 23 minutes respectively.
He also tips the scales at just 73 kilos and is coming back from surgery on a broken nose suffered in the preseason. Throwing huge minutes at a teenager in what many consider the most physical league in the world would be doing him a disservice.
It's easy to ask 'why is he not getting more time?' but at 2-5 this season, and 5-30 over the past two, coach Jacob Jackomas' top priority needs to be winning. However, if Johnson's still averaging five minutes in January, expect a different type of pressure to build on the club.
All told, when it comes to managing a Next Star on your roster, it's never as simple as asking: "Why is the kid not playing?"
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