For a country of just 23 million people, some four million short of Texas alone, and located more than 9,000 miles from the US, Australia is certainly making its presence felt in the NBA.
Australia has seven NBA players in the 2014-15 season—the Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Bogut, the Cavaliers’ Matthew Dellavedova, the Bulls’ Cam Bairstow, the Spurs’ Patty Mills and Aron Baynes, and the Jazz’ Dante Exum and Joe Ingles.
Quite a player explosion for a nation that did not get its first NBA player until the ’90s in the form of Luc Longley, who played on Michael Jordan’s legendary Bulls team. After contributing a title winner in Longley, Australia has since provided a No. 1 overall Draft pick in Bogut.
This all begs some pertinent questions: How do Australian players make their way to the NBA? Why are there more NBA Aussies than ever before? And can we expect even more Aussies to make the League?
“The NBA is everybody’s dream in Australia,” says Andrej Lemanis, head coach of Australia’s national basketball team, known as the Boomers. “The fact that we see games on the TV all the time and we have seven Australians in the NBA now, it has made the NBA a reality for Australian players. It was once a far-off dream, but it is tangible now.”
Adrian Bauk is a former Australian professional basketball player who last played with the Sydney Kings, a National Basketball League [NBL] team (Australia’s local version of the NBA), retiring at the end of the 2004-05 season. He now works as a bookmaker, setting the odds on NBA games, but in his playing days witnessed the NBA obsession for some players first-hand. “A lot of guys in the team were purely striving for that NBA dream. They would practice day and night—they were first there, last to leave,” says Bauk.
The NBA being popular, and the dream of aspiring players, is nothing novel around the world. Attempting to bridge the gap between the NBA dream and reality for Aussie players is the country’s established pathway for developing basketball players.
Lemanis says that the journey for young Aussie players starts at junior club teams located across the country.
Australia, a land mass only marginally smaller than the US, is divided into a mere six states alongside a small collection of territories. Lemanis says young players who impress for their regional club sides will be invited to represent their state.
“When you get to the Under-16, 17 and 18 level, that is where Basketball Australia starts to kick in through its High Performance network, which offers guidance and direction to the identified talent coming through,” Lemanis says.
Basketball Australia is the governing and controlling body of basketball in Australia. The general manager of its High Performance network is Chuck Harmison.
“Our state network of coaches, who are coaching these kids from the Under-12s through to the Under-19s and then representative level, are doing a terrific job of teaching the skills.” Harmison says. “This enables us, as the High Performance unit, to roll in and identify the type of player who can be a future Boomer.”
Harmison says Basketball Australia runs a residential program for the players who are the “best of the best” in the 16 to 17-year-old age group: “Those kids would come in for one or two years and fine-tuning their skills. They would then look to make the US college system and then the NBA.”
While Lemanis and Harmison are charged with identifying and developing Australia’s best players, the US involvement comes from a widening remit of US college coaches and scouts who have acknowledged Australia as a legitimate breeding ground for future stars.
In 1986, college scouts from the US ventured to Australia’s west coast city of Perth to get a better look at a young Aussie named Andrew Vlahov.
While Vlahov would go on to play at Stanford University and then return to his hometown with the Perth Wildcats, the US college scouts were pleased to come across a big man by the name of Luc Longley.
Longley ended up at the University of New Mexico and was later selected seventh overall by the Timberwolves at the 1991 Draft. He would be traded to the Chicago Bulls in 1994 and eventually form part of that Jordan-inspired legendary team.
Longley’s NBA success sparked the interest of US college coaches to Australian talent, especially as the visiting scouts only stumbled on Longley’s talents while in town for another player. What other hidden gems did Australia have?
Bauk says more recently Patty Mills’ success put Saint Mary’s College on the map for Aussies going to the American collegiate system, with the likes of Dane Pineau, Jock Landale and Emmett Naar all on the Saint Mary’s roster at the moment.
Adam Caporn was also one of the earlier Aussie players to enter the US collegiate system. He was recruited by Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett and played there in 2002 and 2003.
“Saint Mary’s would come to our Centre of Excellence and recruit the hell out of our players like they would any high school in America,” says Harmison. “A lot of Aussie kids still go through Saint Mary’s because of the relationship Randy Bennett built up over the years. Other colleges have done the same, such as New Mexico, who recruited the likes of Luc Longley, Ryan Kersten, Hugh Greenwood and Cameron Bairstow.”
Andrew Bogut, however, Australia’s only first round draft pick in 2005, had a more proactive NBA route than being spotted on Aussie shores by visiting US scouts.
Bogut was part of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) squad now run by Basketball Australia, a local development team for the best young Aussie talent, which got an opportunity to tour the United States in 2001 and 2002. While those stateside performances earned US attention, Bogut then led the Australian national team to the gold medal at the 2003 FIBA Junior Mens World Championship in Greece on his way to becoming tournament MVP.
Bogut then turned down a $2 million offer from Cibona Zagreb in Croatia after the tournament to play in the US college system for Utah and increase his stock for the NBA Draft. After representing Utah from ’03 through ‘05, the Milwaukee Bucks would draft Bogut first overall and launch one of Australia’s most successful NBA careers.
An Australian Institute of Sport report entitled Making Your Career in Basketball: A guide to the Australian Basketball Pathway concedes that “playing in [the] US College [system] is often seen as the ‘best’ way of being identified by an NBA/WNBA team and being drafted.”
The appeal of the overseas leagues for Australia has some more base motivations, too—the report states that while NBL players are full-time athletes, the average salary in the league is approximately $57,500 per season—or 0.2 percent of Kobe Bryant’s wages. But many NBL players earn only the minimum wage of $25,000 per season.
But Lemanis was keen to defend an extended home-based career for some Australian players rather than seeking a US college career at all costs. “While most players think the US college is the best pathway, there are a few examples of players going over and having bad experiences,” he says. “The Australian pathway is not given enough attention, as the NBL enables players to be supported by tremendous strength, conditioning and medical support, some would suggest better, than you would get in the States.”
Lemanis used the example of Dante Exum, who was drafted straight into the NBA from the Australian system in 2014, bypassing the US collegiate system completely.
Exum was born in Australia to American parents. Dante’s father Cecil had previously played for the University of North Carolina and won an NCAA Championship in 1982 alongside Michael Jordan.
Exum played his high school basketball with Lake Ginninderra in Australia’s capital of Canberra. In April of 2013, Exum played in the Nike Hoop Summit for the World Select Team, notching 16 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in a 112–98 win over the USA Junior Select Team.
Once he graduated from high school in Australia in October of 2013, it was expected that Exum would walk the trodden path of the US college system for the 2013–14 season. He had other plans.
The guard told ESPN in 2013 that he would rather stay in Australia and work with the national system. He competed in the Australian National High School Basketball Championships held between December 2013 and January 2014, leading Lake Ginninderra to the title.
The Utah Jazz then picked Exum fifth overall in the 2014 Draft. While Exum could be deemed an unknown quantity without the “finishing school” input of the US college system, that didn’t stop the then-18-year-old from becoming Australia’s highest Draft pick since Bogut. Just as Longley, Bogut and Mills trailblazed the talents of Aussie players in the eyes of US college scouts, perhaps Exum will advocate the additional stay in Australia and the justification of the risk for NBA teams to draft Aussie talent directly.
The seven Aussie players in the NBA are merely the latest layer on the snowballing relationship between the NBA and Australian basketball.
Australia might also get to claim the No. 1 NBA Draft pick in the next couple of years with Ben Simmons, who plays at Montverde Academy and is headed to LSU next year.
“The relationship between Australia and the US is just going to grow,” Harmison says. “We understand the pathway for our kids and we have embraced it.”
Lemanis adds: “We have a plethora of guys coming through, so I would expect another two, three or four Aussie players to make the NBA in the near future. We are producing players who are multi-skilled, competitive, tough and playing for the good of the group. They are all attributes that ensure we will have players having success at the highest levels.”