<
>

The top 20 players of NBL20: 10-1

It's the second annual ESPN NBL Player Rankings. For a primer on our unscientific methodology, we detail it in last season's edition.

This year we expand into a weekly edition of a top 20 NBL player power rankings. For our first pass, we look at those projected to be the best in the league to start NBL20.

Read Part 1, with players raked 20 through 11, here.

10. Nathan Sobey (Brisbane Bullets)

Nathan Sobey finally had the opportunity to be Batman last season. Like the caped crusader, he utilised all of the gadgetry at his disposal.

Sobey upped his output across the board, including his scoring (from 12.9 to 17 points per game), assists (almost doubling from 3.0 to 5.5), rebounding, and free throw attempts. He took a major step forward as a floor general, controlling the pace of the game. He was able to nudge his free throw rate to levels befitting someone who was the guy.

Sobey was the Russell Westbrook of the league.

His accuracy from deep has hovered a tick below the 35 percent mark over the past two seasons. It's a respectable mark, but also the shot that opponents will continue to live with, if it means keeping him from slaloming towards the rim with reckless abandon.

It's new beginnings for the explosive guard who will now be the head of the snake for Andrej Lemanis' Bullets. Sobey should thrive in this Bullets ecosystem, with proven shooters on the court at all times.

9. Casey Prather (Melbourne United)

Casey Prather's credentials are well known. He may well be essentially coming back after a year off basketball, but he will be fine.

D.J. Kennedy was perhaps a somewhat underrated defender who excelled at being at the right place at the right time, as well as having the ability to shift up to wrestle with 4s. The signing of Prather gives United a genuine wing terror along the perimeter who can pluck the ball away and ignite transition.

How Prather meshes with the rest of United's loaded individual weaponry will be something to monitor. He needs the ball for forays at the rim.

Like Sobey, opponents will consider it a win if they keep Prather along the perimeter taking jumpers.

8. Melo Trimble (Melbourne United)

"I do feel like I'm one of the best players in this league," Melo Trimble tells ESPN.

A year ago, Trimble landed on these shores unsure of his surroundings. He didn't know too much about the league, but he knew of some league alumni, and some who still graced the hardwood here. Conversely, there were many who did not know who he was and where he fit in the league's point guard hierarchy.

"I've always been doubted," says Trimble. "Even last year when I came into this league, no one had anything to say about me. No one knew who I was."

That all changed.

Trimble became the Cairns offence. In that respect, he shouldered a Bryce Cotton-esque load in Far North Queensland.

According to Jordan McCallum via jordanmcnbl.com, Trimble scorched nylon from all over the court, particularly from deep. He sizzled nets at 66.7 percent from the corners; he was 39.3 percent from above the break. Bear in mind that the league average from those locations was 40.6 percent and 35.2 percent, respectively.

"I feel like I can score whenever I want," he says. "I think it goes with the flow of the game. Teams always want to try and blitz me and just throw different actions at me. But I feel like when I'm calm, cool and collected, I can score whenever I want, and not try to force anything. That's when I'm at my best, when I'm not forcing anything - I'm just playing my game, and honestly not overthink it."

When defences ran him off the arc, Trimble drove fearlessly into the trees, showcasing a dizzying array of finishes under the basket.

"Just being young, playing in the playground, doing wild finishes, stuff like that," he says, of how he developed his repertoire of spinning finishes and reverse layups. "Just watching people like Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker coming up against bigs - they're small guys, smaller guards like myself. I always liked getting to the basket, and players are going to try and block your shot. When you catch them off balance, and being able to finish the way I am, it makes it fun. So, I keep practicing and I just know how to do it the best way I can do it."

That complete scoring package enabled him to contort defences into terrible strain. Trimble was able to balance scoring with setting the table for his teammates, recording one of the higher assist rates amongst the cohort of starting point guards, per Spatialjam.com.

His experience with Cairns last year, and with the league, allowed him to find himself again, as that "aggressive point guard" leader.

The next stage of Trimble's development will come on the defensive side of things - he knows he needs to improve on that end, particularly if he wants to play in the NBA. This season, United's offence is loaded, meaning Trimble won't necessarily have to replicate his scoring feats with the Snakes.

"I felt like all this past summer, I've been focusing a lot on my defence and my footwork," says Trimble. "And I feel like for this team [United], like you said, we have a lot of scoring power, and not much of my scoring is needed...I mean...it will be needed, but not every game. Pretty much every game, it's going to start with my defence. I feel like when my defence is going, I'm going."

You best believe that Trimble has noted the limelight and narratives surrounding the new kids on the block, especially LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton.

"Everybody's forgot about what I did last year," he tells ESPN. "I feel like this year's really going to spark [me] as far as both ends of the court. So I want to prove myself that I am, like you guys said, one of the top players in this league."

7. Lamar Patterson (Brisbane Bullets)

A year ago, we projected the Bullets to finish the season with the wooden spoon. Those projections were based on the lack of a shot-creator. Once Patterson replaced Alonzo Gee, the Bullets found some coherency.

Patterson is a big-bodied, scoring wing who nudges and powers his way to his spots, rather than through any explosive athleticism. Without a star point guard, Patterson also acted as the pseudo-table-setter, and the only real creative force on the roster.

Amongst major minutes wings, only Ramone Moore sported a higher assist rate, per Spatialjam.com. Patterson destroyed them all in usage rate.

His numbers in two playoff games surged further - his assist rate in that Wildcats series was 32.4 percent, whilst his usage ballooned to 42.3 percent. Those are outrageous marks.

Patterson shouldn't have to shoulder that type of burden once again, now that the Bullets have signed Nathan Sobey.

6. Shawn Long (Melbourne United)

Long came into NBL19 as a rim-rattling, shot-blocking athlete who could dabble in some shooting. His skillset...uh...far exceeded that mould.

Within the Breakers last season, it often felt as though Long was testing himself, reaching to explore the limits of his individual craft. There was a sense of a score-first mentality - he would often slip in screens, rarely hunting bodies in those interactions.

Now with United, flanked by a phalanx of accomplished scorers, there may be a need for him to temper that offensive streak and reach for the edges of a more well-rounded game.

Long's defence is still a work-in-progress. In the preseason, he at least looks more circumspect, staying down and extending his arms skywards. He is such an athlete, such a huge dude, that there is no need to bite on enemy fakes.

Offensively, as we wrote in the season preview, his pick-and-roll dance with Melo Trimble will be crucial - it will the most deadly foundation of United's offensive arsenal.

On talent alone, Long should be a top-5 player. It will be fascinating to see his continued evolution under Dean Vickerman.

5. Mitch Creek (South East Melbourne Phoenix)

Creek returns to the NBL to headline the league's shiny new franchise. He is the no-brainer foundational player you go for to build a team around.

He comes back from his U.S. sojourn not so much with the vague outlines of a refined, more all-around baller. Rather, his experience was a reinforcement of who he is, and how he can furiously impact a game based on his strengths alone.

In 41 regular season games for the Long Island Nets in the NBA's G-League, Creek averaged 15.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

Only 6.7 percent of his points came from beyond the arc; 72.5 percent were in the paint, with another 18.1 percent of his points generated from turnovers.

Even when he was spaced in the corners, Creek would find ways to slash into the paint. For the season, Creek shot 22.2 percent from beyond the arc.

Despite him essentially shrinking the floor, there was a palpable impact of Creek on the court - Long Island's offensive and defensive efficiency were miles better when Creek was on the floor, per NBA.com.

He just imposes himself physically onto a game.

The last time Creek was in the league, he pummelled his way to rim at will. He shot two-pointers at 68 percent (!) and sported a sky-high free throw rate of 57.6 percent - only his teammate, Daniel Johnson, was better for those who logged at least 500 minutes across the regular season, per Spatialjam.com.

He is what he is - a ferocious competitor and transition juggernaut all on his own.

4. Nick Kay (Perth Wildcats)

If not for a certain seven-footer, Kay would be at the vanguard for Australian big men in this league.

Kay has always worked at his own languid pace. Having trained under the watchful tutelage of Luc Longley during the Boomers' World Cup campaign, that experience has only reinforced the value of timing for him, particularly for a below-the-rim operator.

"Luc's big thing is just [he] loves to change the timing when you get the ball in the post," Kay tells ESPN. "Catching the ball and using a fake, trying to get the defence off its own rhythm. Or if you're the defender, try to get the offence off their rhythm. I think it's just little things like that that have been really beneficial because it allows you just to slow down, get ready for your move, and then be able to just go to what you want to at your own pace, without having to worry about the defence as much, which I feel has really helped me already."

Kay should be ready for a higher load this year.

Kay's passing ability is probably an underrated aspect of his game. He doesn't engender much hype through flashiness - there is literally nothing flashy about his game - but he just does the simple things by keeping the ball moving. (The only drama of Kay miscue is Trevor Gleeson clapping his hands together, "C'mon, Nick!")

Of all relatively full-time power forwards last season, Kay only trailed Tai Wesley with assists per game (3.1 to 3.6) and assist rate.

What separates Kay though is his defensive prowess. He just knows where to be, in that Matty Knight mould of positional defence, as opposed to vertical intimidation.

Kay's defensive rebound rate was elite across 4-men last season, but what really pops out is his ability to trundle across the lane and nab second chance opportunities. Offensive rebounding can't be judged in a vacuum (it depends on team philosophy too), but Kay's offensive rebounding rate (12 percent) was even better than a number of full-time centres.

Only Andrew Bogut, Shawn Long, Josh Boone, Matt Hodgson and the very tall Alex Pledger owned better marks, amongst players who logged at least 300 minutes.

3. Andrew Bogut (Sydney Kings)

A debut NBL season with the Kings hit all the heights, apart from a title run. Bogut dragged the Kings from the wilderness back into the playoffs for the first time since 2013, culminating in a Defensive Player of the Year gong, and an MVP trophy.

There have been rumblings of the age of some of the Kings' keys pieces, and they are legitimate concerns, particularly along the perimeter with Lisch and Newley. With Bogut, I am more bullish - his game, predicated on his cerebral understanding of the pieces a move ahead of the enemy, should age just fine.

We sometimes get enamoured by shiny new toys and easily digestible highlight reel clips. Bogut's passing chops and long-armed swats will make social media, but there's more nuance to his craft. Bogut's positioning, the way he reads the game and sees a potential crisis unfolding, and then how he shifts over as a human extinguisher, requires the mind of an on-court chess-master.

His propensity to park himself in the lane also offers a comforting vantage point to survey the landscape. That amounts to a dare shot for the enemy - I'm happy to allow a midrange jumpshot. Are you willing to take it? That tactic also means he's easily in position to clean the glass and snuff out the possession there and then.

Across the entire league, for those who logged at least 300 minutes, Bogut easily topped defensive rebound rate at 30.5 percent, per Spatialjam.com. Josh Boone was next in line at 24.6 percent.

Of course, team-wise, the execution wasn't always great last season. There was miscommunication. There were simply mistakes. Sometimes, the opposition shifted the terms of engagement by simply firing an uncontested three-pointer once Bogut's defender was mushed, and with Bogut not in any position to bother them.

That in-between space that Bogut yields - along with his preference to lay back - is the fault line in which Will Weaver will craft a defensive scheme. How Weaver reconciles Bogut's preferred real estate, and the willingness for teams to attack those gaps it creates, will be the most important dynamic of this relationship.

Bogut averaged a tick under 30 minutes a game last season, which was surprisingly high, considering it just felt as though he was mired in foul trouble.

It will be interesting to see if he can channel what sometimes looks like frustration - that dissonance he feels between his innate sense of how basketball should be played, and how it's playing out on the floor, along with the way the game is called.

When he stays on the court, the Kings are a different beast. He is the fulcrum in which they can easily manufacture inside-out basketball, simply by throwing the ball to him and allowing him to make a decision. He is a genius in that regard.

2. Casper Ware (Sydney Kings)

This might be the most significant signing of the season. Ware brings with him a muscly two-way game for the Kings at the lead guard position.

Last season, Ware thrived despite his burden increasing. For the regular season, Ware buffed up his scoring average to 18.8 points per game; he shot 35.7 percent from deep, which was actually an improvement from his previous year; his usage rate soared to 33 percent; he averaged 4.8 assists (on par with his previous campaign).

There was MVP buzz for Ware, who shouldered increased responsibility in Cotton-esque fashion, despite United seemingly having more offensive firepower.

His visits to the charity stripe did decline to 3.5 free throws per game. There was a sense that he often fired from deep for the sake of it, without really probing the defence for better looks.

Amongst all other starting point guards last season, Ware ranked only ahead of Jason Cadee in free throw rate. That reduction in free throws lowered his offensive efficiency.

The additional load also appeared to wear him down (no pun intended) as the postseason loomed. For the playoffs, he was at 32.7 percent from beyond the arc, in over 9 attempts per game.

In the Grand Final series? His overall field goal percentage nosedived to 30 percent (18-from-60), whilst his three-point shooting plummeted to 22.2 percent, from 9 attempts per game (8-of-36). That is the consequence of having Damian Martin draped all over you.

Whilst Cotton (who also struggled from deep in that series) had Terrico White playing out of his mind, the rest of United's roster largely struggled in that Grand Final series to generate consistent offence, without Ware at his best.

There is a certain vibrancy to Cotton's game that can't be stopped, whether his outside shot is falling or not. He can sometimes simply zip past a trap, and unlock frazzled defences. There was a sense that once Ware was unable to bully his way to his spots, once the ball was forced out of this hands, once his outside shooting regressed, he could not impact the game.

That's why his pairing with Bogut is almost a liberating experience for him. He's now paired with a big who can toggle between rim-runner to playmaker.

1. Bryce Cotton (Perth Wildcats)

"I'm biased," says Damian Martin. "I think Bryce is the best player in the league."

And we agree.

For the second year running, Cotton tops our ESPN list as the NBL's most influential player heading into the season.

Cotton has a tireless motor, zipping around the court, zagging off screens - the Wildcats are built for him, and he is their engine.

For Cotton, for someone as great (he is an NBL great now) and devastating, the game is seen through a simple prism.

"Yeah, I mean it requires a lot of energy, but I mean that's what the game is about: read and react," Cotton tells ESPN. "There's plenty of times throughout a certain stretch of the season you have to adapt your game, where you may have to be more of a facilitator because you're doubled a lot more. Luckily, I have a great teammate myself named Terrico White, and a lot of times when he goes on crazy streaks, they got to get him attention and it frees it up for me."

Incredibly, for someone in which an offence is geared for, Cotton owned a ridiculously low turnover rate last season, per Spatialjam.com. For those who played above 500 regular season minutes, only Thomas Abercormbie, Cam Gliddon and Kevin Lisch sported lower turnover rates, and the former two are not creators.

Perhaps a part of it is his mindset, in which the game operates within the constantly shifting terrain of adjustments and readjustment by the opposition, sometimes within a single game.

"It's just what makes the game fun, honestly. You kind of get used to it, but that's what the game is about, honestly. Because if you can just go out there and dominate, do the same thing every game, it would kind of get boring," he says. "So, playing in this league, and getting that type of attention, it keeps us on our toes."

With his familiarity with the league, does the game get any easier for him? Or does that familiarity ramp up the difficulty as teams expect what's coming and just load up on him?

"I would say it's a little bit of both," says Cotton. "The game will obviously always slow down because when teams play the same way for a certain amount of times, you have no choice but to find the weak spots in whatever it is that they're doing."

Cotton's defence is perhaps underrated. He's not a defensive stopper, but he's diligent, constantly mapping where he is on the court, slithering around screens, getting deflections. Defence is not a time for rest, despite the taxing offensive load.

"You don't really think about being taxed, because when you're out there, you're trying to win a basketball game," he says. "For our club, we've made the playoffs, I think, for 33 years straight. You always go out there with a sense of pride and you know you're playing for something bigger than yourself. So, no matter how tired you may be, winning comes before anything, and you kind of forget how tired you are when it comes to crunch time."

It's in crunch time where Cotton seemingly excels. It just seems as though he nails every big shot that comes his way. It feels inevitable. It feels as though he can score whenever he wants to.

"I guess I don't look at it as, I can score whenever I want," says Cotton. "My biggest goal is to go out there and make a play every time I touch the ball. But I know that does stem from the mindset of looking to score though."

And there you have it - this season's first top 20 players in the NBL. Cotton tops our rankings to start the season.

Not that outside opinions matter for Cotton or the Wildcats. They have their own internal expectations - as well as those of the Red Army - when it comes to their outlook and performance this season.

"We don't really get caught up on that, because opinions never [chuckle] won anything," says Cotton. "No matter who you are, whether they talk good about you, or bad about you, you've still got to step out there on the floor and play."

Stay tuned for next week's edition.