Illawarra Hawks Season Preview
Last season: 17-11, third in regular season, lost in semi-finals to Perth Wildcats
2015/16 Points For: 93.0ppg, first
2015/16 Points Against: 88.5ppg, sixth
2015/16 Field Goal Percentage: 45.3%, second
2015/16 Defensive Field Goal Percentage: 46.1%, eighth
2015/16 Three Point Field Goal Percentage: 38.2%, first
2015/16 Defensive Three Point Field Goal Percentage: 34.9%, fifth
2015/16 Free Throw Percentage: 79.5%, first
2015/16 Rebounds: 32.5rpg, eighth
2015/16 Rebound Differential per Game: -3.7, sixth
2015/16 Assists: 17.2apg, first
2015/16 Steals: 7.3spg, first
2015/16 Blocked Shots: 3.5bpg, third
2015/16 Turnovers: 12.7tpg, fifth
2015/16 Turnover Differential per Game: +2.4, second
NBL Titles: 1 (2001)
NBL Playoff Appearances: 18 (last time 2016)
Homecourt: WIN Entertainment Centre, capacity 5,800
Head Coach: Rob Beveridge (2nd season with Illawarra, career record 123-98, 18-13 with Hawks)
Incoming: Rotnei Clarke (import – Germany); Marvelle Harris (import – Fresno State University), Michael Holyfield (import – NBA D-League); Nicholas Kay (Townsville Crocodiles); Mitch Norton (Townsville Crocodiles)
Outgoing: Larry Davidson (retired); Tyson Demos (injured reserve); Kevin Lisch (import – Sydney Kings), Kirk Penney (New Zealand Breakers), Jarrad Weeks (Cairns Taipans)
Projected Starters: Kevin White, Rotnei Clarke (import); Marvelle Harris (import); Nicholas Kay; AJ Ogilvy
Bench: Tim Coenraad, Cody Ellis; Oscar Forman, Michael Holyfield (import), Rhys Martin, Mitch Norton
It was almost one of the great fairy tales in Australian sport.
A team that had finished dead last the previous year and won just six games had a chance to go all the way to a Grand Final the very next season and who knows – maybe end up winning the whole thing.
In his first season at the helm of the Illawarra Hawks, Coach Rob Beveridge took his Illawarra Hawks from 6-22 and a wooden spoon in 14/15 to an incredible 11 game turnaround and a 17-11 regular season finish.
The Hawks became the darling of the Illawarra region again and took the eventual champs Perth to a third and deciding semi-final game – which may not have even occurred if league MVP Kevin Lisch hadn’t sprained his ankle midway through the series opening loss at Perth Arena.
Lisch missed the game two 104-87 rout of the ’Cats at the Sandpit and courageously fought through intense pain to play in Game Three, but even he couldn’t stop Perth from their march toward yet another title.
In the end though, it was more than just Lisch’s untimely injury that doomed the Hawks. Rebounding had been a major issue all season long and it caught up with them in Perth, with the Wildcats destroying them on the boards to end their season.
It’s why getting bigger and stronger has been a focus for Rob Beveridge when building his 16/17 unit. Acquiring last season’s Rookie of the Year Nicholas Kay was an enormous coup and a little fortunate given the unfortunate demise of Kay’s former club Townsville. Then there’s import big man Michael Holyfield, who has been brought in specifically to backup AJ Ogilvy but showed in preseason that he could be a diamond in the rough.
And although the team lost two huge weapons and former MVPs in Lisch and Kirk Penney, Illawarra struck gold with the recruitment of another former league MVP in Rotnei Clarke, whose perimeter game was such a key when he was last on these shores. Import swingman Marvelle Harris is also a tremendous pickup after his exploits at Fresno State University and Mitch Norton is another ex-Croc who is one of the better backup guards in the league.
The way Bevo has put together this team – addressing their primary deficiencies and in the process becoming a lot more versatile – makes it all the more mystifying why most pundits have already written off Illawarra.
Their performance in winning the Australian Basketball Challenge won’t necessarily have converted the non-believers, but those who deem that this team is not at the very least a playoff contender are just not looking hard enough.
The Hawks are suddenly one of the biggest teams in the NBL; Clarke and Harris could prove to be a devastating import combo, Holyfield is a monster in the low block provided he stays out of foul trouble, they are still going to run that high-octane offence and Rob Beveridge remains the best coach in the country.
Believe it or not, the Illawarra Hawks may actually be a better team than last season. And that’s a scary thought for every other team in the National Basketball League.
There’s no question that Illawarra pivot AJ Ogilvy (16.4ppg, 8.5rpg, 1.7bpg, 1.5spg, 54.5% FG) is the pre-eminent big man in the National Basketball League. He’s been an All-NBL First Team selection in each of his two seasons in the competition and there is not one player with more talent in the low post. He had little help inside last season and that situation should dramatically improve in 2016/17, so expect an even more effective and dominant AJ this time.
NBL Rookie of the Year Nicholas Kay (10.7ppg, 6.7rpg, 52.9% FG, 75.5% FT) provides excellent size and impressive talent at the four spot. He had a solid debut in the professional ranks with Shawn Dennis’ Townsville squad and should flourish even more under the tutelage of another great coach in Rob Beveridge. Kay is a strong rebounder, runs the floor extremely well and is a better athlete than sometimes given credit for.
NBA star Paul George is perhaps the most well-known player in the history of Fresno State University, but there has been talk that the title of greatest-ever player in university history should belong to new Illawarra import Marvelle Harris. The all-time leading scorer for Fresno State, Harris is maybe on the small side for a wing, but he is phenomenally strong and can get to his spots whenever he likes. More scorer than pure shooter, he nonetheless can hit the perimeter shot and is a weapon in the open floor.
Losing Kevin Lisch to Illawarra’s bitter rival Sydney hurt the club and Bevo enormously, but they replaced one MVP with another in Rotnei Clarke, who tore the league to pieces the last time he was in Australia and led the Hawks to the playoffs. Called by none other than NBA superstar Blake Griffin “the greatest shooter I’ve ever seen”, Clarke is a guy who opposing coaches must game-plan for given his unlimited range and ultimate confidence.
There are those who scoff at Kevin White (3.2ppg, 2.3rpg) and many who can’t believe why he starts for such a deep ballclub, but in another example of the genius of Rob Beveridge, he recognised early on that the defensive specialist was exactly the guy he needed to bring the energy early and go after the opposition’s primary offensive threat. White is an outstanding role player who understands his job and has the respect of the entire roster.
When you are bringing in quality guys like Rhys Martin, Cody Ellis and Tim Coenraad off the pine, you have a very deep bench. Then you turn to one of the greatest shooters in NBL history in Oscar Forman, a power dunker and genuine intimidator in Michael Holyfield and a great backup point guard in Mitch Norton. How Bevo manages this group’s minutes might be one of his biggest challenges this season.
Will the magic continue? Their performance last season was extraordinary and a terrific story for not only the region but the league as a whole, but this competition has improved a great deal and wins will be even tougher to come by. The Hawks will be looking to get off to a fast start and bank some early wins to get the ‘Hawkheads’ pumped up and filling the Sandpit on a regular basis.
In putting together this season’s team, Rob Beveridge has emphasised rebounding and inside toughness – two things he felt were lacking last season. The result is a team that is going to be very difficult to beat in 16/17, a squad that appears to have few weaknesses and is so deep that Bevo can still employ his famed pressure defence on a regular basis. Given a more balanced approach they may be even more effective scoring the ball this season and they won’t be hurt on the boards as much as they were in 2015/2016. The Hawks look headed for another playoff appearance and are legitimate title contenders.