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Contenders, pretenders: Australia and New Zealand NBA preview

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Jevon Carter sinks 3-pointer off Patty Mills' no-look pass (0:21)

Patty Mills makes a sweet dish to Jevon Carter for the deep 3-pointer. (0:21)

Basketball never stops, with the 2021-22 regular season set to tip-off on Wednesday morning live on ESPN.

It feels like last week the Milwaukee Bucks were hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy at Fiserv Forum, putting an end to a 50-year championship drought.

It feels like yesterday the Boomers claimed a historic and emotional bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in a run that captured a nation.

Before we get to opening night, let's take a look at the Australian and New Zealand players in the league. Some with a new home. Some seeking playoff redemption. Some hoping to make an impactful start to their NBA career.

The contenders

Patty Mills - Brooklyn Nets

After a decade in San Antonio, Patty Mills has a new home in Brooklyn.

The announcement of his free agency decision came in the middle of a spectacular Olympic campaign, where the recently turned 33-year-old delivered his latest Boomers masterpiece. Averaging 23.3 points per game across the tournament, Mills gives every impression he has plenty left in the tank.

He now joins the championship favourites in Brooklyn, as the uncertainty around the availability of Kyrie Irving due to a New York City vaccine mandate adds even more value the perfect fit of Mills with the Nets.

The absence of Irving should see the Australian get a bump in minutes, but it may not necessarily result in a regular starting position. During the preseason head coach Steve Nash opted to start Bruce Brown or Paul Millsap in the open starting slot, with Mills sticking to his customary role off the bench.

This seems to be the logical approach, with James Harden and Kevin Durant hardly needing additional ball handling in the lineup. The beauty of Mills is that he doesn't need to play on ball, with his ability to shoot off the catch and in motion around screen action likely to see him thrive next to Harden and Durant.

According to NBA.com tracking date, Mills knocked down 41.4 percent of his wide open (6+ feet of space from closest defender) long range attempts in 2020-21. I expect to see that volume increase in this offence which should produce good results.

Mills is near the top of Sixth Man of the Year odds for good reason, and he has given himself an excellent shot at collecting a second ring.

Joe Ingles - Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz should be looking to the Milwaukee Bucks for inspiration heading into the 2021-22 season.

In 2020 the Bucks were the destroyers of the regular season, finishing with the league's best record before bouncing out of the playoffs in the second round. In 2021, that honour was handed to the Jazz.

At Utah media day, Ingles hinted at the Jazz entering this season with a greater understanding of the big picture, with their eyes firmly set on an NBA Finals appearance.

"After last year and falling short after the regular season we had is obviously disappointing," said Ingles.

"The regular season is great, but you don't get anything for winning in the regular season, you want to win in the playoffs. Whatever we have to do to finish as high as we can, but then to be healthy in the playoffs and take it as far as we can go. After last year we've got a little bit to prove."

You know what to expect from Ingles. Solid defence on the perimeter with an ability to distribute and knock down the outside shot. According to Cleaning the Glass, Ingles was 69 percent at the rim (80th percentile for his position), 46 percent from three (97th percentile) and carried an assist percentage of 24.0 (98th percentile).

Ingles is still a high-level NBA player and the Jazz are going to be really, really good. Now they just have to get it done in the postseason.

"Why not us?" said Ingles.

Playoff teams

Matisse Thybulle - Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and boy, did it get ugly fast.

Given all the uncertainty around Ben Simmons (more on that in a sec), it's impossible to label them as a contender on opening night.

Ironically, Thybulle could potentially benefit with Simmons out of the lineup, with the offensive limitations of the pair making it a challenge to have them on the floor at the same time along Embiid.

Thybulle was simply spectacular with the Boomers in Tokyo, with his All-World defence catching the hearts of a nation. Incredibly, he was named to last year's All-Defence second team, despite only playing 20 minutes per game, such was his ability to impact games on that end of the floor.

His ability to impact a game in transition where his extraordinary ability to fill passing lanes to create deflections and steals is invaluable. But what can he do in a half-court offence?

*small sample alert*

Thybulle was 5-for-12 (41.2 percent) from three in Tokyo. Expecting that type of number is unrealistic, but can he return to his rookie season mark of 35.7 percent?

The Sixers are a wildcard in the East with the expectation the roster will significantly change at some point, but for now at least, Thybulle looms as an important piece.

Ben Simmons - Philadelphia 76ers

Who knows if Ben Simmons will suit up for the Sixers in 2021-22?

Perhaps a fresh start is all he needs to re-ignite his career. Simmons is an elite defender and transition threat which seems to have been forgotten in recent times.

Here's hoping we can get back to talking about some excellent play on the court from Simmons in the near future.

Josh Green - Dallas Mavericks

On one hand, Josh Green heading to Dallas planted him on a winning team, under a winning coach, next to one of the greatest young talents in the game.

On the other hand, he was lost in the wing rotation, struggling for opportunities on a squad with championship ambition.

Year two begins with a new head coach in Jason Kidd, though he will likely still start the season behind Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock in a healthy wing rotation.

The 20-year-old appeared in four preseason games, averaging 4.0 points in 18 minutes per appearance. That burn was enough for him to deliver multiple highlight reel finishes at the basket, with his NBA level athleticism not a question.

Steven Adams - Memphis Grizzlies

Led by Ja Morant, the young Grizzlies improved on a Play-In Tournament berth in 2020 to reach the first round in 2021.

The biggest move the franchise made in the offseason was acquiring Steven Adams in a trade that saw Jonas Valanciunas head to New Orleans.

A walking double-double for the Grizzlies last season, Valanciunas leaves a big whole to fill. Adams projects to start the season at the five alongside young big man Jaren Jackson Jr.

It feels like Adams has been in the league forever, but he's still only 28 and will add a presence on the glass and at the defensive end.

Two traits that have made the New Zealander a valuable addition throughout his career have been defending without fouling and hitting the offensive glass. According to Cleaning the Glass his foul% of 2.5 ranks in the 90th percentile among players in his position and his offensive rebounding percentage of 13.7 sits in the 93rd percentile.

It's the intangibles that makes Adams a valuable NBA player and head coach Taylor Jenkins will be hoping those traits rub off on his young squad.

Play-In Tournament hopeful

Jock Landale - San Antonio Spurs

An NBL Grand Final MVP, an Olympic Bronze Medal and an NBA contract.

It's been quite the few months for Jock Landale, with the big man finally realising his dream of reaching the NBA.

In the NBL, Landale was the focal point of Melbourne United's offence on the perimeter and in the post. In the NBA, he figures to be a floor spacer with an ability to roll to the basket and crash the offensive glass.

It truly is a new beginning for the Spurs franchise, with Mills the last remaining player from the 2014 championship team to move on. With that creates opportunity, with Landale telling ESPN in August that he is desperate to capitalise on his first taste on NBA action.

Landale projects to sit behind Jakob Poeltl, Thaddeus Young and Drew Eubanks in a busy big man rotation, but he appears ready for the challenge.

"I'm not going to let this be the peak of my career. Some people have texted me saying it must be so crazy and asking if it's the peak. I try to enjoy the moment but I'm not that good at it and it's because I'm so driven to keep improving and developing as a person and a player."

"I feel like I'm only just getting started."

All about development

Josh Giddey - Oklahoma City Thunder

Giddey was nothing short of spectacular in the preseason, ranking in the top-6 for points (13.5), rebounds (7.0) and assists (5.0) per game among rookies.

Just quietly, he also went 4-for-10 from three, continuing the trend from NBL 21 of better than advertised shooting from beyond the arc.

The Oklahoma City broadcast team described him as a "wizard with the basketball" for good reason, with the teenager whipping dimes with either hand, setting social media alight in the process.

Of course, for those who watched him play with Adelaide last season this is nothing new, but to have this level of impact this early is incredibly impressive.

The rookie class is significantly better than last year's, but LaMelo Ball took Rookie of the Year honours with averages of 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists. That looks perfectly attainable for Giddey on the young Oklahoma City Roster.

It's not about wins for the Thunder this season; it's about building for the future and Giddey could hardly have made a better first impression.

Dante Exum - Free Agent

At the time of writing, the Houston Rockets announced they were waiving Dante Exum.

Exum saw 41 minutes of court time with the Rockets in preseason, dishing out eight assists to only three turnovers.

It was clear watching the Boomers in Tokyo that Exum can still defend NBA level opponents across multiple positions and of the players that played, only Thybulle matched the athleticism of the former No. 4 overall pick.

He's had a dreadful run with injury, but Exum was one of the feel-good stories in Tokyo, putting his body on the line to secure an NBA deal. Roster spots are scarce this close to the start of the season, but if healthy, Exum can help a team in the league.