NBL 3x3: The contenders to worry about, who is ready to break out?

3x3 is back in 2022, with more thoughts, opinions and questions to answer as the NBL moves into the New Year.

As predicted, the list of possible contenders in the league feels larger than ever, but which team is providing some cause for concern and which player is ready to breakout as the season looks to get a kickstart?

Kane Pitman, Peter Hooley and Josh Garlepp get together to answer these questions and more.

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Three opinions

Kane Pitman: There is still plenty to be gained for the New Zealand Breakers in NBL22.

It's been a horror start for New Zealand, with a franchise worst 0-6 mark leaving them holding up the standings as the league tries to get going in the New Year.

A COVID outbreak, an injury to a key import and never-ending life on the road has conspired against the Breakers thus far, with the worst defence in the league oftentimes looking lost and confused as Dan Shamir paces frantically up and down the sideline.

Despite the mounting losses, the Breakers did push Illawarra to double overtime, while a matchup against South East Melbourne went down to the final minute. Will McDowell-White and Yannick Wetzell have been impressive, while Hugo Besson has flashed the shot making ability that has him billed as a first-round NBA draft selection.

It's a shame the Breakers weren't able to snatch one of those above-mentioned matchups for an early season marquee win, but in a business where ultimately success comes down to the win-loss record, I think the Breakers have been better than the standings suggest.

Peter Hooley: It's been a mixed bag of performances for the JackJumpers in their first season in the NBL.

We've seen them play some inspired and exciting basketball at home but have also seen them put together some less than ideal games away. (Sorry to remind people of that loss in Cairns). It's expected that any new franchise will experience growing pains, and likely lots of them. However, one of the most evident takeaways from the first few rounds of the season for Tasmania, is that when they slow their offence down and get through plays, they can put themselves in a position to win games.

This really started in their 20-point loss to Perth. Yes, it was a blowout, but if you watched the game closely, you'd have seen that it was the first time that the seemed to click as a team on the offensive end. Running long sets and moving the ball, waiting for the defence to breakdown, then finding an open shot. Early in the season, a lot of the JackJumpers offence was one-on-one isolation for either Josh Adams or Josh Magette, and that just wasn't getting it done. The import pair are still the two main focuses of the squad, but it's clear Adams has shifted his balance of attack. Clint Steindl has proven why he was a perfect fit for the new franchise, with his shooting off the bench. Now it's just about utilizing all their pieces at the right time.

But as I mentioned, all growing pains that are inevitable. There are some promising signs for the JJs!

Josh Garlepp: NBA prospects suffer from stagnated NBL start.

In the same week former NBL rookie-of-the-year and current Melbourne United veteran Brad Newley had his 2007 draft rights surprisingly traded to the New York Knicks, many current NBA draft hopefuls have had their chances hindered by the limited exposure to start NBL22.

In 2004 Newley gained international attention averaging almost 16 points per game in just under 24 minutes of play, while also claiming the All-Star game MVP, Rookie of the Year and Best Sixth Man awards.

This year, potential draftees like Perth's Luke Travers, New Zealand's Hugo Besson and Melbourne United's Ariel Hukporti have all played just six games so far while their international equivalents have got far more burn.

Tasmanian freshman Taran Armstrong has played 12 games for NCAA Div 1 college CBU and has been an early darling amongst draft analysts, meantime Bendigo's Dyson Daniels has built momentum with G League Ignite across 14 appearances and is on track to be a 2022 lock by season's end.

While game tape is far easier access today, Australia's border issues and omicron's arrival have limited opportunities for young players early on and restricted NBA personnel's freedom to cross the Pacific at will to check out talent in person.

Three questions

Are you concerned about a contender?

Kane Pitman: Melbourne United's offence is still a big question mark.

Holding the No. 1 ranked defence according to Spatial Jam, United have suffocated a depleted Sydney Kings outfit twice, the winless New Zealand Breakers and the newcomers Tasmania to win four straight contests.

On the other end of the floor, United are off to a rough start in a pair of key metrics. Ranked second last in both free-throw rate (19%) and turnover percentage (17%), it's been a sluggish start offensively. Fortunately for United, a 36 percent mark from beyond the arc on high volume has been a recipe for success.

Of course, when you have Chris Goulding in the line-up, you can win on any given night and Caleb Agada has caught fire in recent games, but they still feel one scoring weapon short in comparison to Illawarra, South East Melbourne and Perth.

They do say defence wins championships though, so perhaps it won't matter?

Peter Hooley: Call me crazy, but I have some concerns about the Perth Wildcats, that has nothing to do with their potential border issues to come.

Firstly, everyone knew that there was a big hole to fill in the middle with John Mooney departing. We've seen that impact on the rebounding numbers early. Yes, Travers and Majok have done well, but the majority of their rebounds are coming on the offensive end. Who will be their main window cleaner on the other end? Do they have someone who can average nine or ten rebounds a game and limit other teams second chance points?

Secondly, the Wildcats are stacked. Thankfully, Todd Blanchfield's injury isn't as bad as it originally looked. However, when he returns, Scott Morrison will have some juggling to do, in terms of player rotations. Bryce Cotton and Vic Law's minutes won't be changing much, but then you have Mitch Norton getting healthier, Travers, Blanchfield and Michael Frazier to fight out the rest. Luckily, a lot of these guys can play multiple positions, but this will still take some figuring out. They'll be in the finals, so as long as it's sorted by then, everything's peachy!

Josh Garlepp: The Kings' consistency is most concerning.

An extended break may help Sydney more than any other NBL club. Star shooter Dejan Vasiljevic is still building game fitness, while imports RJ Hunter and Jaylen Adams are pushing to return from injuries, but the consistency is a worry.

They have talent, even without their current stars, but the side is clearly adjusting to Chase Buford's system and missing the control that former starting point guard Casper Ware afforded the harbourside city.

The Kings most recently were neck-and-neck with Melbourne United for three quarters on Boxing Day, but lapses defensively and settling for contested shots allowed United to pull off a 14-point win.

The Kings have a much more favourable schedule ahead, (TAS*, NZB, NZB, PER, PER), and will soon have the depth to push for a title, but with just four playoff spots available in NBL22 these early losses could hurt the 'Hoops Capital' down the track.

Which team has surprised you to start NBL22?

Kane Pitman: The Wildcats' hot start has been a delight to watch.

I scoffed at my colleague, Peter Hooley when he suggested Vic Law could win the MVP this season on our season preview podcast, with my mind not capable of comprehending anyone other than Bryce Cotton claiming the award on this Perth roster.

I maintain that stance, but Law and Cotton are side-by-side at the top of the pile along with Duop Reath and Mitch Creek for mine.

Cotton is averaging 24.3 points per game to rank first in the league, while Law is pouring in 23.0 a night to sit third. To no surprise, the star duo is Perth's most used two-man line-up combo, with 306 non-garbage time possessions producing dominant offensive splits.

Perth is yet to play South East Melbourne, Illawarra, Melbourne or Sydney, leaving plenty of marquee matchups to come but early season chemistry has hardly been a problem for Cotton and Law in a scary development for the league.

Peter Hooley: Hardly a bold choice here, but the Brisbane Bullets have all the right pieces to legitimately contend this season.

Robert Franks is legit. He's been a revelation for the Bullets, after they couldn't bring back Law. Adding him alongside Sobey and Patterson, and that's a tough trio to beat on any given night. They just need to piece it together.

Tyrell Harrison is a leading Most Improved Player candidate. However, I think the Bullets biggest weakness is when he's not on the court. Yes, Franks can play the five and Patterson the four, but can they find success with that line-up against a team with dominant bigs like South East Melbourne?

The Bullets have a lot of positives and are led by a couple of the league's elite players, so don't be surprised if they slowly build a strong record.

Josh Garlepp: The Taipans play really, really hard.

Without star imports Scott Machado and Tahjere McCall, Cairns adapted and left absolutely everything on the floor, rattling the Wildcats. While coach Adam Forde was proud of his unit post-match, the accountability expected on-court from the former Sydney coach could be seen on the sidelines and heard in the nose bleeds.

Majok Deng has played like a league MVP on both ends in stretches over the last two games and was helped by rookie guard Bul Kuol, who has been thrust into the starting line-up. Adelaide castaway Keanu Pinder appears to have embraced his new role under Forde and looks revitalised in new surroundings.

The contrast between round one's 23-point loss to the Cats and their second showing proves their new coach's methods are working in North Queensland.

Crazy to think this undermanned group were just a few possessions away from a 3-1 start to the season.

Which player is likely to breakout in the New Year?

Kane Pitman: After an interrupted offseason, Isaac Humphries is one to watch in Adelaide.

Coming off significant foot and knee issues that began during NBL21, Humphries has made a subdued start to this season. Averaging just 9.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, the 36ers big man is well down on his production last season that saw him average 13.3 points and 7.1 boards per outing.

Logging just under 20 minutes per appearance so far this season, Humphries involvement in the offence has dwindled, with just two free-throw attempts in five games a notable number. Adelaide is scheduled to play on January 12, which will be 25 days since their last outing against Cairns.

If the 36ers are to reverse some troubling results from early in the season, they'll need Humphries to shake off the rust and find his form from a season ago.

Peter Hooley: With COVID having an impact across all sporting leagues, it is going to open the door for many young guys to get a chance on the NBL floor. But for now, let's highlight the play of the rookie, Bul Kuol, for the Taipans.

Without their leader, Tahjere McCall, Cairns went up against the power of the Wildcats extremely undermanned. Everyone expected this game to be ugly, but it was anything but. Majok Deng was fantastic, but Kuol's energy and hustle set the tone from the opening tip. He finished the game with 13 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, as well as doing his very best to harass Bryce Cotton on the other end.

That's what you want to see from players getting extended opportunities, and I think his confidence has only grown from that game. Scott Machado is out a bit longer, which will continue to give Kuol an extended opportunity that perhaps he never would have got, this early in the season.

Josh Garlepp: Wildcat Luke Travers' statistics don't scream NBA draft lock but watching his first six games you can see the 20-year-old finding his way in real-time.

Perth's championship hopes and Travers NBA dream could be somewhat intertwined as the team's youngest squad member keeps building towards finals.

The Rockingham product's biggest concern is shooting, currently just seven per cent from deep (1/14) this season despite more than two attempts per game and wide-open looks created by star imports Bryce Cotton and Vic Law.

Perth's New Year's eve comeback win over Cairns was significantly helped by Travers' length defensively, rebounding and ability to push the offence in transition. He finished with 10 points, five rebounds, four blocks, three steals and countless deflections.

"He has a lot of fans in and around the NBA because he is extremely unique. I don't know this draft class has anyone like him. People see an elite role player at the next level. He's looked at as someone that can star in their role," Travers' agent Daniel Moldovan told ESPN.

"He's still young enough that coaches are making minor tweaks here and there (with his shot) to figure out what works, that is by no means the finished product.