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Takeaways from the NBL Blitz: Baynes shows his class as Rupert draws NBA interest

The 2022 NBL Blitz was like a mini NBA Summer League.

Like in Vegas, it was hot all the damn time, and practically the entire NBL fraternity was in the one city - usually the one building, too: Darwin Basketball Stadium -- to get a sense of what the upcoming season may look like.

Now, it's dangerous to overreact to any sort of preseason basketball. Teams are still growing, new players haven't had time to settle, and some teams -- hello, Cairns Taipans -- choose to show as little as possible.

Still, there are indicators you can take from the games, and even more based on conversations with the league's coaches, players, and executives when the ball isn't bouncing.

Here are some of the key things we learned from the NBL's annual preseason tournament.

The Baynes impact

Aron Baynes' third defensive possession in a Brisbane Bullets jersey was a sight to behold.

The Bullets opened the game in a drops coverage; not unusual in the NBL. Tyler Johnson chased New Zealand's Barry Brown over a little brush screen and fouled the Breakers import at the rim.

"Get out of the lane!" Baynes shouted at Johnson, with vigour, about two feet from his teammate's face. It was aggressive. Perhaps too aggressive, considering he's no longer directing that emotion toward NBA veterans; and Baynes admitted as much after the game. He's passionate and excited to be back playing basketball, and clearly went through a learning process over the week with regard to how to most effectively communicate with his teammates.

Thus far, though, there's reason to believe it's working. The way Baynes wants his team to defend is clear. He wants any and all potential drives directed his way, where he can use a mixture of fundamentals and his physical density to keep opponents out of the paint.

From what we've seen, Baynes already looks like the best rim deterrent in the NBL, and has been in deep conversation with officials all week with regard to how best to avoid fouling in the league. Opposition attempts in the paint will more than likely be at an all-time low for this Bullets team, and that defensive identity will be the crux of what may finally be the first playoff team since the franchise returned to the league in 2016.

Rayan Rupert and Darwin's NBA presence

The Blitz being in Darwin didn't stop a host of NBA teams from sending representatives to watch the action, and the obvious player they were in town to see was Rayan Rupert.

A total of seven NBA teams sent representatives to the Blitz, sources told ESPN; they were the Washington Wizards, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets, and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Rupert, the French wing who came in at No. 22 on ESPN's most recent 2023 mock draft, is the New Zealand Breakers' latest Next Star, and helped his stock in a big way over the week.

Rupert guarded as advertised, while showing a shooting touch that will likely be his swing skill going into draft season. The sample size was always going to be small but Rupert looked comfortable as a spot-up shooter from the corners and wings, and showed off a surprising ability to make live-ball passes off ball-screens.

The 18-year-old looked remarkably polished for his age and will likely be given even more of an opportunity due to Thomas Abercrombie's (eye) extended absence. Word out of the Breakers camp is that Rupert is an extremely hard worker, and has already gained the confidence of his head coach, Mody Maor.

New and improved Luke Travers

Bryce Cotton is the Perth Wildcats' most important player, but Luke Travers might not be too far behind, because he looks to have turned into an elite Swiss-army-knife-type player for John Rillie's team.

We knew Travers brought a unique skill set for his size -- an impressive passer, versatile defender, and elite rebounder on both ends -- but he's clearly playing with a new sense of confidence, which is only enhancing all of those attributes.

"I'm a similar player," Travers told ESPN. "It's just that my whole mentality has changed.

"Experience is the best lesson in life, so being in America by myself was a big change for me, and obviously being drafted helped the confidence as well."

The 21-year-old, who was just drafted with the No. 56 pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers, has clearly taken the type of leap that legitimately puts him in the conversation for the best local players, and should be among the frontrunners for the NBL's Best Defensive player award.

"I'm just embracing my role of being a defensive stopper," Travers said. "I'm trying to impact the game in as many ways as I can; we're a stacked team, so being able to chip in in any way I can, especially on the defensive end, is definitely something I'm looking to do."

The Wildcats have put together a really talented and balanced roster -- it's not unreasonable to consider them the very early favourites to win it all -- and Travers is their versatile two-way force, and the glue that holds it all together.

Injuries suck

Injuries, especially when they come in inconsequential games, are the worst.

Thomas Abercrombie didn't even last a minute in his first Blitz game, catching an inadvertent Baynes arm in the eye; the Breakers captain tore his left retina and had to be flown to Auckland that evening for emergency surgery. The Breakers are expecting him to miss at least six weeks, sources said, and are already engaging with potential injury replacements.

Then, there was heartbreak for Ariel Hukporti, who suffered a ruptured left Achilles, ruling him out for the entirety of the upcoming NBL season. Hukporti was a projected late second-rounder and had ample opportunity to lift his stock over the course of what would've been his second campaign with United; that won't happen now, with the German centre with no choice but to eye the 2024 NBA Draft as an auto-entrant.

South East Melbourne's injury woes got even worse when Gary Browne went down with a knee injury that's expected to sideline him for a reasonable amount of time, with Simon Mitchell's team looking mightily thin going into their season opener against the Tasmania JackJumpers on October 1.

Early import assessment

Again, the Blitz doesn't exist for us to take away giant conclusions, but observations and indications are helpful, especially when assessing how some teams may start the regular season.

The biggest rumblings around the stadium over the week regarded both Melbourne teams.

The jury remains out on whether the Phoenix's Browne is at the level of the elite point guards we've seen come through the NBL over the past few seasons, and his new injury obviously doesn't help him or the team moving forward.

For the Phoenix, though, bigger question marks surround Alan Williams, who's following in the footsteps of many import centres before him who struggled to stay out of foul trouble. With Trey Kell and Ryan Broekhoff set to miss the start of the season, too, the Phoenix are going to have trouble getting -- and keeping -- their best players on the floor. Can they stay afloat until everyone is healthy and their imports have settled in?

For United, the question was more about how to make the most of each import's strengths. All three of Melbourne's Americans have gone through some growing pains throughout the preseason, but their potential was on display in their second Blitz game against the Wildcats.

The insertion of Chris Goulding -- and usually another complementary shooter on top of that -- widened the floor for Rayjon Tucker to get into the lane, where he's most effective. It also created an environment for Xavier Rathan-Mayes to get to his spots and create for himself and others. Jordan Caroline is yet to find his touch, or where he can be effective in this league, but there's reason to believe he has a lot of value for a team that now desperately needs another quality inside presence.

As for new imports that have looked undeniably impressive: the game seems to slow down for the Taipans' DJ Hogg, and he's already shown to be an elite shot-maker. For the JackJumpers, there's reason to believe the combination of Milton Doyle and Rashard Kelly, both of whom have slotted in seamlessly for Scott Roth's team, will be more effective than the Josh Adams and MiKyle McIntosh duo.

Melbourne's Tucker is also worth mentioning again; he's supremely athletic and clearly one of the most gifted imports in the league this season. If he can make his skillset work within United's structure, then the ceiling for that team would be sky high.

Officiating and why there's reason for hope

Something interesting happened around the midway-point of the Blitz. For the first half of the tournament, the irritation toward officiating was visceral on the baseline where the league's coaches and executives watched games. It was a mixture of exasperation and confusion, largely pointed at how travels were being called, as well as the execution of the new blocking foul rules.

While that feeling didn't completely go away, it did diminish as the second half of the week came round. The consistency from the officials slightly improved, and the definition of what a travel was at least became somewhat discernible.

There appeared to be some level of self-correction. It comes with repetitions, but also because of the fact that Scott Butler, the league's head of referees, watched every game of the Blitz from the offices atop the stands, and he was flanked by veteran NBA official, Ronnie Nunn, who was in Darwin on a consulting basis.

The improvements, however small, were noticeable, and that's a good thing. There's still a long way to go, but it's definitely progress of a kind.