To the casual basketball fan, Friday night’s matchup between the hometown Charlotte Hornets and visiting Oklahoma City Thunder might seem like your normal, run-of-the-mill, mid-January NBA showdown. But half a world away, this contest holds some significant meaning down under in basketball-crazy Australia.
For the first time in a regular season setting, Hornets’ guard LaMelo Ball and Thunder guard Josh Giddey will square off on an NBA hardwood floor. While their respective upbringings in the sport started off quite differently, the paths these two have navigated the past couple years leading up to this point have been strikingly similar.
Ball and Giddey both played their final pre-NBA season in Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL), suiting up for the Illawarra Hawks and Adelaide 36ers, respectively, as part of the ‘Next Stars’ program. These two just narrowly missed each other in the NBL, although did meet in the preseason back in October. Ball played his final game for Illawarra in November of 2019 before a foot injury accelerated his preparations for the 2020 NBA Draft. A few months later, the Melbourne native Giddey signed with Adelaide out of the NBA Global Academy in Canberra.
“[Illawarra] played a game in Canberra where I was based with the NBA Academy,” recalls Giddey. “They had a training session that they let our team watch and that was the first time I ever saw LaMelo in person. At that point, he was a pretty big name worldwide. It was very exciting to watch him in the NBL. [He and fellow Next Star RJ Hampton, now with the Orlando Magic] were a big reason why I chose that pathway to the NBL. Watching the success that LaMelo had with the Hawks got me excited and helped me make my decision.”
Each player was named the NBL Rookie of the Year and became an NBA lottery pick – Ball going 3rd in 2020, Giddey the 6th selection in 2021. To date, the only other NBL Rookie of the Year to experience any sort of long-term sustained success in the NBA was 2007 winner Joe Ingles, although it took him another seven years playing in Spain and Israel to do so. Ball additionally held the record for the youngest player to ever record a triple-double in the NBL (Nov. 25, 2019 vs. Cairns Taipans) and NBA (Jan. 9, 2021 vs. Atlanta), before Giddey came along and broke both (April 26, 2021 at New Zealand Breakers; Jan. 2, 2022 vs. Dallas).
“He broke the record and been going crazy,” says Ball. “I’ve been hearing about him here and there. He’s a young talent that I remember playing against in the preseason. There’s always new talent coming in with the next generation. I feel like its dope seeing new kids come up doing what they love, playing basketball.”
Both players opened their NBA careers by winning consecutive Conference Rookie of the Month awards (Ball actually won three in a row to start, Giddey is currently working on the three-peat). Ball is the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, while Giddey sits 5th on ESPN’s latest Rookie Power Rankings. Both also stand around 6’7” to 6’8” and are exceptional rebounders with skillsets predicated on elite court vision and playmaking.
Says Giddey, “LaMelo is somebody I watched pretty closely before I got to the league. We played against Charlotte in that first preseason game and it was pretty cool to match up against him. He’s been a big name around the world for a long time now, so it’s exciting to go against somebody whose footsteps I essentially followed in with the NBL and the path that we’ve taken. With two Next Stars and high draft picks, I’m sure NBL fans will be excited to watch us.”
Giddey’s parents, Warrick and Kim, played in the NBL and WNBL, so he’s followed the league closely for much of his life. The NBL’s popularity has been quickly trending upwards in recent years, thanks in large part to the Next Stars program. “[LaMelo and RJ] were the first two big American names to come and bring a lot of attention and spotlight to the NBL,” adds Giddey. “It’s a testament to the NBL and how it’s a legitimate pathway not only for young guys, but older guys as well to make it through to the NBA and stick around.”
Despite spending just a few months in the NBL, Ball continues to be an immensely popular sports figure in the country. As for Giddey, he’s likely destined for a starring role on the Men’s Australian National Team – which just won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics for its first-ever major international competition medal – for many years to come. What lies ahead in the NBA might be quite different for these two, but one thing is for certain: LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey share a common, unspoken bond as recent trailblazers for the sport of basketball in Australia.