So close, yet so far…an old saying but one so very, very true of the Taipans last season. The National Basketball League Grand Final Series was theirs for the taking, until New Zealand Breakers import Ekene Ibekwe had a sensational last few plays.
The Taipans had a great season on the back of import Scottie Wilbekin who lit up the NBL last season. He was on track to come back to Cairns but played really well through the NBA Summer League for the Philadelphia 76ers and has since been picked up by them and could be playing NBA basketball next month.
The good thing with the Taipans is that they are very good at keeping the same players from season to season. Cameron Tragardh, Alex Loughton, Cam Gliddon and Shaun Bruce are some of those players. Their depth also served to get them to the top of the ladder and into the NBL Grand Final Series against the New Zealand Breakers.
The Cairns Taipans roster for the upcoming season is (expected starting five named first):
C: Alex Loughton, Matt Burston
PF: Mark Worthington, Cameron Tragardh
SF: Stephen Weigh, Torrey Craig
SG: Cameron Gliddon, Shaun Bruce
PG: Markel Starks, Damon Heuir
Alex Loughton gets the nod ahead of Matt Burston in the centre position, even though Burston could be (and has been) a starter for a number of teams in the league over his career.
Loughton had a bit of a down year by his standards, he averaged 11.2ppg, 4.5rpg, 1.6apg and shot 39.6% from the field while shooting 33.1% from three point land. He’s got a nice mid-range jump shot, especially from the baseline and he can step out to hit a few threes in a game. If he gets good position at the ring he is able to battle with the majority of players and get the rebounds, if he can’t get that position then he can struggle to have an impact.
As mentioned Matt Burston sits behind Loughton on the depth chart. Playing approx. 20 minutes per game last season, Burston finished with averages of 7ppg, 5.2rpg, 1apg and shot at a 53.9% clip from the field. His 5.2rpg was good enough for second best in the team, behind another player who came off the bench Torrey Craig. The strength of his game comes from his shots down low, he has a nice hook shot from the post and an ok jump shot out to the mid range. A slight knock on him would be that he doesn’t block enough shots and that is something that the Taipans could use a bit more of if the perimeter defenders aren’t able to keep the lanes closed.
New recruit Mark Worthington (Melbourne United) will get the starting nod for his new team. The winner of the first club MVP for the “new” Melbourne team has come to the Taipans, a fan base that has usually been fairly vocal against him but would no doubt love having his effort and talent out on the court.
Last season he averaged 12.6ppg, 7.2rpg, 2.7apg and shot the ball at 48% from the field. He was the leading rebounder for the Melbourne team and will definitely help pick up the overall Taipans team rebounding statistics. He also gives them another ball handler on the court for when opposing defences decide to apply full court pressure or traps, he provides them with an “out” pass to someone who still has decent handles.
Cameron Tragardh is the ultimate sixth man in the NBL, albeit one who can definitely perform as a starting player. In fact, he won the NBL Sixth Man of the Year award last season on the back of averaging 12.1ppg, 4.8rpg, 1apg and shot 50.3% from the field. If there is one area of his game that let’s him down, it’s his free throw shooting. Throughout his decade long career in the NBL he has only shot 70% or better from the charity stripe twice and his career average is 61%. He is unbeatable in the low post and in isolation plays down low, he has a million different drop steps, fade-aways, fakes, hooks and various other moves that are a basketball lovers dream.
Stephen Weigh will get the start at the small forward position for the Taipans but it really is a timeshare between himself and import Torrey Craig. Last season Weigh played a total of 683 minutes (average of 21mpg) and Craig played 634 minutes (average of 19mpg), so this is one of the few cases where the starter and bench player contribute almost identical amounts of time on the court.
Weigh averaged 8.1ppg, 3.2rpg, 1apg and shot the ball at 44.6% from the field and hit pretty much a third of his three point attempts for the season. He’s a player that always seems to lift in pressure moments and big games, giving the Taipans another option they can rely on if their big name players are lacking a little in a game.
Torrey Craig returns to the Taipans on the back of winning the MVP award in the NZNBL during the NBL off-season. He was a bit on-and-off during the previous season and that could have frustrated the local fans. He started the season off with a 19pt, 7rbd, 3ast, 2stl and 1blk performance that would have had fans excited. However he followed that up with a 3pt, 4rbd, 1ast game.
For the season he averaged 8.9ppg, 5.7rpg, 1.2apg and shot the ball at 47% from the field. He led the team in rebounding but overall they will be looking for more consistency from him because when he was on song, the whole team was flying.
Cameron Gliddon is one of the big shooting threats on this Taipans team and he got called into the Boomers squad for the recent Olympic Qualifiers against New Zealand, after an injury to Damian Martin. He averaged 10.5ppg, 4.5rpg, 2.5apg and shot at 38.6% from the field with approx. a third of his three point attempts dropping. With players like Worthington, Loughton, Tragardh and Starks able to get their way into the key, Gliddon will have plenty of opportunities for open long range shots.
Shaun Bruce will play a bit of a combo role off the bench, backing up both Gliddon and Markel Starks at the point guard position. He averaged 3.7ppg, 1.5rpg and 1.7apg in his 31 games for the season.
His best assist game came against Melbourne United where he dished out eight assists in 19 minutes, he’s a very good passer and will always look for a pass before a shot.
New import Markel Starks takes the place of NBA bound Scottie Wilbekin. In his final year of college at Georgetown in 2013/2014, he averaged 17.3ppg, 2.3rpg, 4.1apg and shot the ball at 41.2% from the field and 32.6% from beyond the arc. Over the past year he has played in Italy for Ferentino where he averaged 14.7ppg, 2.4rpg and 4apg over the season.
He’ll be expected to come in and play similarly to Scottie Wilbekin in that he needs to be able to defend well, run the offense in an unselfish manner (like the rest of the Taipans team) and attack at the right moments. Comparisons to Wilbekin will always come after the season he had in the NBL before being called to the NBA, however they are two different players that will be asked to play a similar style, as mentioned earlier.
Damon Heuir was a development player for the Taipans last season and the staff have seen enough in him during the off-season to grant him a spot in the rotation. He’ll see limited minutes but played well in the off-season for the QBL side Cairns Marlins, averaging 14.9ppg, 5.5rpg and 3.1apg.
The Taipans have improved on their depth even though their depth was very good last season. The addition of Mark Worthington is a big one for a side that struggled at times on the boards, remember that Worthington was the lead rebounder for Melbourne United (7.2rpg).
They pride themselves on being a highly defensive team and led the league in opponent points against. With the personnel changes they’ve had, minimal as they are, the new players will need to buy into the Taipans tough defensive game style. If that happens, they could find themselves pushing for the silverware once again.