They might not have known it at the time, but missing out on the signature of Perth Wildcats guard Mitch Norton last year may have been the best thing to happen to the Tasmania JackJumpers.
- Tasmania’s JackJumpers will now face Melbourne United in three semi-finals
- The team’s success has surprised everyone, including NBL head office, which had apparently shipped a raft of play-off-related material and paraphernalia to Perth
- Coach Scott Roth described it as a “once in a lifetime chance”
Keen to recruit an experienced floor general to lead the new franchise, the JackJumpers thought they had their man before the Wildcats swooped in late to secure Norton on a lucrative, three-year deal.
“No doubt it was a sliding doors moment,” said JackJumpers chief Simon Brookhouse.
With Norton off the table, the JackJumpers adjusted their focus and looked abroad for an import point guard.
Tasmania coach Scott Roth already knew the name Josh Magette — the Alabama native who had spent time with the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic in the NBA.
“His name came up early. We knew he was an on-court leader with success all around the world but what we knew most about him was about his character,” Brookhouse said.
“He was a good family man and a good human being.”
Soon, he was signed and relocated his young family to Tasmania.
The wizard of the court
Those inside the JackJumpers describe Magette, who tucks in his jersey and sports a short back and sides, as an “accountant”, and he looks like he might not be out of place serving ice-cream sundaes at a 1950s’ diner.
But Magette’s wizardry isn’t with numbers or working a milkshake machine — it’s with a basketball.
So much so, Roth described the point guard as being able to do things on a basketball court that he hadn’t seen during his decades in the NBA.
“Not Steve Nash, not Steph Curry,” he told reporters at a pre-season practice session in November.
Magette is a conjurer with ball in hand, ranking second in the league for assists per game, but his real asset according to the team, is his mentality.
Always too small, not athletic enough, cut, waived and released by a litany of teams including two NBA clubs, Magette was constantly on the outside looking in, but always kicking the door.
His stubbornness and will to compete is what saw him make a Team USA select team for the Tokyo Olympics, and what made him the perfect fit for Tasmania.
New team sought character
It would become a theme for the new team, who, up against established rival clubs, knew while it might not be able to land the “best” players, it could certainly attract the hungriest.
So, instead of recruiting the smoothest shooters and the biggest rebounders, Tasmania sought another quality: character.
“We had a whiteboard of everybody who was out of contract, and it was as much looking at guys who could come in and build this culture for many years to come. So, we weighed up the people with the right character and the traits that we wanted,” Brookhouse said.
The philosophy has seen Tasmania assemble a team that will remarkably challenge for an NBL championship in its first year and is exemplified by not only Magette, but the likes of local guard Matt Kenyon.
Previously unsigned, Kenyon filled the JackJumpers’ final roster spot, dominating in practice to eventually land a place in the team’s starting five.
His promotion was a masterstroke by Tasmania’s coaching staff, who weaponized his tenacious defence, prompting the team to become the second-best defensive unit in the league, behind only Melbourne United.
As leader of the team’s defence, Kenyon helped force the JackJumpers’ opponents into a league-high 13.1 turnovers a game while conceding the fewest points and racking up a massive 206 steals for the season.
They also forced their opponents to miss 71.8 per cent of 3-point attempts through elite perimeter protection.
‘We’re open to criticism’
Where the JackJumpers really differ though, according to those on the team, is their sense of togetherness.
“We’re open to criticism. We apply it to whatever is going on out there. We have a group of adults who don’t mind the conversation of ‘How can we improve our team? How can we make our best product out there ?'”
Even Roth concedes he is not working with the league’s most-talented roster, but he is sure he is coaching the league’s hungriest.
“The game of basketball is played on the court and not on paper. If it was on paper, we’d be 10th, and our guys understand that,” he said.
Players such as Clint Steindl have flourished under Roth’s grit-and-grind system.
The JackJumpers’ captain followed Roth to Tasmania from Perth, and this season has increased his minutes per game from 15 to 20, and his 3-point percentage from 29 per cent to 36 per cent — numbers that have him nominated as the league’s sixth man of the year.
Largely unheralded makeshift center Fabijan Krslovic is also enjoying a career-best season after being forced to fill the size-13 shoes of the injured Will Magnay.
Meanwhile, Jack McVeigh was lured to Tasmania from Adelaide on the promise of a role tweak that has led to him becoming one of the league’s deadliest big men.
“Coach really saw him as a 4 man, even though he’d been playing as a 3 his whole career,” says JackJumpers’ general manager Jorrick Chivers.
“He sold him a dream that he could make him into one of the best 4 men in the league, and he has probably achieved that.”
Overcoming adversity a team theme
Either by coincidence or design, it’s adversity and a desire to overcome obstacles that links almost every player on the team’s roster.
For Will Magnay, he was being cut by NBA club New Orleans and frustration born out of persistent injuries.
For import Josh Adams, it was a car accident that almost claimed his life, combined with a string of bad experiences while playing in Europe that led to him falling out of love with the game.
There’s also Sam McDaniel, forever in the shadow of his NBL legend father Wayne, desperate to bust out and create his own name and legacy in the state of his birth.
All of these players were carefully hand-picked by the JackJumpers because of a steely mentality forged by life and career-altering circumstances.
“It was about finding guys who fit in with being humble and hungry,” Chivers says.
But recruiting 15 players from scratch also has its challenges, particularly for a new team without a home base nor any history.
“It was about our practice facility, and who is going to be our physio? Who will be our strength and conditioning coach?” Chivers says.
“The guys with families, ‘What is the area like? Are there schools? Childcare?’ And with the players, ‘What’s my role going to be?’
“I guess being a small market and a new team, guys were nervous.”
Success took everyone by surprise
The success of the team has surprised everyone, including those at NBL head office.
So unprepared for a JackJumpers finals berth, the league had apparently already shipped a raft of play-off-related material and paraphernalia to Perth on the assumption the Wildcats would defeat the Phoenix and secure fourth place.
Back in Tasmania, bedlam has also ensued, with ticketing issues plaguing the lead up to Saturday’s second play-off game in Hobart as fans clamour for limited seats.
The experience is just as new to the organization as it is for the team’s legion of fans.
“We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I’ve said we’re going over expecting to win. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. You never know when you’ll be back in the final four, so let’s try and win it all.”
If Tasmania is unable to progress past Melbourne United in the best of three semi-finals, it certainly won’t be from a lack of heart and effort.