What in the NBA was viewed as a typical lineup change, albeit with the added interest of involving a 2014 lottery pick/ international sensation, was also cause for national pride as Australia continued a historic rise to basketball prominence.
The decision by Quin Snyder to replace incumbent Trey Burke with Dante Exum as the Jazz starting point guard Thursday in Milwaukee — the first time that had happened with Burke healthy — would have been big enough Down Under, where Exum is the embodiment of Australia’s new NBA influence. That his backcourt partner was a fellow Aussie rookie, Joe Ingles, made it an even bigger deal a hemisphere away. And that Snyder’s move came just two games and four days after four Australians were on the floor together for the first time in league history — Ingles and Exum along with Patty Mills and Aron Baynes of the Spurs on Sunday in San Antonio — added to the groundbreaking week back home.
That’s some hot streak for a country that has supported the NBA in impressive ways and has long sent players to North America (Andrew Bogut, Mills, Luc Longley, others) but only in the last couple years has been appreciated for regularly producing top talent. It continued Saturday night in Salt Lake City, where the Jazz stayed with the Exum-Ingles backcourt, and were expected to do so into at least the near future.
The view from Melbourne, via Simon Legg, the chief editor of NBA.com/Australia:
“We’ve seen Patty Mills and Aron Baynes win a championship with the Spurs, Danté Exum get drafted inside the top five — becoming just the second player from Australia to be selected so high, and a record seven players in the NBA over the last seven months. As you can imagine, it’s been an incredibly exciting period for Australian NBA fans. The excitement and the buzz has been around for a little while now, but it felt like it was at fever pitch in the past week as we saw four Australians on an NBA court for the first time, and then Danté and Joe starting together for the second time against the Bucks, and both play well in a gritty victory. Since the season started, the mainstream media has joined in on the excitement, and it’s just continuing to grow as we see new records being created. The Australian fans are very knowledgeable. While they’re excited for Danté, they also know that he has a long way to go and we need to temper our expectations and let his game develop, but the media and the fans are handling his development, and the development of all of our players fairly well. It just gets hard to not be swept up in it sometimes.”
Australia was big business for the NBA even before this, ranking as the No. 1 country outside North America in League Pass subscriptions and No. 1 in eCommerce business heading into 2014-15, according to league officials. The talent pipeline getting stronger in recent years through the Draft and with second-round picks James Ennis (Miami) last season and Jordan McRae (Philadelphia) this season choosing to play there rather than Europe or the D-League adds to the relationship.
“There’s a few things that are helpful,” Scott Levy, the senior vice president and managing director of NBA Asia & India, which overseas Australia and New Zealand, said before the season. “One, it’s a very strong economy. Everyone has credit cards. There’s good Internet penetration, so you can watch a 2½-hour game and have a consistent, secure connection and be able to access that and you can pay for the service as well. That helps. And the consumption by Australians around sports in general – not just NBA, but all sports – if you were to compare that to the amount spent on all sports in any country in the world, Australia would rank right up there at the top per capita. There’s just an incredible passion for sports in that country.”
All-Star weekend will be the next step. Bogut won’t be on the Western Conference squad, but his play with the Warriors has been a major factor in Steve Kerr earning the spot as West coach in New York next month. The Rising Stars Challenge, formerly the rookie sophomore event, could include several players from the region. Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers/Australia) and Steven Adams (Thunder/New Zealand) have a good chance to get picked while Ingles and Exum are both possibilities.