From Phoenix to the Phoenix, South East Melbourne has signed its centre for NBL23.
Former NBA big man Alan Williams, who was born and bred in the Valley of the Sun, will wear the laser green of the NBL’s Phoenix after inking a one-year deal in the Heartland, replacing departing Chinese tower Zhou Qi.
A much-loved figure at the Suns, the 203cm, 120kg double-double machine is a wide load who, at his best, owns the paint.
He looms as a massive piece in South East Melbourne’s revamped roster, completing a starting five of import guards Gary Browne and Trey Kell, with former Boomers and NBA men Mitch Creek and Ryan Broekhoff.
Time to get the hell out of Dodge
Williams has a unique perspective on the conflict in the Ukraine.
He was playing for Lokomotiv Kuban in the VTB United League when Russian forces invaded their neighbour.
It was an uncertain time, his team was suspended from EuroCup competition and he decided it was time to head home to Phoenix.
“It all happened pretty fast, it was a stall in play and all of a sudden the invasion took place and then it was just week-by-week — it got more and more difficult to be out there as a foreigner,” he said.
“Credit cards stopped working, service was shoddy on the cell phone. I didn’t feel unsafe in the city that I was in but, at the same time, when the country that you’re playing in is involved in a conflict like that, you never know what’s going to happen.
“Rather than wait around and figure that out, I chose to exit the situation and get to a place where I felt comfortable back home.”
The son of two pillars of his community — dad Cody is a judge and mum Jeri is the chief of police back home — Williams had a strong upbringing and says “war is never the answer”.
“I don’t believe that war is something that should be happening in 2022,” he said.
“It affects way too many people around the world, (it would be better) if we could just make sure that there was a way to handle all situations diplomatically, instead of going to war.
The NBA and living in the moment
The 29-year-old won’t call it a redemption tour, but ill-timed injuries are part of Williams’ story.
He refuses to be defined by them, even if surgeries cruelled a promising young NBA career as a homegrown hero at the Suns. On the cusp, in 2017, of his first chance at an expanded NBA role, Williams landed on a teammate’s foot and tore his meniscus, sidelining him for six months. Fully recovered, but without an NBA deal, he became one of the best big men in Europe, but a ruptured patella in 2020 hampered his time in Russia.
He refuses to blame the injuries for the lost NBA chance and says he has lived and breathed the gym since March, insisting it’s the fittest he’s been in years.
“I am where I am because that’s where I’m supposed to be,” he said.
“I know that sounds kind of cliche but at the end of the day that’s how I look at it.
“I still get to play the game of basketball that I love and to be able to do it down in Australia is really exciting to me.”
Williams knows there has been a procession of hoopers who have used the NBL as a stepping stone to — and back to — the NBA.
But that’s not on his mind.
“My past is tough with the injuries and I can’t tell the future, so I really enjoy the process of getting to that next space and that means living in the moment and cherishing it while you get it,” he said.
“Whatever takes place after this season, based on my performance, based on the team’s performance, will take place, but to think about that and worry about that, I wouldn’t be able to give my best effort to the club that I’m a part of.
“I obviously have aspirations to be the best basketball player in the world but, right now, I’m locked in on this season with South East Melbourne.
“So I’m excited for the opportunity to get to show I’m 1: all the way healthy and 2: can help the club try to go out and win a championship.”
Creeky and the fans
Williams, in 2018-19 split time between the Brooklyn Nets and their G League affiliate Long Island.
He’s excited to be reunited with former teammate Mitch Creek at the Phoenix.
“Having a chance to play with Mitch Creek in Long Island was special,” he said.
“I had a couple of conversations once the interest started rising on both sides, he was really adamant about getting me out here and join the team and gave me all the positives the city of Melbourne brings as well as the great things this team is trying to do.”
Williams put up gaudy numbers in the G League, averaging over 20 points and 13 boards in his season with Creek, and brings a passing element out of the post.
He’s eager to meet the Firepit faithful.
“They’re going to get everything I have, I can’t wait to be able to go out there in front of these passionate fans that I know South East Melbourne has,” he said.
“They’re going to get everything — you’re going to get a lot of rebounds, you’re going to get physicality, you’re going to get toughness, you’re going to get leadership, you’re going to get access to me, the opportunity to meet me and hang out.
“Anywhere I go, I try to be involved with the community, so as soon as I get down I plan on trying to do that.”
Who is ‘Big Sauce’?
Behind Williams in his zoom call is a huge portrait of a sauce bottle with his nickname ‘Big Sauce’ on it.
He wishes he had a more engrossing story to tell about how he got his nickname, but basically it came from his brother, an artist, who drew a caricature of him and his friends on a road trip and called his ‘Big Sauce’.
“Sauce comes from swag or style and I put it on my Twitter one day and just ran with it — it’s stuck with me ever since and I’ve got the artwork to match,” he said.
He’s headed down under with his partner of three years Cassidy Kitterman and is looking forward to checking out all Australia has to offer.
“My girlfriend and I probably went on three or four different trips this summer, just going out and travelling on the road and enjoying life,” he said.
“I am good energy, a lot of fun, I like to enjoy life, I like to cook, I like to eat. Whether it be movie watching, hiking, or going out on a boat I’m up for all of it.”
Life after hoops
Don’t be surprised if you see Williams pop up on some NBL broadcasts — and he’s set to be a media darling.
The guy oozes charisma and has a goal of moving into broadcasting, once his career is done on the court.
“I’d love to get a chance to get in front of the camera and talk about the game of basketball in Australia,” he said.
“I feel like I’m pretty articulate in the way I can communicate my feelings and what I see in that kind of sense so it just lines up as the perfect segue after I’m done playing.
“If there’s an opportunity to get out there and broadcast or get in front of the camera with a microphone and talk about basketball, I’m all in.
“I need to get my Australian rules football rule book out so I can start talking about that too,” he laughed.
Best passer in the NBA: Creek’s call after Giddey battles
Boom Aussie teenager Josh Giddey is already arguably the best passer in the NBA and on a trajectory to be an All Star.
That’s the belief of South East Melbourne Phoenix star Mitch Creek after he spent time going head-to-head with the 19-year-old Oklahoma City phenom in California.
Creek, Giddey, New Orleans Pelicans lottery pick Dyson Daniels and former Illawarra Hawks import Xavier Rathan-Mayes worked out under the tutelage of master skills coach Jordan Lawley.
Creek says the detail Giddey puts into his game, coupled with his thirst to learn and willingness to work hard are keys for a player who already possesses boundless talent and a unique frame and physical qualities at his position.
“It was a lot of fun getting into it with Josh, we played a lot of one-on-one stuff, a lot of scenarios, shooting, it was good to go against him,” Creek said.
“He’s got such a bright future ahead. He’s a 6’8”-6’9” point guard who can pass probably better than anyone in the league, with both hands in every scenario. He can get on the rim, defend, is long, is strong, has all the tools.
“He’s just such a smart guy. He works really hard, he wants to work on his weaknesses right now and he wants to help himself become a better player and that’s why he’s going to be successful.
“I think one day we’ll see him get to a point where he’ll be an All Star.”
Giddey’s jump shot has improved markedly on his time in the NBL, but is still a small chink in the armour that Creek says has been a focus for Irvine-based Lawley, who is one of the most coveted skills coaches in the US.
“There’s not many guys who want to go in and say ‘I shoot a pretty decent clip and I did OK last year, but I’m not happy with OK, I want to go in and work and get better’,” Creek said.
“JLaw’s helping him with every single shot, every single rep and just making him better.”
Creek knows a thing or two about figuring out how to put the ball in the bucket from deep, once candidly admitting he was a “horrific” shooter who now knocks them down at a high clip.
The 30-year-old revealed he’d struggled through debilitating plantar fasciitis last season and spent two months rehabbing before jetting off to play in Puerto Rico.
“I had small tears, it was into my heel, I couldn’t walk in the mornings, I couldn’t get up and go to the toilet in the middle of the night without having to take my time and walk on the side of my foot because it was so bad,” Creek said.
“I had really good help from Tony Massarotti and the team at The Foot Lab in Ringwood and that was probably a saving grace because without them I wouldn’t have been able to play. I owe him everything.”
Creek will play in the $1 million TBT competition with the Floyd Mayweather-backed The Money Team, alongside former Phoenix teammate Xavier Munford, ex-Perth Wildcats import Terrico White and NBA-experience Jimmer Fredette, Trevor Booker and Jeremy Evans, before returning to Melbourne for pre-season.
He’s excited to take the Phoenix back to their spiritual home after the club, on Friday, announced three games at the State Basketball Centre in Wantirna South.
They’ll host Brisbane on January 16, Perth on January 22 and Cairns on January 25 in front of fans in the Heartland for the first time since February 11 last year.
“That’s going to be awesome, every time you play there, it’s sold out,” Creek said.
“Being in the south east it’s the best place to play for us — I’d love to play all our games there, that’s home for us.”
He’ll have a couple of talented new teammates in import guards Gary Browne and Trey Kell.
“I’ve seen Gary play in Puerto Rico and for the national team and he’s a great point guard, really great guy, really hard worker, plays his arse off defensively,” Creek said.
“Then we’ve got a shooter there who maybe not as many people have heard of him, but from what I’ve heard and the questions I’ve asked from some pretty significant people in basketball around the world is he’s an absolute terror, can shoot the ball, can get on the rim and score at a high level and is going to be an absolute problem in the NBL.
“I’m excited to get to work with those guys and hopefully do something special this year.”
Creek still doesn’t know what best bud Zhou Qi, who was in Melbourne recently with the Chinese national team for FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, is planning next season, but hopes he’s in Phoenix colours in NBL23.
“Zhou and I still talk, we stay in touch, we text, we call here and there, we send stupid memes to each other,” he said.
“I’d like to see him back at Phoenix but I support whatever he does.”
Does new import make Phoenix backcourt NBL’s toughest?
South East Melbourne boss Tommy Greer believes the Phoenix will have one of the toughest backcourts in the NBL with the signing of Syrian international Trey Kell.
The American-born shooting guard put his scribble on a one-year deal to join Puerto Rican point man Gary Browne in what the Phoenix hope will be a key ingredient in a title-winning recipe.
San Diego State product Kell heard good things about the organisation from friend and fellow Spartans alum Yanni Wetzell, a former member of the Phoenix.
“I believe I can bring to the team a well-rounded player that can do a bit of everything, a high IQ and that can impact winning in many ways,” he said.
“I really enjoyed the conversation I had with the staff and was excited to be part of their vision.”
The 26-year-old, birth name George Earl, is a US college alum of San Diego State and has grafted an impressive CV all over the world, including in Bosnia, Canada, Hong Kong, Poland and Italy.
It is with Italian clubs Varese and Milano he caught the eye of Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell.
“Love the two-way ability of Trey, we were blown away with the defensive tenacity he displayed in the EuroLeague,” Mitchell said.
“He can shoot the ball, work out of the pick and roll, is explosive at the rim, passes well and makes great decisions.
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“On the defensive side, he will be thrown the tough assignments.
“I love his intensity, his length and agility and am pleased he will be joining Phoenix for NBL23.”
Kell said he’d never been to Australia but was excited to get a taste of life Down Under and test himself in the NBL.
“Being from San Diego, people tell me they are similar, and if that’s the case, I will be excited to experience it myself,” he said.
“I’ve also heard nothing but great things about the league from players I know that have played there.
“I am very excited to experience it for myself because I truly haven’t heard one negative about it.”
Greer believes the diverse combination of Kell, Browne, captain Kyle Adnam and new addition Junior Madut will fortify his side.
“We are really excited to have a player of Trey’s quality joining the roster,” Greer said.
“Alongside Gary Browne and our local Australian talent, we believe they will be one of the toughest back courts in the league.”
Teen gun knocks back US college for rising Phoenix
Young gun Owen Foxwell had planned to test his abilities on the US college stage.
But a taste of NBL action last season with South East Melbourne was enough to convince him the Aussie league was where his future lay.
Foxwell, 19, has signed a development player deal with the Phoenix for NBL23, after he was called on to play in a number of games last season.
“I had a few offers from colleges, but no offers that fit perfectly for me,” the Bulleen boy said.
“When it came down to college over the NBL, the NBL was the best choice for me, and I am excited to be coming back again.
“The game time I received (last season) impacted my decision, but I also enjoyed the environment that the Phoenix provided.
“The confidence (coach) Simon (Mitchell), the club, and the rest of the staff have in me was also great.
“Those factors made me love my year, and I was keen to come back.”
Mitchell said the plucky 187cm point guard had “fully met and superseded all of our expectations”.
“It’s always great to see a local kid step up to the challenge of professional sport, and I feel these are the first steps in a long and successful career for Owen,” Mitchell said.
One year on, Phoenix get their floor general
But not in the case of South East Melbourne and its new point guard Gary Browne.
The floor general who, last year, caught the eye of coach Simon Mitchell while leading the Puerto Rican national team, has inked a one-season deal with the Phoenix.
The former West Virginia captain was at the top of Phoenix’s list and projects as a set-up man who excels at getting his own shot in pressure situations — something they desperately lacked last season.
“I’m going to bring leadership to the team,” Browne said.
“I know what I can do individually but I also know what I can do collectively, where I can help my team to be better.
“My whole thing is to make the guys better. I don’t worry about myself as much as I worry how good they are doing.
“It’s a team sport, It’s not about if one guy plays well every night, it’s about everyone playing together so we can win games, go to the playoffs and make it through to the finals.”
Browne has had pro stops in Puerto Rico, Israel, Italy and Turkey and owns a piece of his country’s basketball history — his 2019 three against Tunisia in the dying moments put Puerto Rico through to the second round of the FIBA World Cup.
Mitchell said the pair, last year, “hit it off” in a video call and it was an easy decision to ink the 185cm guard when he became available.
“We talked for an hour and we barely spoke basketball, we immediately fell into a groove,” Mitchell said.
“He already had a contract on the table in Turkey, so the timing just didn’t add up.
“I kept an eye on him during the year and thoroughly loved what he was doing.”
Browne isn’t a billboard name — yet — but Mitchell says Phoenix fans will be pleasantly surprised at abilities he calls “world class”.
“He just runs a team the right way on every possession, both sides of the ball. It’s a rare skill,” Mitchell said.
“It used to be what everybody looked for, now they look for wingspan and athletic ability.
“This guy is a throwback to when point guards ran your team.”
The 29-year-old has never been to Australia but said he already felt a familiarity with Mitchell and the Phoenix.
“Me and coach spoke about our family and about his kids and we had a great conversation,” Browne said.
“I think it goes a little bit further than basketball, I think we got to know each other in a short amount of time.
“In some way, we have been able to connect, have great chats and they show me how great it is to be part of the franchise and how great the guys are on the team.”
Mitchell said he’d love to lock away Chinese centre Zhou Qi to return for NBL23, but there are reportedly moves in the Chinese league to defuse the issues that led to a dispute with his team Xinjiang that could throw a spanner in the works.
Qi’s decision to skip the 2021-22 Chinese Basketball Association season opened the door for the Phoenix to swoop.
‘Full circle moment’ as Phoenix sign college whiz kid
A training stint during South East Melbourne’s inaugural NBL season has provided young Aussie Junior Madut with a “full circle moment”.
Sudan-born Madut, an athletic two-way guard-forward with deep shooting range out of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has inked a two-year contract with the Phoenix.
Madut, in 2019, was part of South East Melbourne’s talent-recognition program, training and interacting with the senior team, before jetting off to Honolulu to play with the Rainbow Warriors.
Coach Simon Mitchell kept a close eye on the Blacktown, Sydney-raised Madut, who felt a return to the club was destiny after his previous experience.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Madut, who averaged 10.7 points and 4.2 rebounds in college, said.
“I’ve been talking to Simon, talking to a lot of the guys throughout the couple of years I have been at Hawaii.
“We’ve always had that relationship and it’s (South East Melbourne) always a place that I’d seen myself coming to.
“I definitely got into the culture, it’s a good group of guys. It was always fun being around them
“It’s exciting coming back.”
Madut, who counted Sydney Kings guard Biwali Bayles as a teammate in Hawaii, is currently training in Chicago but will arrive for pre-season. He will have a close friend in Melbourne embarking on his own professional sporting journey — college teammate Mate Colina was, last year, drafted by AFL club Richmond.
Mitchell said he was eager to bring the 25-year-old in as a full-fledged pro.
“Junior is someone very familiar with the Phoenix team,” Mitchell said.
“He brings great intensity and athleticism to our back-court on both sides of the ball.
“A tough defender with great lateral speed and is really competitive, always wanting the toughest match-ups.
“Junior can score from the perimeter, get on the rim and is great at getting out on the break where he can finish above the rim or create for others.
“He is a kid with great potential to be a long term pro.”
Born: Juba, South Sudan
Raised: Blacktown, Sydney
College: University of Hawaii at Manoa
Awarded Rainbow Warriors Ah Chew Goo Most Inspirational Award last season.
Averaged 10.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2 assists per game in 2021-22
Represented South Sudan at 2021 FIBA Afrobasket
‘Nix give Kiwi way out
Dynamic South East Melbourne defender Izayah Le’Afa has been granted a release from the final year of his contract at the Phoenix.
The 25-year-old Kiwi guard has spent the past two seasons at the Phoenix, the first as a development player, before, last season, winning a full roster spot and a two-year deal.
He averaged 9 points, 2 assists and 1 steal in NBL22 and has signed with New Zealand on a two-year deal.
The Breakers have been targeting New Zealand-born players under new coach Mody Maor, with King Tom Vodanovich, Tom Abercrombie, Rob Loe, Sam Timmins and Dan Fotu locked in to NBL23.
The Kiwis have also secured sharpshooter Cam Gliddon from the Phoenix on a two-year deal.
‘Glizzo’ is one of the NBL’s nice guys, having spent the past two seasons at the Phoenix, following stints in Cairns, then Brisbane, winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal with the Boomers along the way.
The deadeye marksman’s NBL22 campaign was cruelled by injury, Covid and illness.
Creek, Mitchell recommit to Phoenix
One of the NBL’s biggest free agents is off the market after Mitch Creek made good on his commitment to South East Melbourne — and his coach will be back, too.
Creek, 30, has been locked away on a three-year deal, while Simon Mitchell has been handed an extra 12 months by the Phoenix, coach and player signing on together in a show of solidarity they hope will be the genesis of an NBL title run.
Mitchell, last year, guided the Phoenix to the precipice of the NBL grand final but endured questions about his future after his team missed this year’s top four, despite an 11-5 start.
“I made it clear if I was going to be playing in the NBL it wouldn’t be anywhere else as long as we could find a mutual respect between myself and the club and they have always done that from day one,” Creek said.
“Once I heard Simon was committing, I was jumping back on board straight away.
“I know who he is, so I support him and stand by him and his ability to coach and make us a championship team.
“There’s a lot of people who were really hard on him. I’ve been in that situation as well and, understandably, I put a lot of support and a lot of trust in him.”
Mitchell said he was aware of the noise about his future after the Phoenix could not maintain their early season dominance and lost all but four of their last 11 games, following leader Ryan Broekhoff’s shoulder injury.
“We’ve had a bad season, so there will always be a little bit of ‘need a new coach’,” Mitchell said.
“We’re (he and the club) comfortable with a one-year deal. It’s more like an extension at the end of the season.
“I think the way that they’re looking at it is ‘OK, we think you’ll do well, we think you’re going to be a good team next season, let’s do the one and we can re-up at the end of it’.
“I want to make sure this club’s in the best position to win. If I feel like I’m not the man for the job, then I want to be able to walk away without a conscience.
“Losing Rowdy was certainly an eye-opener for us and it will be my job to make sure we’re not as reliant on him moving forward. I’m excited to bring back the core of this group and mount another challenge.”
Phoenix boss Tommy Greer was naturally pleased to ink both coach and player.
“Simon is one of the hardest working coaches in the NBL, his peers respect him, and the players love playing for him,” Greer said.
“As a club, we believe continuity is important, and Simon is the right man to lead the team into NBL23.
“Mitch had his best year yet on the court and was again in the MVP conversation for much of the season.
“In addition to that, he continued to connect with our fans off-court and remains a favourite player among the Heartland faithful.”
There is a synergy in personality between Creek and Mitchell. But the coach believes it is their differences that have brought them together.
Talk to Mitchell and he feels like there is unfinished business after the disastrous finish to last season. Creek doesn’t agree.
“There’s a lot of chemistry there for sure,” Mitchell said
“Off the court we get along and we’ve got a good basketball relationship on the court.
“We do have the ability to challenge each other and that’s good, that’s healthy, and I think it’s a good match.”
Creek has made an effort to put the basketball away since the end of the season, instead hopping states to catch up with family in Brisbane, friends in Adelaide, some promotional work in Sydney — and some track time at Eastern Creek.
“I’ve literally done one shooting session at (former Adelaide 36ers coach) Joey Wright’s place that he’s got in Adelaide for about 45 minutes and that was it,” he said.
“Preparation starts now and taking time off is a key to having a great season. You need to refresh your mind and your body.”
Horsham-born Creek averaged 20.46 points and 5.75 rebounds for the Phoenix last season, was named in the All-NBL Second Team and won the club’s MVP award. His contract contains an NBA out clause.
Originally published as SEM NBL contract news: Former Phoenix Suns NBA big man Alan Williams signs with Phoenix
South East Melbourne NBL contract news: Former Phoenix Suns NBA player Alan Williams signs with SEM Source link South East Melbourne NBL contract news: Former Phoenix Suns NBA player Alan Williams signs with SEM