A GREAT strength of the South West Slammers is that it’s hard to split who their MVP is between Tre Nichols, Brian Voelkel, Michael Lay and Clive Weeden as they chase a top four spot in the Men’s SBL and look to contend for the 2017 championship.
The Slammers have been playing as well as anyone in the Men’s SBL since losing their opening four games of the season and with Voelkel getting settled back into the line-up after giving the UK a try in 2016 and then having to sit for the first three games of 2017.
Voelkel has picked up right where he left off having a remarkable all-round impact for the Slammers but he is far from a one-man show. The back court of Nichols and Lay is on fire as they’ve developed their chemistry and veteran big man Weeden is doing a power of work inside.
Those four are a major reason why the Slammers have won 13 of their last 18 games to sit in fourth position ahead of Saturday night’s home clash with the fifth placed Stirling Senators.
Coach Charles Nix couldn’t ask for any more from his four leaders and stars.
“We are really fortunate that we’ve got four great leaders like those guys and four great competitors. They never want to give up and you will see in some of our games that we’ve been in some pretty big holes, but they’ve pulled us out of it,” Nix said.
“Those four guys all have equal importance for us but so does our last man on the bench who doesn’t play any minutes. We are a club who requires everyone to play their part for us to be successful and everyone is doing that.”
It’s not as though they are just a four-man team either with Chris Douglas doing well in the four spot, Teny Puot providing another guard option, veteran Ty Harrelson making a surprise return and that’s with Travis Durnin out injured and Ben Smith not able to get on the floor.
All of that points to the Slammers appearing capable of going along way in 2017 and Nix, who coached Perry Lakes the past four and-a-half seasons, never doubted what this team could accomplish when he was pulling it together.
“I truly believe that we have the capabilities if certain things go our way to compete for a championship,” he said.
“That’s the goal we had at the start of the year and they haven’t changed throughout. Like with anyone, a certain amount of luck will need to be involved but we are confident that we have the right pieces and certain things just need to go our way.
“I’m quite a resilient coach and I’ve been in situations that were as bad, or worse, than that and turned it around.
“We knew we had a pretty important piece in Brian that wasn’t playing that first month and we had a new coach, a new system and a new group of players so it was always going to take a little bit of time.
“But we knew with the correct leadership and the buy-in from the group that we were going to be more than competitive. I never wavered from my belief which I think filters down to the rest of the group.”
Nix had coached Lay previously at Perry Lakes and had seen what Nichols could do the past two years coaching against the Slammers.
He had a vision in his head coming into 2017 of what the Slammers back court could deliver and how dynamic and unstoppable they can be. He’s delighted to see it come to fruition.
“Tre and Mike are so dynamic and they are really hard to defend, and you have to really pick your poison with those two. But having said that, we are really fortunate to have Teny Puot who is playing some great basketball as well,” Nix said.
“We have somewhat of a three-headed monster there and they all give something a little bit different. They are a difficult cover for most teams in the league. We understand that the three of them are our strength.”
Nichols has been outstanding the past two seasons with the Slammers but he has gone to another level again in 2017.
Nix always knew how good he could play offensively and he is again delivering that in 2017 with 25.2 points a game. But it’s his all-round game to run the offence, set up his teammates and play strong defence that has his coach thinking the NBL could be a real possibility.
“I think with the way the NBL is going and you look at guys like (Jerome) Randle and (Casper) Ware, he’s in a similar bracket to those size-wise. He has really developed his game offensively and defensively, and if a team wanted to take a gamble on someone he would be the guy,” he said.
“I’ve never had a player that works as hard as Tre, that’s pretty clear and his defence has really surprised me with his want to learn to play defence and his willingness to commit to that side of the floor.
“Seeing him from the outside we didn’t really see that side of him, but this year he has really stepped it up and he’s a legitimate MVP candidate because he plays both ways now. That has surprised me and hopefully it’s surprised himself a little bit and opens up some opportunities.”
Voelkel had a superb season back in 2015 for the Slammers as a triple-double machine helping the team all the way to the grand final. Two years later and his competitiveness nature and beast-mentality certainly hasn’t gone anywhere.
Despite two less minutes a quarter to work with, he is averaging 14.4 points, 16.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists a game. Nix would be disappointed but not totally surprised if he wasn’t right in MVP calculations.
“Brian internally is really well-respected and we understand his importance. You could see immediately that our season turned once he came in after our slow start,” Nix said.
“As a league he doesn’t get always get the respect that he deserves, but you can’t sleep on him and any team sleeping on him is going to be woken up pretty quickly.
“There’s probably been a couple of times he didn’t get Player of the Week when I thought he should but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to compete and win games, and that’s what he is helping us do.”
Weeden, in his first full season back from his knee reconstruction, has been superb as the big man for the Slammers battling up against all of the league’s powerhouses and more than holding his own.
But the support he has been getting up front from Douglas has been invaluable too and Nix never doubted he could provide that.
“I’ve known Dougy for a number of years and I specifically recruited him to come back,” he said.
“He was always going to be in my calculations but I wasn’t sure if he was going to play the role he has ended up playing. I think he’s surprised everyone in the league and if he’s not a candidate for the Most Improve Player then I’d be shocked because he has been massive for us. He is sneaky athletic too.”
It hasn’t been all good news for the Slammers this season despite things coming together nicely at the right time.
South West has lost emerging swingman Travis Durnin for the season with a knee injury while one of the league’s best big men in recent years Ben Smith hasn’t come up from an ankle operation in the off-season.
“Trav won’t be back this year which is really sad for him because he’s been outstanding for us. It’s just an unfortunate knee injury that he’s getting some surgery on but he’ll be back bigger, better and fitter next year. He can take some real confidence out of this year,” Nix said.
“We’ve been in fairly constant communication with Ben and we definitely wouldn’t be giving up on him still playing this year. He has his wedding this month in the USA but he’s been involved with the group. I don’t know if he will play this year, I doubt it, but he’s definitely a prospect for the club moving forward.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)