HE hasn’t had much luck particularly this year losing a host of key players he was banking on but it’s hard to argue with the development coach Sam Oatman has overseen at the Lakeside Lightning the past two years and he hopes to continue in the in 2018.
Oatman arrived to take over as Lightning coach in 2016 and was virtually building a squad from scratch. While Daniel Alexander was a standout on that team, the growth of someone like Daniel Grida saw him emerge as one of the most exciting teenage players in Australia.
Then coming into this year, Oatman had good reason to be excited with the signing of new imports James Padgett and Devon Atkinson, and with him expecting to still have Grida, to have big man Andrew Ferguson, the returning Darrell Morgan and to develop the rest of the young players.
However, it just hasn’t worked out anywhere near the way Oatman hoped. Grida left to join the Australian of Institute of Sport Centre of Excellence, Ferguson went down injured and then left for college and Hayden Bell was another rising star to go down with an injury.
On top of that, Atkinson has been hindered in more recent times with a foot injury and Padgett has been forced to fight a lone hand inside and the young Lightning players have been called upon to have even greater responsibility.
That has seen Corey Shervill become a breakout star and earn a college career for himself next year as a result. Rowan Mackenzie and Michael Garbellini have grabbed their opportunities as well.
But the reality is it’s far from the team that Oatman thought he would have for the season without Grida, Ferguson, Bell and a fully fit Atkinson. With four games remaining, playoffs do look a tall order for the Lightning as a result at 8-14.
However, judging by the development that Oatman has overseen with the amount of talented young players coming through and the platform he has set for the future, a strong case can be made that he deserves a third season to see what he has built reach its potential.
Oatman hopes that is the case but knows the club will have a number of factors to weigh up.
“I didn’t come here to start something and not see it through so I would love to see it through. We are working really hard to see if it will work out for both parties and hopefully it does,” Oatman said.
“My role is more than just SBL head coach so it’s pretty vast in my responsibilities so we need to work out if that’s sustainable for the club. My hope is to remain for next year but we’ll wait to see what happens.
“I’ve made it clear that I want to be here and I’m hoping to keep building on that. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll still be thankful for this experience and opportunity. I’ve learned a lot and I’m really proud of what we have been able to accomplish.
“It’s so much more than wins and losses, it’s the relationships that have been built and the development of these guys as players and people. I’ve got nothing but great things to say about Lakeside and my experience here. Where I go from here if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always be grateful for this opportunity.”
Oatman didn’t make the trip to Perth from Wisconsin on his own either. He made the move 19 months ago along with his wife and their children. They are all enjoying Perth andif it was their choice, they would like to stay.
“We are really enjoying it. My wife definitely doesn’t want to move again. It’s just tricky with visas and it’s not cheap to have an American coach and his whole family over here from a club perspective,” he said.
“We are trying to give back as much as we can on the flipside. Hopefully it works out and we’d love to stay. We really don’t have a plan if we don’t, but I’d love to continue to coach if that’s in the cards. We would be disappointed to leave but still thankful of this experience and excited for the future.”
As he reflects on his almost completed two seasons with the Lightning, Oatman is proud of the development he has helped oversee with the young players coming through, but he did hope to be in a better position at this point of the 2017 season than the team finds themselves.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to help these guys develop and what I’m starting to see from them is that they’re not just happy to be on the floor. They actually believe that they can compete and win, and they are genuinely disappointed when we lose,” Oatman said.
“Their effort has been great and the team has stuck together, and we’ve worked hard. Nobody is quitting and the guys are unselfish and want to do whatever it takes to win. Those are things to build on but you have to improve and have carry over from practice to games which comes from experience and court time.
“It’s difficult and I’ve been here 18 months now working hard to build this program and we all have with the coaching staff and players included. It’s frustrating because the team we thought we had isn’t there anymore, but I’m really proud of guys stepping up and making the most of the opportunity. You kind of expect that in a league like that so you always have to expect the unexpected.
“To me it’s about trying to stay positive and stay together. The season’s not over yet. We did think we’d be in a different situation, but it’s not the case. Even with the guys we have there’s probably three to five games we let slip. Part of that was Devon being injured. I hate to make excuses but that’s the reality. All that being said, it could be a lot worse but we were hoping for better and we are just trying to make the most of it down the stretch.”
Grida was the great shining light at Lakeside of 2016 and now it’s Shervill in 2017.
He has especially stood up over the past 10 games averaging 19.6 points and 6.4 rebounds including a career-best 29 points against the Mandurah Magic.
Oatman is proud of what he is seeing from the 18-year-old.
“Corey has been phenomenal. Again he’s a teenager and it’s his second year in the SBL. He lost a couple of his best friends and workout partners, but since they left he has moved into that starting spot and has taken it upon himself to take his game to another level,” he said.
“He is a tough kid with a high basketball IQ, and he can score and rebound. He’s a lot longer and stronger than people think, and he’s trying to take advantage of his opportunity. He has high aspirations and we are just trying to support him as best as we can and give him as much confidence as possible.”
Import point guard Atkinson has proven himself a match-winner on a number of occasions this season, but more recently he has been slowed by a foot injury.
He sat out the game two weeks ago against the Joondalup City Wolves and returning last weekend for the crucial games with the Stirling Senators and South West Slammers. He clearly wasn’t 100 per cent still, though, and Oatman knows what a difference he could have made if healthy.
“Devon’s a warrior and we kept it pretty hush hush, but he was playing injured on a really bad foot for about six weeks. It’s limited his mobility and his effectiveness, and ultimately hurt our team,” he said.
“He’s been trying to fight through it and giving us everything he can, but we went 1-5 in that stretch and he’s a huge part of our team. We gave him a week off in the hope he would get as close to 100 per cent as possible because we have a really important stretch to finish with.”
Following last week’s losses to the Senators and Slammers, the Lightning must win against the Kalamunda Eastern Suns, Goldfield Giants, Perry Lakes Hawks and Willetton Tigers over the past three weeks to be any hope of making the playoffs.
Oatman will always be proud of the fight in his undermanned playing group, and while there is still hope there he won’t be giving up on a playoff chance for 2017 even if the odds are against them.
“We definitely take it one game at a time but for quite a while we have been painting the big picture for these guys. For the past eight or nine games we’ve been saying they are must-win games and nothing changes from here obviously,” Oatman said.
“I keep telling the guys that we’re down but not out surprisingly. It’s been a difficult season and we lost three starters with one going to San Diego, one going to AIS and the other going down with a season-ending injury.
“We’re starting a bunch of young guys as a result and our import has been playing injured. But we are still fighting and we still have a chance. If we can start playing well again, we have a chance but realistically we probably can’t lose any more games from here to be any hope.”
Photo by Mick Cronin