THE difference in the groups he inherited for his first two SBL head coaching jobs couldn’t have been more contrasting for Aaron Trahair but he likes the development progress the Mandurah Magic is making and wants to remain there to see the fruits of his labour down the track.
Following a tremendous playing career that included playing 422 games in the NBL at the Perth Wildcats (1995 championship), Sydney Kings, Cairns Taipans, West Sydney Razorbacks, Hunter Pirates, Singapore Slingers and then Wollongong Hawks, and then finishing back in the SBL at Rockingham and Mandurah, it seemed a natural Trahair would enter coaching.
His first stint as a head coach came at the Geraldton Buccaneers for the 2016 season and taking on a team featuring veterans Mat Wundenberg, Aaron Ralph and Carter Cook along with import Mo Barrow and then the supremely talented Jackson Hussey and Matthew Adekponya.
That was a team certainly capable of winning a championship but that just came up short in the semi-final series against the eventual champion Cockburn Cougars.
While Trahair wanted to continue to coach, he wanted to do so closer to home and he was named coach at the Mandurah Magic for 2017. That was a group at the other end of the spectrum in terms of being championship ready compared to the Buccs.
There were still veterans on board in the form of Taylor Mullenax, Andrew Bowman and Tom Remmerswaal, but it was a largely young and raw group that Trahair had inherited and he knew it was going to be a slow grind to build up their competitiveness.
He was prepared to become more of a development coach than anything in the short-term and there were some good signs in 2017 despite the team only winning the four games.
They became significantly younger again in 2018 without Mullenax, Bowman and Remmerswaal and without bringing in any veteran heads aside from new captain Chudier Pal.
Trahair recruited exciting import pair Jamal Shabazz and Shaun Stewart, but for the most part what the program at the Magic is all about is bringing through the young, local kids and building something made for sustained success down the track.
It’s hard to ignore the significant progress Trahair has overseen with the young Mandurah group too. While playoffs isn’t within reach in 2018 with them sitting at 5-16, they are a significantly improved and more competitive outfit.
And it’s in the young, local players that the improvement has come with the likes of Damon Ballantyne, Akau Deng, Chad Miegel, Duk Makuei, Cousteau Kyle and Nick Lawrence all playing big minutes and showing they can form the backbone of a strong team for a long time to come.
Trahair is excited by that, but knows the key is trying to get them all now to stick together long enough to see the progress develop into something special.
“The battle is just trying to keep this group together for a few years and see where we can go,” Trahair said.
“That’s the hard thing, we keep losing guys to college and guys just moving away for work and what not. That’s always a challenge, but these things happen and you can only work with who is still there and we’ll see what happens going forward.”
The difference in the ready for success group he coached in Geraldton to the one he is now developing in Mandurah couldn’t be more different. But Trahair is enjoying the challenge of teaching some of the players in his group basically basketball 101 from scratch.
That has allowed him to mould them into the players he wants them to be without them developing bad habits. He always knew it was going to be a long, slow build when he took on the job and it was something he was prepared for.
“It’s gone from chalk to cheese from coaching Geraldton who were an older, veteran group knocking on the door in regards to winning the whole thing to go to a really young group even though we had had a couple of older guys in the twilight of their careers last year,” Trahair said.
“It was really good to have those senior guys, but now we are just so young this year and it’s hard because really you only get four hours a week with them to try to go back to the basics and team them those fundamentals and defensive rules.
“A lot of them have never been taught that before and you do spend a lot of time on the basics so it’s a fine line between teaching them those, getting the team things going and pulling it all together.
“I went into it with a multi-year vision and the club has been great in terms of being patient and seeing the big picture. I certainly think the signs are there that we are heading in the right direction and there are only positives that you can see.”
Trahair also sees no reason why he won’t continue to coach the Magic as well to ensure their development continues on the same path. He would like to be the man at the helm of things once this promise turns into something where success is genuinely possible.
“At the moment I have a verbal agreement with the club that I’ll continue for another couple of years so that’s the plan at this stage,” he said.
“We’ll go forward and see what happens, things can change in life, but at this stage I’m certainly keen to keep going and it would be nice after putting in a fair bit of time and effort to see the group start winning some more games and reap the rewards. It would be nice to still be there for that.”
While there are still periods in games where Trahair knows his group is showing their inexperience, like a one-point second quarter against the Perth Redbacks a couple of weeks ago, they’ve also grown over the course of the season to minimise those patches where they struggle.
They’ve also had some games where things have all come together in exciting fashion like a win in Geraldton over the league-leading Buccs or emphatic wins in recent weeks over the Goldfields Giants and East Perth Eagles.
For the most part, Trahair is happy with the way the team is performing with three weeks of the season remaining and it’s just about limiting those periods of struggle.
“For most weekends we’ve been pretty good but we seem to have a period in most games where we lose our way,” Trahair said.
“It seems to happen in every game and that’s just part of having a young group where you have to roll with the punches a little bit with it, but even within those periods we struggle it’s not as bad as it was at the start of the year.
“If you go back and have a look at some of the games earlier in the year, we’d give up a 20-point swing in two or three minutes whereas now when we do struggle it’s not that bad of haemorrhaging of points.
“We are still competing and battling, and are getting better at stemming the flow a little bit. That’s certainly an evolution of the boys and it’s pleasing from my point of view to see that even though it is a slow process.”
Trahair at times can’t help but think how much more competitive his Magic team of 2018 could have been with one quality, experienced head in their roster.
But offsetting that, if he had someone like that the young players might not be getting all the minutes they are and he has been excited to watch their progress as the season has progressed.
“At the end of the day, we are really, really close. We are probably that one solid veteran who can control that tempo and the flow of the game away from being even more competitive,” he said.
“We don’t have that and we are very young throughout the whole team which is forcing guys to learn quicker. Chad Miegel, in particular, has stepped up this year and he is benefitting from that and slowly learning. Even Cousteau is still in the under-18s and is showing good signs for us.
“The future is really positive for us, the boys work their arses off and they want to get better, which is half the battle. If you can get a group of young kids together who want to get better and grow together, then if they can stay together there’s nothing but positives going forward.”
Two of the most exciting and untapped talents at Trahair’s disposal in Mandurah are Akau Deng and Duk Makuei. Both have been backed in to play significant minutes this season with Deng averaging 5.1 points and 4.3 rebounds, and Makuei 4.6 points and 2.6 boards.
But it’s not just about the numbers. Their sheer length and athleticism, and constant improvement has Trahair feeling the sky is the limit for the pair.
“I joke around and call them sushi because they are still so raw but physically they are perfectly built for basketball. They are long and lean, and they are really sponges those two in particular,” he said.
“They just want to learn and get better, and they work their tails off every second they are out on the court.
“They have probably never been taught or coached as young kids in terms of basketball and that shows in terms of the IQ within the game at times, but they just want to get better and are putting the work in.
“They are lovely kids as well and are a pleasure to coach, and they are only going to help our program going forward. They are young as well so that’s the exciting thing about our program.”
Trahair is nearing the end of his third season as an SBL head coach and while he’s not sure if coaching is for him in terms of a full-time role at some point, he does at least want to continue what he is doing.
“I’m still on the fence really to be brutally honest in regards to what I want to do with my coaching long-term. I love doing it at this level and it’s still a fair commitment in regards to time, but it’s still not your full-time job,” Trahair said.
“Whether I want to do it in a full-time capacity I’m not sure, but I’m certainly enjoying the challenges here and the time I can put into it at the moment.
“Going forward, I’d like to keep at least doing this and whether or not that changes, I’m not sure, but I want to keep persevering and I’m excited to see where this group can go. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel that I’d certainly like to be involved in.”