PERTH Redbacks coach Nik Lackovic was beaming with pride over the way his team responded to a disappointing Friday night loss to upset the Geraldton Buccaneers on Sunday with the added bonus of celebrating inspirational captain Joel Wagner making history.
The Redbacks had their backs against the wall heading into Sunday’s clash with the Geraldton Buccaneers at Belmont Oasis coming off a disappointing 38-point defeat at the hands of the Kalamunda Eastern Suns at the same venue on Friday night.
Throw in the fact that the Buccaneers were in second position on the Men’s SBL table after beating the Rockingham Flames on Saturday night to start their road double-header this weekend and it loomed as a big task ahead for the Redbacks.
However, the team produced a spirited performance from the outset and came away with the 89-84 victory on the back of 41 points and 13 assists from Mashall Nelson, and 28 points and nine boards from Lee Roberts.
But it was a day to celebrate for the inspirational Redbacks captain Joel Wagner when it was all said and done. It is a remarkable feat for Wagner to now make history by becoming the all-time SBL assists leader.
It has appeared a season where little has gone right from the start for the Redbacks as they lost the opening four matches. Despite a four-game winning run, they couldn’t quite maintain the momentum and now sit at 9-14 with three rounds and three games remaining.
Of those 23 matches, they have played 12 of them with one import but none with Lee Roberts and Jourdan DeMuynck together. The Redbacks had to let DeMuynck go and then Roberts’ return was later than they hoped.
Then they have only had Kyle Bowen for two games and following the off-season departures of Shawn Redhage, Ben Smith, Michael Vigor, Jackson Hussey and Mo Barrow, it’s fair to call it a rebuilding year for the Redbacks.
Majier Garang and Zac Gattorna have been the major beneficiaries of that while Joel Wagner has led the team admirably and Marshall Nelson has taken over as the star of the team.
While the season has undoubtedly had its challenges, Lackovic is proud of the fighting qualities his group has shown to not throw in the towel.
“We had to make some tough decisions this year and it’s never easy letting a player go but it was about the long-term prosperity of the group,” Lackovic said.
“It challenged us in the recent weeks obviously when you look at the results, but we are getting growth out of our guys and we understand that as we continue to develop that we want our young guys to have the experience to understand what it takes when you are playing against a Colter Lasher, Matt Wundenberg or this week a Shawn Redhage or Ben Purser.
“It’s an invaluable experience and the guys appreciate the opportunity they are getting. We’re not just results-orientated, or I’m certainly not and the club has given me the freedom to keep challenging our young guys to grow, and hopefully that puts us in a good position in future years.”
As for Sunday’s record-breaking day, Wagner made history in style too with his sixth assist of the night being a pretty two-handed pass over the back of his head as he drove to the hoop. That found a wide-open Marshall Nelson to knock down the three and the record was his.
Wagner still recalls his very first assist too when he found Jamie Baker on a backdoor cut back in 2004. His 2774th with be just as memorable too as he set up Nelson to hit another dagger as the Redbacks were on their way to a memorable victory.
Having already celebrated his 350th SBL appearance earlier this season, it’s another significant moment in the glittering career of Wagner. He has played all his games and dished out all his assists playing for the Redbacks while also captaining them to the 2017 championship.
Highlighting his achievement, to break to record he overtake the 2773 assists dished out from Troy Clarke who racked up those numbers in 512 games for the Cockburn Cougars and WA Institute of Sport Warriors.
Wagner has achieved the record in 357 games and showing what a performance it is can be done by looking at how far ahead of the rest of the pack over SBL history he is.
After Clarke, Shamus Ballantyne finished with 2414 assists, Joe-Alan Tupaea and CJ Jackson 1836. He is almost 100 ahead of the man fifth on that list.
Now that Wagner has played 357 games with the Redbacks as he closes in on the Redbacks’ all-time games played record too currently held by Matt Earp at 364.
But the all-time SBL assists record is all his and it’s hard to see there being chance of anyone getting close to that mark. The next current player in terms of assists is Perry Lakes captain Ben Purser on 1352 ahead of Seb Salinas (1305), Dan Thomas (1249) and Kyle Armour (1073).
Redbacks coach Nik Lackovic has been at the helm for a lot the record-setting career Wagner has put together and he couldn’t be happier for him to be celebrated like he has been with his achievements in 2019.
“He is deserved of these accolades because he has given so much to the game and to our club. I still think he could have another five seasons in him, that’s what I keep saying to him, but he is deserved of everything he gets,” Lackovic said.
“He has played the game at the highest level, he has led the team as captain to a championship and he’s done all of that because of how committed to his role and job he has been day in and day out.
“It’s his smarts and unselfish nature that makes everyone that plays with him better. That’s what he does out there on the court. He’s been extraordinary and the boys just fed off him today to get that win.”
Wagner made his SBL debut with a lone appearance in 2004, but even prior to that Lackovic remembers seeing the talented left-handed ball handler around the Redbacks as his own 259-game, 968-assist career in the SBL was coming to an end in 2002.
Everything that Lackovic has seen from Wagner ever since on and off the court has only seen him development the utmost admiration of him.
“I knew pretty early how special he was capable of being. When I was playing still, he was just starting to come down and I had an eye on him as a youngster. I then started coaching at the end of 2003 when I took over for nine games and in 2004 I took the reins,” Lackovic said.
“I knew in pre-season that Joel had a fierceness in terms of competition and a drive for that which I could see from him just in training. He was also at the front in 3km time trials, in competitive drills and then you know as a coach that this guy has a thirst and drive to want to be good, and a work rate for competition.
“He measured himself in a 3km time trial against guys like Jamie Baker who were elite at running at that stage, and Joel would always be in the top three.
“He just grew and he had a passion for wanting to learn the game, but the things that put him in such high-esteem are that he is so unselfish, so committed to being a leader on defence, he takes on every challenge and just outworks guys constantly.
“If that’s the one thing that this young generation can learn it’s commitment, it’s work rate, it’s sacrifice and that’s why we are super proud of him.”
Redbacks coach Nik Lackovic was proud of his team for their bounce back performance, but ultimately it was a day to celebrate Wagner.
“It means everything more so for what we’re measuring for these young guys as a club and today was pretty significant today for our club,” Lackovic said.
“Joel Wagner has been just an incredible servant of the club and he broke the all-time assists record from a guy that I know really well and played with in Troy Clarke. It’s good that it’s someone like Joel who is so deserved because of how much time he’s contributed and given in.
“It doesn’t happen very often anymore where guys are committed to one team in this day and age. You see it at any level whether it’s NBA, NBL or SBL, some guys find it easier to bail out and be more interested in their own personal well-being to chase other things rather than put their club first.
“But Joel is a guy who has just been committed to this club and he is the benchmark in which we measure character, work rate, commitment and discipline.
“Then as a team today, those are all the things we measured really well against a really good Geraldton team who are experienced, well-drilled and are going to be a contender.
“We wanted to make sure that we won those areas that we talked about so the boys should be really proud of their efforts, especially after the way we performed on Friday. That wasn’t one of our better performances after quarter-time.
“We were leading 15-7 and Mark (Utley) calls a timeout and then at 18-17 I call one too in the first quarter, and then they hit some shots and we dropped our bundle. The young guys just didn’t respond, but today they responded when Geraldton clawed back and tied the game with a three.
“But they didn’t drop their bundle, they prided themselves on being great in their execution in the half-court, hung tough and for a young group with young guys out there like Zac Gattorna and Majier Garang, they made some huge plays.
“Then you have Marshall who was incredible again. I’m super proud of the boys, they deserve it and it shows the growth you are getting out of them with what they are capable of when they respond the way that they did.”