October 28, 2013

Article at SportsNewsFirst

Wilkinson returns to get Breakers on track

TRIPLE NBL champions the New Zealand Breakers have reacted swiftly to losing three straight matches replacing underperforming import Darnell Lazare with two time champ Gary Wilkinson.

The Breakers have won the last three NBL championships, of which Wilkinson was a star in the first two before he spent last season in Estonia, but have now lost three straight games and the club's staff have reacted quickly to that.

New Zealand started the 2013/14 season strongly with a win at home to the Wollongong Hawks, but since then lost both games on the Sunshine Swing to Townsville and Cairns, and then lost at home last Thursday to the unbeaten Perth Wildcats.

While it was far from time to panic, the performances of Lazare over the four games to open the campaign left little for New Zealand to like from a big man they expected big things from.

Lazare showed some good signs last season with the Sydney Kings in the NBL when he averaged 11.5 points and 7.1 rebounds.

It's easy to see why the Breakers, under new coach Dean Vickerman who replaced Andrej Lemanis, thought that Lazare was a good signing and a significant upgrade on Will Hudson as a big man on last season, but it hasn’t transpired early on in the campaign.

Lazare has averaged just 4.5 points and 4.5 rebounds over the four games while shooting a paltry 6-of-22 from the field for a big man.

That meant that it was an easy decision to make for New Zealand to replace him when it became obvious that Wilkinson was available to return.

The necessity for the Breakers to make the move is highlighted by the fact that new point guard Kerron Johnson is still finding his feet, and performing solidly, but they don’t have the security of relying on the league MVP Cedric Jackson to get the job done this season.

New Zealand only lost four games in all of last season and went through the finals by beating Sydney and Perth without dropping a game, and already the Breakers are the first team to lose three games in the NBL this season and are well behind the 5-0 Wildcats at 1-3.

The return of Wilkinson is also an exciting one for both the Breakers and the league itself.

He has been one of the best, and most versatile, big men to come to the NBL over the last decade and was instrumental in the Breakers winning their first two championships in 2010/11 and 2011/12.

After winning the second of those titles, he was informed by coach Lemanis that the starting centre role had been promised to Alex Pledger and as a result Wilkinson headed overseas to play in Estonia.

Pledger did pick up his game further last season to confirm his status as one of the best centres in the NBL so Wilkinson won't be taking back that starting role, but what he can do is settle into a power forward role helping out Mika Vukona and then also backing up Pledger.

Wilkinson first arrived to play for the Breakers in 2010/11 and averaged 16.1 points and 5.6 rebounds a game during the season, and then was instrumental firstly in the semi-final series win over Perth and then in the grand final triumph over Cairns.

He again backed that up averaging 16.6 points and 5.8 boards in the 2011/12 campaign and then starred during the playoffs, and was perhaps unlucky not to be named grand final MVP, when the Breakers got the better of the Perth Wildcats in three games.

Wilkinson is a powerhouse big man equally capable of playing strongly in the post as popping to the outside to hit long jumpers while also being a good rebounder, and most importantly for the Breakers he's a proven winner and a big game performer.

Since graduating from Utah State University in 2009, Wilkinson began his professional career in Korea and Greece before coming to the Breakers where he won two championships in his two seasons.

Since then, he has played two seasons in Puerto Rico and also played in Estonia with BC Kale/Cramo whom he helped lead to the championship this year.

The 31-year-old now returns to the Breakers with the challenge of helping the three-time defending champions get things back on track early this season, but it's not as though he's walking into a foreign environment.

Wilkinson is a championship teammate of Pledger, Vukona, Tom Abercrombie, CJ Bruton, Corey Webster and Daryl Corletto, and the new coach Vickerman was the long-time assistant under Lemanis.

Wilkinson is expected to play his first game back with New Zealand this Thursday against the Adelaide 36ers.

While the move of Wilkinson replacing Lazare is a definite step up for New Zealand, there was a downside to bringing him in with back-up big man Jeremiah Trueman forced to be placed on a waiver so that the Breakers can still fit under the league's player point's cap.

Trueman began his NBL career with the Breakers, but the New Zealand-native then spent the last three seasons with the Perth Wildcats before taking up an offer this season to return home and resume his career with the Breakers.