Alexander, youngsters impress Oatman despite heartbreaking Lightning losses
THE 2016 SBL season was always going to be a learning one for Lakeside Lightning coach Sam Oatman and his young playing group led by Daniel Alexander, but it's turned into one of frustration with a string of nail-biting losses and them showing they can match the top teams.
Oatman arrived in January to take over at the Lightning in his first head coach role following a playing career that started East Tennessee and finished in the United Kingdom.
But he thought he always wanted to try himself at coaching and he had heard nothing but good things previously about Lakeside and the SBL.
It was still a whirlwind move to leave Wisconsin with his family that includes wife Laura and three young children to come to Perth and coach Lakeside, but it was something he was keen to experience.
The signing of Alexander has proved a masterstroke and Oatman has no doubt he would thrive if given a chance in the NBL. TJ Hallice has been a strong inside presence too, but it is largely a youthful team that he has inherited and tried to develop in his first taste of the SBL.
The signs have been encouraging for the Lightning despite a 13-game losing run along the way.
Lakeside has every right to feel it is the best team that won't be in the playoffs this year having beaten top eight teams Stirling, Perry Lakes, East Perth and Perth, but it has been the heartbreaking losses along the way that have stung.
The Lightning put in two strong showings against the defending champion Wolves but the narrow losses to the Slammers, Magic (twice), Eastern Suns and Tigers ultimately cost them a chance of the post-season.
But the signs have been exciting with Oatman in his first year as coach, Alexander delivering a season that should see him in MVP calculations and Daniel Grida, Hayden Bell, Matt Vinci and Corey Shervill among the young players showing they can be built around going forward.
Oatman has been happy with the way his group has developed throughout the year despite the tough losses along the way, which included last Friday night in another nail-biter against another top four team the Willetton Tigers.
He has no doubt that what has happened this year will stand the young group in good stead going forward if they all stick together.
"I think we've showed that we can play with almost anybody in this league, I think we've proven that. I don’t think anybody would have wanted to play us in the playoffs, but people forget that we are super, super young," Oatman said.
"I would bet that we are the youngest team in the league and this is the first time that I have ever been a head coach so I'm learning heaps and we are doing it without our starting point guard (Seva Chan).
"It's been a positive that we are still competing and finding ways to be in games but you have to find a way to close out some of these tight games. That's what we'll try to take out of this season and build for the future."
While Corey Martin, Tom Parkinson and Hayden Bell were part of the team, Oatman doesn’t have the services of one player that hit the floor in Lakeside's grand final win of 2013 while also having to replace Jesse Dixon, Jarrad Prue, Brad Jackson, Luke Thomas and Jordan Swing from 2015.
That's a big job for anyone to rebuild a young group and even more so for someone new to the country and the league. In his first job as a head coach Oatman has given it everything and has been pleased with the development he's overseen throughout 2016.
Since ending their 13-game losing run, the Lightning have won three of their last five matches heading into this Saturday's clash with the Geraldton Buccaneers on the road to end the season.
Oatman is confident the Lightning will be taking momentum with them into the end of the season that he hopes to build on in 2017.
"I got here really late and didn’t even meet most of my team until early to mid-January and it's basically a total rebuild," he said.
"We have a lot of new faces and a lot of young guys, and it's been a year of learning about the culture and life here so that's been a big adjustment for my family and I, and adjusting to basketball here in the SBL. I feel like we continue to improve and that's important.
"With the exception of a few games, we're not getting blown out and I think guys are starting to believe in what we're trying to build here and are starting to buy in a little bit.
"They are playing for each other and sticking together, and working incredibly hard every day which is great. I think we all feel like we don’t want the season to end because we have a lot of unfinished business, and that's a good thing and you can use that moving into next season."
Oatman was excited to be able to recruit Alexander following his college career at Texas A&M and then Grand Canyon University.
It has without question been a learning experience having to be the man on a young team in a foreign league and country, but it's one that Alexander has developed strongly with both in terms of his performance and leadership.
He has delivered some remarkable games including 43 points and 15 rebounds last Friday against Willetton. Oatman was always happy to have been able to recruit and would encourage any NBL clubs to now seriously consider him as a big who can shoot, rebound and handle the ball.
"He definitely could contribute in the NBL right now in my opinion. He's had some opportunities and we'll see what happens. He was a big-time recruit in high school and we've seen a lot of those highlights this year," he said.
"He played in a big-time school at Texas A&M and you don’t get scholarships to those type of schools if you are just an average athlete. Then when he transferred to Grand Canyon he had a very good career there finishing up his last couple of years.
"Since coming here he has been able to just play free and show all of his gifts and talents, and do some things he probably hasn’t done for four or five years since he's been in high school. Athletically he could play in very high leagues across the world.
"He just works super hard, he is shooting at great percentage from two, three and free-throw, and he is starting to learn how to deal with playing on a young team and being a leader.
"His leadership skills are what he is gaining the most right now and he is starting to take over in games, which honestly we could have used early on but at least he's doing it now."
It has been a year more about the development of young players for the Lightning, though, and Oatman has been excited to see the progression of the likes of Grida, Vinci and Shervill in particular.
"Daniel Grida is doing exactly what I thought he was going to do. Potential doesn’t even describe what he has. He is a very good player and he could be incredible, he is just a great kid and super fun to coach," Oatman said.
"He works so hard and the sky is the limit for him so it's good to see his development. Matt Vinci is coming along, Corey Shervill has done some really nice things and so have a lot of our young guys.
"Making the leap from juniors to WABL and now the SBL it's just a different speed and it takes time to get used to that, especially at the defensive end.
"That's probably been the biggest adjustment for those younger guys and it can open up some holes in your game that you get away with at lower levels, so those are the things we are learning along the way. They are gaining some really valuable experience this year."
Article by Chris Pike
Photo by Mick Cronin