For the longest time, the Melbourne Tigers have been running the shuffle.
It’s a system that has two main plays, with dozens of wrinkles and trick plays and, for it to work effectively, every player on the floor needs to know all of the positions. The second a player in the shuffle is not in the right spot, the whole offence completely breaks down.
“I know it like the alphabet,” one former Tiger told ESPN.
It’s an offence that relies on a player’s ability to expertly read what the defence is giving them, and to understand spacing and where teammates are going to be on the floor. You don’t see many on-balls in the shuffle, because it’s largely run for cuts, backdoors, screens, things of that nature.
Josh Giddey was sometimes a rogue actor, though.
“I used to call for on-balls,” Giddey told ESPN. “It wasn’t really within the offence, but I’d just bring the big guy up for a screen.”
When you combine the basketball instincts one acquires from running the shuffle to death with the size, ball-handling, and flair of Giddey, you get a generational talent, and it’s then not at all surprising to see him as a projected lottery pick going into the 2021 NBA Draft.
Giddey has always been surrounded by a bevy of patriarchs of Australian basketball. He was raised by his father, Warrick, a former NBL stalwart who also served as his coach growing up. The other prominent coach Giddey had throughout his junior years with the Tigers: Andrew Gaze, the five-time Olympian who’s widely regarded as one of Australia’s best ever basketball players. For the Victorian under-20s team, Giddey played under Chris Anstey – a two-time Olympian, two-time NBL MVP, and first-round pick back in the 1997 NBA Draft – and, over the past two off-seasons, has primarily worked out with NBL legend, Darryl McDonald, while also spending time with Brian and Kevin Goorjian.
Having been coached by the likes of Andrew Gaze and Chris Anstey, Josh Giddey is well-versed in the value of the green and gold.
It’s a who’s who of the Australian basketball world. That, combined with a stint at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, has created a support system that would undoubtedly be unrivalled in the country.
“To be around such knowledge of the game, and experience, it’s really good for me because I can learn from them,” Giddey said. “Not just on the court; off the court as well. They give me advice and stuff like that. It’s good to be around such a talented and knowledgeable group of guys, and it only benefits me.”
Every aspect of that upbringing lends itself to the elite basketball IQ we’ve seen from Giddey up to this point. Throw in his 6’8 – some say 6’9 – frame, and he seems tailor-made for the modern NBA game. Big, smart creators and ball-carriers are at a premium at the highest level of basketball; it’s the reason Giddey, at the age of 18, was able to be so effective in his first professional season in the NBL, and why NBA decision-makers are so intrigued by the Melbourne native.
“The one thing with Josh is just his ability to figure out problems is at a very high level,” Marty Clarke, technical director of the Global Academy, told ESPN. “That’s why he was able to jump into a man’s league and do well; it’s self belief, but it’s also street smarts.
“He’s got more than just basketball IQ; it’s the next level of that. He’s on Bogut’s level with those sorts of things, and Bogut was off the charts in both of those areas. He knew he was good, and he knew how to figure out problems.”
Giddey’s impressive ability to read the game – his passing, in particular, was a standout skill – was quick to translate to the NBL, to the point where the teenager finished the season as the league’s assists leader, averaging 7.6 a game. The early and mutual separation between the 36ers and Donald Sloan, whom the team signed as their starting point guard, allowed Giddey to step into the starting lineup and quickly make a name for himself. He developed an on and off-court rapport with big-man, Isaac Humphries, before showing off more of a scoring touch as the season progressed.
What became admirable about Giddey’s season was his constant improvement and growth throughout it, seemingly showing off something new with each game, which saw him shoot up draft boards. The NBL is one of the world’s most heavily-scouted basketball leagues, so NBA teams had ample opportunity to see Giddey in action; albeit, from afar, because of Australia’s border restrictions. Going into the July 30 (AEST) draft, the Australian is widely regarded as a projected lottery pick, with scope to be selected in the top-10, and a big reason for that increased stock can be put down to him transitioning to the professional game so effortlessly.
“I think it’s just playing against grown men from such a young age,” Giddey said.
“I was 17 when I got to Adelaide, going up against 35-year-olds. It’s playing against physical, older, veteran guys, learning from them, and that’s what fast-tracked my development. I was lucky I landed in a good situation where I had the ball in my hands from day one. They kind of let me run the team. They gave me a good opportunity. The coaches, front office, my teammates had confidence in me. They let me grow, let me make mistakes on the fly.
“My situation was really good for me because they let me play, and let me do my thing. That’s why I’m really happy I landed in Adelaide, and the NBL’s definitely done a good job at preparing for what’s forward.”
Entering the NBL as a part of the Next Stars program, a year after LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton were drafted from that position, had a plethora of benefits for Giddey, but it also came with a lot of expectations, and even more hype.
Of course, more hype meant a bigger target was going to be painted on Giddey’s back.
Josh Giddey reflects on his hometown crowd in Melbourne taking aim at him, as well as the “golden boy” trash talk he enjoyed in the NBL.
Take this instance in his first pre-season hit-out against the Brisbane Bullets.
“I got a foul… someone fouled me,” Giddey said. “The player went to the ref and called me ‘the golden boy’.
“I’m actually friends with the player, which is funny. At the time, it was my first ever pre-season game and it was kind of good to hear it from those older guys, and have that target on my back from kind of day one.”
Or in Cairns, when Nate Jawai – all 6’10, 300 lbs of him – purposely put a shoulder into Giddey during a dead ball situation.
“Nate’s a scary guy, so I didn’t really want any problems with him..” Giddey laughed. “It was cool, Nate came up to me after and said ‘good job’, all that stuff. It was a bit scary at the time because he’s a big guy, but nothing happened after it.”
Perhaps the most entertaining example of how far the hype around Giddey had come was a moment during the NBL Cup in Melbourne. Giddey was at the free throw line, when the crowd began to chant, and he remembers exactly what the chorus was repeating: “Overrated”.
“It didn’t bother me because it’s whatever,” he said of the chant. “I don’t really care what the crowd’s yelling or anything. It’s cool to kind of get that recognition because, if you’re hearing that stuff, ‘overrated’, you’re doing something right. To me, it doesn’t bother me. I love that stuff.
“I loved it, especially on the road, when the crowd’s booing you and stuff like that. They’re the environments I love to play in. Having the best defenders come at me every night. Justin Simon, he gave me nightmares one time in Illawarra. It’s just fun because, even if I had a horrible game, it’s just fun to compete against those guys and hear it from the crowd. It’s the stuff I love doing.
“(That’s) probably one game I wanna forget, but it’s just the guys that come at me every night, and I love the physical challenges; the challenges of going up against the best defenders on the other team. It was fun for me, and I look forward to it every night.”
Giddey has demonstrated once that his game can transition up a level, but can he do it again? Where he sits in the eyes of NBA decision-makers is a good indication of the answer to that question, but Giddey and his camp didn’t leave anything to chance. When his NBL season ended, Giddey flew straight home to Melbourne to begin working out. In the weights room, he was under the guidance of Nik Popovic, who heads Melbourne United’s high-performance department, while the on-court sessions were primarily with McDonald. The aim: nullify his weaknesses as best as possible.
It was during another Covid-induced lockdown, and there were a few things on Giddey’s agenda: improving a jump-shot that wasn’t broken but had been maligned over the course of the season, develop an athletic base that would allow him to compete in the NBA, all while developing habits that could help him remain a primary ball-handler for a team.
“I know you’re 6’9, but you can’t be standing up, especially when you’ve got that ball in your hands,” McDonald told ESPN, on Giddey’s propensity to play upright.
“You’ve gotta be able to play low. I watch a lot of NBA. I watch a lot of the guards in the NBA. I’m a big Chris Paul fan and how he hits the midrange shot. The decisions a guy like LeBron [James] does coming off those pick-and-rolls. [Rajon] Rondo is another one; I watch him, watch how he probes and things like that. I think that’s something that [Josh] can do.
“Again, from my own experience, it’s something I’ve played in. The pick-and-roll was the one thing I used to love to do, and I was the same; teams used to get under me. Once I start hitting that shot, now how [are] you gonna defend me? It’s a little bit different now. I think that’s the same thing with him. Once you realise he can shoot the ball, how are you gonna defend him? His vision is unreal. He’s gonna be able to find people, and people are gonna wanna play with him. People love to play with this kid. He’s gonna make a lot of people a lot better.”
The shooting has always been pointed to as Giddey’s swing skill, and even Joe Ingles made sure to drill that point into his compatriot.
“The big thing I spoke with Joe about was the three-point shot,” Giddey said.
“In the NBA, because there’s so much space, if teams are forced to respect your shot, they’re gonna change over screens; it just opens the whole floor. Especially for me, being a pass-first point guard, if teams have to chase over screens, it’s kinda gonna open up everything else for me. Talking to Joe, that was the big thing, and that’s what I’m doing this off-season; working on my three. If I can get respected enough for teams to have to chase over screens, it’s gonna open up other parts of my game.”
The shooting portion of Giddey’s pre-draft workouts were generally with Gaze – “there’s no-one better to work with in terms of shooting,” he said – with the pair working “shooting from a bit further out from behind the three-point line… getting shots off the bounce, off the move, off screens; a lot of different scenarios.”
“That’s what the off-season’s for. It’s getting stronger, working on the things you need to. I’m hoping, from day one, I go over there and I can be an immediate impact guy at whatever team I’m at. That’s what I’m hoping for, and I think the work I’ve done this off-season hopefully can put me in that position.”
Giddey’s rise was swift. He didn’t make his first state team until top-age under-18s; in the space of two years, he effectively went from an unknown entity to a projected lottery pick. The foundational pieces have always been there, though: showing those generational flashes during his time playing system-heavy basketball through his junior days, buoyed by a support system that expects ambition and can help that flourish.
It resulted in an NBL season that served as an ideal indicator for his potential, to the point where we now wait and see which NBA team ends up selecting him on draft night.
“From what he’s done in the NBL… there’s no doubt the NBA is a different level, but I think with the right opportunity, I think he’ll be able to produce straight away,” McDonald said. “You know how it is. it’s giving him that chance. Somebody gives him that opportunity and I think he’ll be able to produce from the start.”
The NBA is a different world, though. One day, you can be stuck on an island against Stephen Curry. The next, you’re guarding Kevin Durant in the post. Later in the week, it could be LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo freight training their way toward you in transition. Time and time again, Giddey has shown that he has the ability to play up to whatever level he’s thrown into, so how would he feel when he’s inevitably placed in one of those ungodly moments?
When asked, Giddey smirked: “Very confident.”