Josh Giddey knew he was down to his last chance. As he arrived at a multi-day basketball jamboree known as the East Coast Challenge, Giddey was one of 60 youth players competing from the Australian states of Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia hoping to be selected for the prestigious state team.
State basketball is the pathway to a brighter future in the game in Australia, but it had eluded Giddey to this point. Three times he had tried out for state-level basketball, and three times he had received an email at the end of the event telling him he’d been cut. Only 16 years old and already realizing he was at a crossroads in his career, Giddey was determined not to let it happen again.
He had the benefit of a recent growth spurt this time around that taken him up to 6’8 as a point guard. The added height only accentuated the gifts that always made him stand out: his passing and playmaking, and perhaps more importantly his ability to think one step ahead of the next defensive adjustment. After shining at the camp, the anxious hours waiting to hear if he was selected turned into a quiet confidence.
“I kept promising myself I wouldn’t get cut, I wouldn’t get cut, and the last opportunity I had to make the state team I didn’t get cut,” Giddey told SB Nation. “I finally got that one email I was waiting for.”
Giddey’s life has been in overdrive ever since. After shining at a subsequent national event, he was offered a scholarship by the NBA Global Academy at the Australian Institute of Sport. Giddey moved across the country to Canberra, where he would spend the next 18 months developing his game and his body while competing against peer-aged competition around the world. The accolades he earned at the academy eventually led Giddey to become the first Australian player to be tabbed for the Next Stars program in the country’s domestic professional league, the NBL.
After one season with the Adelaide 36ers, Giddey is now on his way to the 2021 NBA Draft. The same player who couldn’t separate himself from his peers in Victoria only two years ago is now projected as a likely lottery pick.
Giddey is at once on a meteoric rise and still just scratching the surface. He’s one of the youngest players in the draft and has a case as one of the most accomplished given his production in a pro league against seasoned adults. He is still growing into his body and refining his jump shot while already possessing the type of mental processing gifts that can’t be taught. It has been a wild ride to bring him to the precipice of his NBA dreams, but Giddey isn’t the type to get overwhelmed by the moment.
“It’s just good to see the work paying off,” he said.
Marty Clarke remembers the first time he identified Giddey as a future prospect to watch during his days as a college assistant coach at WCC power Saint Mary’s. A fellow Australian, Clarke was a former teammate of Josh’s dad, Warrick, who enjoyed a long professional career with the NBL’s Melbourne Tigers and had his No. 6 retired by the club. He saw the traits that could eventually make the young guard the type of player Saint Mary’s would one day want to target, but he knew it was going to be a while before they could do so. Giddey was only 12 years old.
“When I first went to St. Mary’s in 2013, I said coach (Randy) Bennett, there’s a kid I want to put on the board but it will be like seven years before we can get him,” Clarke recalls. “He can really pass with his weak hand. He can pass full court, off the dribble, or from penetration. He was kind of doing a lot of that stuff as a 12-14 year old. Now he’s a 6’8 person who can do that.”
Clarke would eventually get his chance to help develop Giddey in a way neither could have anticipated. When the NBA partnered with the Australian Institute of Sport and Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence in 2017 to launch the NBA Global Academy, Clarke left Saint Mary’s to take a job as its technical director. Clarke was the perfect candidate as someone who previously had experience as a coach at the Australian Institute of Sport, and now had familiarity with American college basketball.
The same place that had produced almost every Australian player to reach the NBA — Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, Dante Exum, Joe Ingles, Luc Longley, Aron Baynes, and Patty Mills among them — was now further investing in its connection to the league. Clarke would oversee all aspects of player development and coaching for the 12 high school-aged players who were offered a scholarship to the academy.
“We have a really good blue print,” Clarke said. “The Australian academy has been here for 40 years. This is what this place has always been doing, producing Olympians and future NBA players.”
The NBA launched two academies in China in 2016, and subsequently opened up more in India, Senegal, Mexico, and Australia two years later as a year-round developmental initiative for elite youth prospects. Australia’s Global Academy takes teenagers from around the world. In its partnership with the AIS, players with the Global Academy live in dorms and attend classes while preparing them for life as a professional athlete. Instead of trying to win as many games as possible and compete for championships like a college team, the main goal of the academy is individual development.
The players at the Global Academy go to school and training six days per week with only Sundays off. In a typical week, players will be put through regular full team practices, as well as smaller group sessions that focus on things like connecting the bigs to the smalls by drilling pick-and-rolls and post entries. There’s shooting and skill training every morning before school, as well as weight lifting three times per week, and mindfulness training. Spliced in with all of that is education on nutrition, physiology, and personal learning like financial literacy and social media courses.
“Our goal here is when they leave here, they have lots of options,” Clarke said. “We make sure they’re eligible for universities. We want to make sure every door is open when they leave.”
The Global Academy also plays games against peer-aged teams, and that’s where Giddey continued to raise his profile. Giddey would lead the academy to the championship at the prestigious Torneo Junior Ciutat de L’Hospitalet tournament in Spain and was named MVP of the event. He followed it up with a strong showing at Basketball Without Borders during All-Star Weekend last year in Chicago.
“His development since he got here has been off the charts,” Clarke said. “Because he missed that state-level development, he skipped up to another level and had a lot to learn. He jumped a stage, really.”
Giddey’s time at the academy had given him multiple avenues to explore on what he should do next. That’s when he faced the next flashpoint decision in his burgeoning young career: Was he better off going to college in America or staying home to play in Australia?
Giddey had a long list of American college basketball programs who wanted him. He had standing scholarship offers from Arizona, Colorado, Rutgers, St. John’s, and more. After one college visit in particular, Giddey felt like he was ready to commit.
“I was 99 percent set on college,” Giddey said. “I took a visit to Colorado sometime in 2020, when I left there after my two-day visit, I was ready to commit there. I was about to commit there but my parents said just wait to we get home and we’ll talk about it.
“So I went home and we started talking to some people and they started talking about the NBL Next Star pathway. I met with Jeremy Loeliger, who is the CEO of the NBL, and they really sold it to me. The way they take care of their kids, the opportunity you’ll get to play against grown men at such a young age, I thought that was better for me personally than going to college to play against other kids.”
On April 16, 2020, at just 17 years old, Giddey signed with the Adelaide 36ers of the NBL. He had become the first Australian to take advantage of the league’s ‘Next Stars’ program, which was originally intended to lure top American prospects who didn’t want to play college basketball. Former McDonald’s All-Americans Terrance Ferguson and Brian Bowen were two of the first signees of the program, but it was a decision by LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton to sign in Australia that helped convince Giddey it was the best path for him.
“They surprised everyone with how good they were, especially LaMelo,” said Giddey. “It was good to see because it was something I wanted to do. I wanted to be an NBL player and eventually an NBA player. To see those guys come through gave me the confidence to think I could hopefully do something similar.”
Going from youth tournaments against peer-aged competition to playing against grown men was an enormous adjustment. Giddey struggled with it at first. The ambitious passes that defined his time at the youth level were often becoming turnovers in more meaningful games. He was ice cold as a shooter to start the year, hitting just 2-of-20 shots from three-point range over his first seven games. The biggest issue was playing through contact on both ends of the floor.
“I was struggling with the physicality of the league,” Giddey said of the start to his time in the NBL. “You don’t realize how physical the league is until you actually play against guys that are 35 years old and strong, athletic, and quick. It was just a completely different level to junior basketball. I was playing at a fast pace the whole time. I was rushed, I was nervous.”
He points to his second game as his initial breakthrough, when he finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists against South East Melbourne, and was trusted to take the final shot in regulation. Even though he missed, the 36ers would win in overtime, and Giddey started every game the rest of the season.
Giddey was masterful at times as a facilitator, firing passes to open shooters in the corner with either hand and finding unique angles to get the ball to the big man near the basket. Starting center Daniel Johnson had one of the best seasons of his career at age-33 with Giddey at the controls, and fellow teammate (and former Kentucky big man) Isaac Humphries turned into a dependable scorer, as well. Giddey’s three-point shot also started to come around eventually, hitting 36.7 percent of his shots from deep those first 20 attempts.
“The big thing for me early in the year was I was so down on confidence,” Giddey said. “I was so worried if I missed what people were going to say, what scouts were going to think. There was a point where I spoke to one of my teammates and he told me all of this doesn’t matter. Just shoot every shot like you think you’re going to make it. That was when it switched for me.”
Before season’s end, Giddey had run off three triple-doubles over a four-game stretch and had firmly established himself as a first round NBA draft pick. Given his age and the level of competition, Giddey was remarkably productive: he averaged 10.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, and a league-leading 7.5 assists per game on 51 percent true shooting.
Those numbers stack up reasonably well to what Ball did in the same league a year earlier as 6’8 playmaking guard at 18 years old. Ball scored more, but slightly less efficiently (47.9 true shooting) while their rebound, assist, and steal numbers were similar. It is worth noting that while Ball was often deemed reckless as a lead decision-maker, Giddey’s turnover rate was significantly highly at 23.7 vs. Ball’s 12.4.
Giddey isn’t as flexible and shifty as a ball handler as LaMelo, but the baseline similarities and statistical profiles in the same league, at the same age will be tempting for teams, especially following Ball’s run to Rookie of the Year after being the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
“To see how (Ball’s) game translated to the NBA, it’s made me feel even better about my decision,” Giddey said.
The appeal of Giddey for NBA teams starts with his intersection of size and passing. Giddey is an impressive facilitator off a live dribble who will fire passes with either hand while on the move. Against a set defense, Giddey is able to make quick decisions with the ball, and loves to zip a two-handed, overhead pass to his big man in the paint. His interior passing is particularly impressive thanks in part to his ability to leverage his length to find creative angles in tight spaces. The big question for his offensive game will be if he can make opposing defenses respect him enough as a scoring threat to fully unlock his playmaking gifts.
There will be serious questions about Giddey’s athleticism and strength, particularly if he has enough standstill burst to beat his man and force the opposing defense into rotation. Even if Giddey can’t put enough pressure on the rim to be a primary creator, he should be custom-made as a ‘connecting’ piece who can be a secondary facilitator and floor spacer as his jump shot comes around. In Clarke’s eyes, it’s Giddey’s overarching feel for the game that will help him overcome the challenges he sees at the next level.
“He’ll often have quiet first quarters or first halves, and then he’ll have monster second halves,” Clarke said. “He can figure things out on the run, and that’s a skill a lot of players don’t have. He can fix things in game.
“It’s not just feel for the game, it’s feel for the opposition and what they’re trying to do to you. A lot of people have feel for the game when the game is mundane and vanilla. He has feel for the game when it’s chaos going on. He can figure things out really quickly.”
As the NBA moves into the pre-draft process, Giddey is widely projected to be taken in the lottery. We had Giddey going No. 14 overall to the Golden State Warriors in our mock draft, while ESPN has him going No. 10 overall to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Giddey’s entrance into the league is also an achievement for the academies the NBA invested in around the world. He’ll be the first male athlete to be drafted into the league after being a full-time academy student. Clarke sees Giddey as the type of player the Australian Institute always dreamed about developing.
“He’s kind of the guy we thought of 30 years ago when we started the program,” said Clarke. “Imagine if we had a whole team of 6’8 guys who are multi-dimensional and can pass, dribble, and shoot, defend multiple positions. We’ll stick one big guy in the middle with four guys like that. Josh is kind of exactly that.
“Coaches always ponder what the future is going to be. I think Josh is what we thought about when I first came here 25 years ago.”
If Giddey embodies the dream of what the AIS always hoped to produce, he also came dangerously close to slipping through the cracks. In the course of just over two years, he has gone from a player who couldn’t make it out of his home state to a possible top-10 NBA draft pick. For a player on such a rapid rise, the next question is the most exciting: how much room does Giddey have to grow from here?