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How Australia Became an NBA Point Guard Pipeline

Last July, a group of tall and excited teenagers gathered in a conference room in Canberra, Australia, to watch the N.B.A. draft on television. As the technical director of the N.B.A. Global Academy, Marty Clarke was responsible for getting them out of class on a school day so they could watch as a former teammate, Josh Giddey, achieved his dream.

“I called the school and said, ‘Look, can we take the third lesson off, and we’ll bus the kids back?’ ” Clarke recalled. “As you get older, you appreciate this stuff more. You want to celebrate successes.”

The team’s reaction when the Oklahoma City Thunder selected Giddey, a 6-foot-8 point guard, with the sixth overall pick was something that approximated pandemonium. “Pizza was flying everywhere,” Clarke recalled.

The N.B.A. Global Academy, which opened in 2017 as the league sought additional ways to grow the game abroad and to develop high school-age prospects from around the world, has quickly honed a reputation for grooming a certain type of elite young player: point guards from Australia. Among those watching when Giddey was drafted were Dyson Daniels, 19, and Tyrese Proctor, 17. Daniels has spent this season playing with the G League Ignite as he prepares for the draft this summer, and Proctor is considering college scholarship offers from high-level programs like Duke and Arizona while he continues to train at the academy.

“It was eye-opening seeing Giddey get picked,” said Proctor, who stands 6-foot-4 and is from Sydney. “It shows that if you put in the hard work and follow the guide that the academy gives you, you can make it.”

The N.B.A. has never been more international, with a record 121 players from outside of the United States — including seven from Australia — on opening night rosters this season. And, in its own way, the academy is a microcosm of that trend. Its roster is populated with players from countries like China, Indonesia, Qatar and, of course, Australia.

But the academy is perhaps most notable for its pipeline of N.B.A.-ready point guards, a phenomenon that those in the program say is likely as much nature as nurture.

“At the academy, we never played isolation ball or went one-on-one,” Giddey said. “It was always a team-oriented type of system, and I think that’s the unselfish brand of basketball that Australians thrive on.”

Clarke, 54, described the distinctly Australian concept of “mateship,” which prioritizes teamwork, selflessness and loyalty.

“Culturally, it’s instilled in us from a young age, that it’s more about the team or the family or the business than it is about the individual,” Clarke said. “And if you work in that direction, you’ll be rewarded.”

Growing up, Giddey said, he was taught not to care about his statistics. Winning mattered, and he had role models like Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Ingles, pass-first players who graduated to the N.B.A. after spending time on the Australian Institute of Sport’s campus in Canberra, which has, for decades, housed many of the country’s top young athletes in a host of sports, including basketball.

The N.B.A. Global Academy was created in partnership with the A.I.S.

“Seeing the really good Australian juniors go through that program, I knew I wanted to go there one day,” Daniels said.

Proctor recalled the morning when Clarke called his parents to inform them that the academy was offering him a scholarship.

“Obviously, leaving the house at 15 was a big jump in my life, and in my family’s life,” Proctor said.

With his players, Clarke emphasizes “positionless” basketball, which describes much of the modern N.B.A.: offensive sets in which players can swap roles and operate all over the court. In Canberra, players learn all aspects of the game. It does not matter if you arrive as a point guard or as a power forward.

“Everyone is doing ball handling,” Daniels said, “and everyone is doing post work.”

Clarke recalled that when Daniels entered the academy, most pundits considered him more of a wing. Clarke, though, saw promise in Daniels’s ability to run an offense, and Daniels has been manning the point with the Ignite, averaging 11.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game.

“Now,” Clarke said, “you’ve got a 6-foot-7 kid who could be anything: unbelievable body, great athlete, understands the game.”

For guards at the academy, there is also an “iron sharpens iron dynamic,” said Chris Ebersole, the N.B.A.’s vice president for international basketball operations. “You’re bringing so much top talent together every day,” he said.

For the nine months that they overlapped in Canberra, Daniels gleaned as much as possible from Giddey’s game. In particular, he studied how Giddey came off screens, threw cross-court passes and used his length to finish at the basket. It was easy for Daniels to get a clear view of Giddey’s handiwork since they had to defend each other at practice.

“It was a really competitive environment,” said Daniels, who is from Bendigo, about 100 miles from Melbourne.

The team’s weekdays are structured. In the morning, there is a focus on individual skill development before the players head to school, anything from shooting to the nuances of pick-and-roll coverage. Typically, those who are from Australia attend a nearby high school, while the academy’s international players take online courses. Around midday, the team reconvenes for off-the-court work. It could be a class on nutrition, for example, or one-on-one sessions with a sports psychologist or a physical therapist. There are more academic classes in the afternoon, then practice and weights.

The team typically plays games against professional clubs in Australia’s second division, a step below the country’s top league. The players live in a dormitory and learn to become self-reliant, Clarke said.

“They’re not typical 17-year-olds,” he said. “They’ve had life experience.”

Clarke, who grew up in a small town in Tasmania, an island state off the south coast of Australia, said he had “never heard of basketball” until 1974, when a gymnasium was built not far from his home. Clarke was 7, and he found himself drawn to the game — along with Australian rules football, which his father played professionally. By the time he was 17, Clarke had a decision to make: Football or basketball? He chose basketball.

In Australia, hoops was still a fairly novel concept. Clarke can remember scrounging around for VHS tapes of N.B.A. games, which was his only access to players like Magic Johnson. But the game was beginning to grow.

As a member of Australia’s national under-19 team, Clarke played with a talented forward named Warrick Giddey. Later, after Giddey had emerged as a star for the Melbourne Tigers of Australia’s National Basketball League, his pint-size son, Josh, would run onto the court during timeouts so he could shoot a couple of baskets.

“All those crazy things that little kids do,” Clarke said.

A few years later, Josh Giddey attended one of Clarke’s development camps. At the time, Clarke said, Giddey was going through a teenage growth spurt — all gangly limbs, stiff hips and raw potential. Clarke gave him some homework and sent him on his way. When Giddey returned to the camp the following year, Clarke offered him a scholarship on the spot.

“He was always determined to become a good basketball player,” Clarke said, “and then he became very curious — always asking questions, always asking for extra workouts. He was driven from within.”

After two years at the academy, Giddey spent last season with the Adelaide 36ers of the N.B.L. before he was eligible for the N.B.A. draft. In his first season with the Thunder, he has won the N.B.A.’s Western Conference Rookie of the Month Award four times, averaging 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. Though his shooting touch needs work, he has a feel for the game.

“Obviously, I was the first player from the academy to be drafted,” said Giddey, who has been sidelined since late February with a hip injury. “But I won’t be the last.”

At the academy, the team’s recently remodeled locker room features framed posters of the program’s N.B.A. alumni dating to when it was solely associated with the national training center. There is also a sign: “Who’s next?”

“The idea,” Clarke said, “is that players will look at that and say, ‘Well, that could be me.’ ”

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