By Paulo Kennedy, Pagemasters
When Matt Nielsen claimed his second NBL championship, first league MVP and then departed Australian shores in 2004, Matt Knight was just completing an injury-plagued freshman season at Loyola Marymount University.
With Knight’s national team career also sabotaged by injuries, the duo’s paths didn’t cross until this season in Perth, and as the Wildcats’ big-man coach Nielsen has been pleasantly surprised by his charger’s world-class game.
“He’s super, super valuable,” Nielsen said.
“I like the way he goes about it, to be honest, he works really hard.
“It’s easy to say those things, but I really mean it. He’s a no-fuss, hard-working big man, and there’s not a lot of them floating around with that kind of work-rate.”
While Knight gives the impression of a rough-and-tumble player, Nielsen has been blown away by the variety of skills the 204cm Tasmanian has in his bag of tricks.
“I've been pretty impressed with his game, his versatility,” he said.
“I didn’t realise how inside-out he was, he’s got good touch from about 17 feet, I hadn’t played against him or with him so I didn’t know a whole lot and that’s been impressive.”
Knight showed off that range with his game-winning triple against Townsville last season, but has also been a bull in the low post and an intelligent passer when swarmed by the defence.
But where Nielsen most appreciates the 2003 FIBA U19 World Championship gold medallist’s contribution is at the other end, where he is the unassuming anchor of Perth’s defence.
“It’s his work-rate on defence that’s really impressive,” he said.
“He can front and move around, he’s mobile enough to get around those guys and recover and he’s still a strong enough presence in the middle.”
And that will be particularly crucial facing Wollongong’s vastly underrated frontcourt of Oscar Forman, Larry Davidson and Dave Gruber in the semi-final series starting this Friday.
The Hawks regularly anchor Forman to the corner where he punishes zones and rotating man-to-man defences.
Davidson’s ability to hit from the top of the key, and also find open men at any point in the offence, allows Wollongong to pick apart changing defensive schemes.
Gruber plays with the strength of a true centre, but at just 198cm has the speed to beat opposition big men to the basket after setting the Hawks’ trademark high ball-screen.
Knight is a rare beast who can cover all those options, something that is crucial to team success in a competition where almost every player on the court is multi-dimensional.
“It’s an underrated thing, most people probably wouldn’t understand,” Nielsen said.
“In Europe, when you're playing in the zone the rules there are the five-man doesn’t leave the key, but that’s not the way it is here.”
One of the NBL’s pioneers of using a mobile big man to devastating effect was the 2003 Sydney Kings under Brian Goorjian, where Nielsen himself covered multiple options defensively and then created nightmares for slower big men at the other end.
“When I was with Goorj, it was all about crossing out and moving,” Nielsen said of their rotating defences.
“I would start in the middle of the zone but I could end up on the wing and someone else would cross back inside.”
Given the headaches Wollongong’s perimeter-based offence has given opponents in the second half of the season, expect Perth to present multiple defensive looks, with Knight’s ability to defend a shooter and then moments later grab a contested rebound the centrepiece.
“It becomes very helpful when the team know Matty’s more than capable of getting out to those perimeter players when you need him too,” Nielsen said.
“It’s a nice thing to have.”
At the offensive end, the former Boomers skipper says to look out for Knight exploiting the Hawks’ frontcourt from inside and out depending on who is guarding him.
“He makes it hard for some of those bigger guys and anyone his size he has the strength to handle,” he said.
“You watch the mismatches he creates, that becomes a pretty big factor.”