The good off-season news out of Southland Sharks HQ continued today with confirmation that Tall Blacks and New Zealand Breakers big man Alex Pledger will return for his third season in orange in 2018.
The man known as Chief has been a dominant force since returning to the NBL for the SIT Zero Fees-sponsored Sharks over recent seasons, earning the rebounding title and NBL All-Star Five selection in 2016 and last season he was the only player in the league to average a double/double (13.2 points & 10.0 rebounds per game).
Pledger is in for a busy six months. After taking a well-deserved break following the Sharks’ 2017 NBL campaign, he has started his ninth ANBL season with the NZ Breakers strongly and was yesterday named in Paul Henare’s extended Tall Blacks’ squad ahead of World Cup qualifiers against Korea and Hong Kong next month.
“It was nice to be able to go into the Breakers season with some time off, just to get away from basketball and relax a little bit. The first couple of weeks of pre-season, because of that, were pretty rough and I’m not there yet. But, we’re only five games in (to the Breakers NBL campaign) and we have time to improve those things so hopefully we’ll be able to carry over a good season with the Breakers into a good season with the Sharks as well,” Pledger said.
The lure of another NBL championship run and the team environment in Southland made returning a straight-forward decision for Pledger.
“We were pretty close to winning it all last season and if we can bring back a similar team with another year of improvement, hopefully we can take it one step further. In terms of the collection of guys, on the court and the comradery we had off the court, it was a really fun team to be around. It was a no-brainer to come back really,” he said.
Sharks Head Coach, Judd Flavell has been a long-time fan. “The day that I first got the Sharks job a couple of years ago, he was the first guy I went to. There’s only so many 7 footers around, but Pledge is more than just that. He’s a great person to have around and he thrives in a good environment, so for us to be able to provide that and get him back for a third year is awesome and hopefully take us one step closer than we went last season."
“Anytime you can start a team with a guy like Pledge you’re in great shape right from the get go. The fact that we’ve got Alex and Reuben (Te Rangi) and we’ve added Derone (Raukawa), James (Hunter) and Luke (Aston) to the mix, means I’m really happy with that starting point,” Flavell said.
Pledger will line up for the table topping NZ Breakers on Thursday night in a crucial game against last year’s NBL Minor Premiers, the Adelaide 36ers. The Breakers have a four-win, one-loss record and sit atop the ANBL Table, alongside the defending champion Perth Wildcats, who they also face home and away during a demanding 11-day stretch.
“So far we’ve stayed pretty healthy. We’ve just got a really good balance of ball handlers who can really penetrate and guys that can spread the floor and shoot the three and big men who can defend the paint and rebound and finish around the basket, so I think the balance we have on the roster with a bunch of guys being able to do a bunch of different things has been a big factor in how we’ve been able to get off to a pretty hot start,” Pledger said.
He's also excited by his return to the international arena, joining Sharks team mates Reuben Te Rangi, Derone Raukawa, Luke Aston and James Hunter in the extended Tall Blacks squad for November’s World Cup qualifiers.
“We do have some real depth in the sport at the moment. That was part of the reason Pauli (Henare) elected to rest us older guys for the Asia Cup and several younger guys across several positions put their hands up and said I can play at this level. So, for someone like me who hasn’t pulled on the black singlet for a couple of years it motivates you that there are a lot of younger guys nipping at the heels and I know if I want to keep my spot I have to go out there and really fight for a spot and prove I can still contribute at the international level,” Pledger said.
Southland Sharks General Manager Jill Bolger said Pledger’s return was a key step in the team’s off-season planning. “With a new franchise (Manawatu Jets) in the league next season, locking down our Kiwi talent has been our top priority and we aren’t done in that space yet.”
“We also have our new Sharks Summer League starting on Thursday, which is a terrific opportunity for our local talent to put their hands up for next season,” Bolger said. The new Summer League is an initiative, championed by coach Flavell and Southland Basketball Development Officer Dan Peck, to provide a pathway for locally-based players into his Sharks programme.
Four teams will play each other in a round-robin, followed by semi-finals and finals over the next five Thursday nights at ILT Stadium Southland. Games will be held weekly at 6:00pm and 7:30pm.