AJ Johnson has touched down in Wollongong, and Hawks GM Mat Campbell says the club has learned from its experience with LaMelo Ball in NBL20.

1 Aug
Dan Woods for

The face of the Illawarra Hawks’ bounce back has arrived. Next Star AJ Johnson is in the country, and he’s ready to contribute to winning.

Johnson has already stated his desire to have an impact on the NBL that’s similar to that of former Hawk LaMelo Ball and former 36er Josh Giddey, both of whom are lauded as two of the strongest successes to emerge from the program.

Injury restricted Ball to just 12 games in his sole season in the NBL, while the club endured further injury and availability issues across the entire 2019/20 season.

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Hawks GM Mat Campbell says the side has altered its roster-building strategy following Ball’s time in the NBL.

“The reality is when we had LaMelo Ball, we were last on the ladder that year,” Campbell told SEN.

“We were heavily impacted by injuries that year. We had Aaron Brooks – a 10-year NBL veteran – snap his Achilles very early in the season, I think only five games in.

“We also had Josh Boone, another NBA import, break his nose quite early in the season too.

“The biggest learning from that year was you don’t want [a Next Star] to be a full, pivotal part of the roster as far as you have to rely on them.

“What I think New Zealand has been able to do quite well is – and they have had three Next Stars go through their pathway and get drafted quite high – is use them in spurts, so you don’t go too hard on them and you use them as a role player.”

Johnson is far from the only player coming into the Hawks organisation with a high level of expectation though.

Import Justin Robinson has re-signed after missing the bulk of last season due to injury, and the Hawks overcame reported interest from other NBL clubs to sign former Houston forward Gary Clark.

Fan-favourite veteran Todd Blanchfield has also returned to the club, while South Korean sharpshooter Hyunjung Lee was signed during NBA Summer League.

“I think the fact that we've got three quality imports, we've got some really good Australian content and we brought in the South Korean kid who is basically an Australian.......we have a good nucleus,” Campbell said.

“Then we're able to put in someone like a Todd Blanchfield who has played 350 games in the NBL and Mason Peatling who has been a championship winner with Melbourne United.

“We've put some veterans around to support them but the reality of it is it is a younger emerging group still with some imports that have got some points to prove.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">AJ Johnson has arrived ?<a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#HawkNation</a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Illawarra Hawks Basketball (@illawarrahawks) <a href="">July 29, 2023</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

"We're pretty excited with the roster. The biggest challenge is we're 12-deep this year, the hardest part is who has to sit but that should account for a nice competitive environment at practice which should push everyone to be their best.

“This year we've planned to be able to handle injuries as they come. Fingers crossed we don't get any but if we do, we've definitely got a roster that can handle it this year.”

The Hawks will open their NBL24 campaign on Saturday, September 30 against the Sydney Kings.

Prior to the season commencing they will take part in the pre-season Blitz to be held on the Gold Coast. For more information on the Blitz click here.

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