Jo Lual-Acuil Jr and Ariel Hukporti have formed a lethal one-two interior punch for Melbourne United this season.

22 Mar
Dan Woods for

If you view the Championship Series between Melbourne and Tasmania as a wider war, the positional battles on the court are the smaller skirmishes that help determine the victor and the defeated.

Heading into the series opener the key skirmish was seen to be between Luke Travers and Jack McVeigh at the power forward position, or the defensive astuteness of Melbourne’s guards against Tasmania’s crucial offensive powerhouses Milton Doyle and Jordon Crawford.

In Game 2 though, there’s one battle that’s being heralded as pivotal – and that’s the battle of the bigs. It’s Jo Lual-Acuil Jr and Ariel Hukporti vs Will Magnay and Marcus Lee, take two.

Of all the discussion that’s been had around this impending clash, suspiciously little of it has been focused around Hukporti. For all the talk about Lual-Acuil Jr’s Game 1 Foot Locker Player of the Game performance, Magnay’s foul trouble, and Lee’s shoulder injury, Hukporti’s contributions to the Game 1 victory have almost been, to an extent, overlooked.

The one-two punch he provides with Lual-Acuil Jr is so brutal and dynamic that head coach Dean Vickerman said post-game that he barely even substitutes the two of them, they rotate of their own volition.

Vickerman then labelled Hukporti as “a monster defensively” and praised Lual-Acuil Jr for offering guidance to the Next Star at half-time.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Making an impact ?<a href="">@MelbUnited</a> head coach Dean Vickerman was full of praise for Ariel Hukporti&#39;s defensive efforts following United’s Game 1 win ? <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL Next Stars (@NBLNextStars) <a href="">March 21, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

That one-two punch isn’t just providing United a stellar point of difference on the court though. According to The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie, it’s providing a strong frame with which to view Hukporti’s NBA potential.

“We have a pretty real and direct comparison here and I think Ariel’s ability to shut down the paint is very real,” Vecenie told NBL Media.

“I think they gain with him on the court in interior defence. Lual-Acuil Jr is a fantastic NBL player, but I think Ariel is a better defensive player in the NBL than what Jo is now, and Jo is a guy that is an extremely high-level overseas professional no matter what league he’s in.

“Offensively when you put JLA on the court versus Ariel there’s a real jump when Jo is out there, because he’s capable of handling the ball and creating shots at a different level.

“He’s going to be asked to be tough and physical, control the defensive glass, get occasional offensive rebounds and tip-outs, do a great job controlling the paint on the interior defensively, running the court and creating opportunities in transition, and doing everything he does that’s such a smart little thing off the ball is, I think, what says the most about Ariel.

“The fact we have a direct comparison to an overseas professional like Lual-Acuil Jr only helps him in that way.”

After his NBL23 season was derailed in gruesome fashion with a ruptured Achilles, the pairing of Hukporti and Lual-Acuil Jr offers reminders of Melbourne’s last championship, in which JLA backed up eventual Grand Final MVP Jock Landale in a three-game sweep of the Perth Wildcats.

Gettyimages 1323666675
Jo Lual-Acuil Jr and Jock Landale embrace after Melbourne's Game 3 semi-final win over South East Melbourne in NBL21.

While a title would be the perfect way for Hukporti to end his three-season stint as a Next Star within Melbourne’s program, Vecenie says it’s his productivity all season that has shifted the needle for his draftability more than any NBL title could.

“I don’t know if necessarily United winning the title would move the needle for him, what I would say is that his play this season for a great Melbourne United team – because they’ve been great and clearly the best team in the NBL in my opinion,” he said.

“Being such an impactful player for this good of a team has already lifted his standing in the minds of the NBA community, him being able to come in, be an excellent rim protector, play a very direct, end-to-end game, playing as hard as he does night after night with his ability to shut down the interior, I think that above all has helped him.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">.<a href="">@TheAthletic</a> has released it&#39;s latest 2024 NBA mock draft, and AJ Johnson is the biggest riser among our Next Stars ?<br><br>The NBA Draft will take place on June 26 ? <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL Next Stars (@NBLNextStars) <a href="">March 20, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

“I don’t know that a title would help shift that needle, but the sheer presence of him being on a great team has elevated that over the course of the season.”

Before any title is raised or any name is called on draft night though, there’s the small issue of the Tasmania JackJumpers that Melbourne must overcome to round out what has been a largely successful campaign.

The 23-point Game 1 win has absolutely put Melbourne in the driver’s seat, but another stellar performance from Hukporti and company could see United leave Hobart with one hand on the championship trophy – should they win.

Hukporti himself in an interview via News Corp has said he’s “so sick” of the JackJumpers.

If Game 1 hasn't made Tasmania sick of the sight of him, it's highy likely Game 2 will.

Game 2 of the Championship Series between Melbourne and Tasmania will tip off on Friday night at 7:30pm AEDT, live on ESPN via Kayo Freebies, 10 Peach and 10 Play.

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