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NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger bullish on 'Next Stars' program

Since 2018, Australia's National Basketball League (NBL) has been blazing a trail in player development by providing a unique alternative for young basketball prospects who aren't too keen on taking the college route to the NBA.

The NBL's 'Next Stars' program, which was launched in the 2018-19 season, was an offshoot of Terrance Ferguson's experience with the Adelaide 36ers during the 2016-17 season. Ferguson, a 6'6" shooting guard, chose to skip college and instead signed with the 36ers fresh out of high school despite offers from several major US NCAA Division 1 programs. Although he put up modest averages of 4.6 points and 1.2 rebounds in 30 games in his lone NBL season, it was good enough to convince the Oklahoma City Thunder to take him with the 21st pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Ferguson's success convinced the NBL to "launch an innovative new player development program to fast track future stars of the National Basketball Association (NBA)," quoting literature provided by the league.

Thus was born the "Next Stars" program, where "the NBL will contract overseas players and develop them in Australia to give them the best chance of being drafted into the NBA."

After Ferguson, R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball followed suit and signed up for the program, with both playing a season for New Zealand Breakers and the Illawara Hawks, respectively, before being drafted in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft. Ball was picked third by the Charlotte Hornets while Hampton was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 24th pick.

Ball was having an impressive NBA rookie season before getting sidelined by a wrist injury, and in NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger's mind, the youngster's stint with the Hawks contributed immensely to his development.

"That's the whole point of our 'Next Stars' program as well and why guys like LaMelo transitioned so well into the Hornets lineup," Loeliger told ESPN5.com in an exclusive interview. "He knew what to expect from game one. He hadn't come from a season playing with kids his own age who were in awe of him. He'd been playing against mature professional basketball players who were testing him every time he got the ball."

The early success of the "Next Stars" program has seen similar programs emerge in the United States, with the NBA G League introducing the Ignite team last season and a new league called Overtime Elite launching recently with the same objectives. Loeliger, though, feels the NBL is still in a good situation.

"It's a really interesting time for us because we've had the response from the NBA introducing the Ignite program in the G League. You've got Overtime Elite now on the scene as well. And you've got college basketball allowing the commercialization of image rights. It's still a pretty confusing environment.

"We've got our work cut out for us, but at the same time I think we're a really unique opportunity for the right kind of athlete. The reality is a lot of athletes transition from high school through that one-and done-year to the NBA every year."

The program is also open to Australian players, but the evaluation process is tough, and not everyone can qualify.

According to literature provided by the league, "Next Stars players must be eligible to nominate for the NBA Draft, and will be hand-picked by a panel of experts to be appointed by the NBL. Once selected, the pool of Next Stars players will enter into a contract with the league which will then place the Next Stars in NBL teams."

Kai Sotto, who recently signed a contract to play for the 36ers, is technically not part of the "Next Stars" program and made his way to the NBL as a Special Restricted Player under a rule that allows each NBL team to sign an Asian player as a local. Nevertheless, the objective for Sotto and a player under "Next Stars" is the same: gain valuable experience in the NBL to boost their NBA stock.

"What we're offering is an opportunity to play at a very high level in an English-speaking country in a competition that is almost a hybrid of European and American basketball," Loeliger said. "Australian basketball is known for being based on fundamentals and physicality, whereas Europe has always stood for discipline, technique, fundamentals. The U.S. is very much based on athleticism and raw talent."

"Australian basketball, very physical, very basketball IQ-oriented. So [it's] a great market for people to develop their talents and for them to be able to transition from being a high school or college athlete to being a true professional."