Jock Landale’s move to the NBA cued predictions of doom and gloom for Melbourne United, but the naysayers forgot there was a ready-made replacement on the roster.
After two losses to open the season, the naysayers were bathing in the reigning champions’ struggles.
But, fast forward to a fifth straight win, those same people are beginning to eat their words — and the man who has stepped up his game while Landale plies his trade for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA is a big reason why.
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Jo Lual-Acuil has been a consistent force in the middle for United all season, averaging career highs across the board while playing gatekeeper for the stingiest defence in the NBL.
Friday night’s matchup with New Zealand was billed as a clash of two of the league’s most-improved big men in Lual-Acuil and Breakers gun Yanni Wetzell.
It turned into a one-sided affair, with Lual-Acuil making mincemeat of the Kiwi with a 22-point, 12-rebound double-double in an 89-78 win.
Not that you’d get any hype out of the 27-year-old.
“It wasn’t really so much me going at Yanni, it was just us taking what the defence was giving us,” Lual-Acuil said.
“He’s a great player, but it wasn’t me against him, it was United against the Breakers.”
If you’ve been up close at a United game and heard Lual-Acuil jaw with some of his opponents — and even the odd rival team owner — you know there’s probably more to it than what he’s let on.
JLA has another marquee meeting on Sunday when United fronts up against the Illawarra Hawks and wide-bodied Boomer Duop Reath.
Fellow Sudanese Reath — and Illawarra — are a different proposition. The 211cm tower will drag Lual-Acuil out to the three-point arc and use his athleticism on the defensive end for a Hawks side that has only lost once in five outings this season.
Surrounded by scoring machines in Tyler Harvey, Justinian Jessup and Antonius Cleveland, and front-court running mate Sam Froling, Reath and the Hawks will believe they have the firepower to carve up a United defence that is holding teams to a league-best 71 points per night.
In a match up of teams with polar philosophies — and two master coaches in Dean Vickerman and Brian Goorjian — expect fireworks.
Originally published as NBL 22: Illawarra Hawks v Melbourne United