How a place called AIS has sent Matthew Dellavedova, Dante Exum, Ben Simmons and others from Australia to the NBA

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cavaliers were up by one point in the third quarter against the Denver Nuggets on March 7, and Matthew Dellavedova was in full maestro mode.

He already had 10 assists, marking the first time he posted double figures in assists for the 2019-20 campaign. As Tristan Thompson stood near the top of the arc, Dellavedova curled around for a handoff. Thompson started an action he routinely does with Dellavedova – he slipped a screen and rolled to the hoop.

Dellavedova lobbed the ball to Thompson for an alley-oop, executing perfectly out of the pick-and-roll, just like he usually does. Dellavedova had a career night, tallying a career-best 14 assists in the Cavs’ 104-102 win.

The play seems routine in its execution, with Dellavedova being one of the Cavs’ smartest players.

But there’s a reason Dellavedova is so skilled at setting up his teammates. When he was a teen, Dellavedova went to a camp at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and eventually received a scholarship to the AIS, a government sports program that seeks the continent’s most talented athletes.

The AIS teaches the pick-and-roll, along with a philosophy of sharing the ball and executing on offense as a unit — all skills that have defined Dellavedova’s game and helped him find NBA success.

AIS alumni in the NBA

On opening night of the 2019-20 season, nine Australian-born players were on NBA rosters. The country had the second-highest number of non-U.S. players on rosters, right behind Canada.

Six of the Aussies went through AIS: Cavs guards Dellavedova and Dante Exum; Phoenix’s Aron Baynes; Utah’s Joe Ingles; San Antonio’s Patty Mills; and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons.

The AIS develops young athletes in multiple ways, including teaching them about weight training, nutrition and psychology.

“You’re with the best 14-18 kids in the kind of 16-18 age group,” Dellavedova said. “You go to a local high school, and you just get elite coaching, weights coaching, physio (physical training), nutrition, psychology. Really learn how to be professional and take care of yourself. It’s cool because there’s a lot of different sports there, and you can learn off those athletes as well.”

For most Australian NBA players, the AIS was a significant part of their path to the league.

“I think now seeing guys like (Andrew) Bogut, Ingles, Patty have success in the NBA, it made it easier for me, Dante, Ryan Broekhoff,” Dellavedova said. “The next generation to say ‘Oh, like it’s possible.’ You know, you have the dream of going to the NBA, but you don’t know if it’s possible when you’re growing up in a small, country town. But when you see guys that you know do it, I think it makes it just more realistic, more attainable.”

Growing up down under and meeting fellow players

Exum, 24, is a bit younger than the 29-year-old Dellavedova, so he didn’t meet him at the AIS. Exum has been immersed in basketball since he was a kid, and his father, Cecil, has influenced his passion for the game.

Cecil Exum played four years for North Carolina, claiming an NCAA title with the 1982 Tar Heels, a team that included Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. From there, he went on to play in the NBL, Australia’s premier pro basketball league. Following his playing career, Cecil went into coaching. Dante would be by his side, picking up nuggets of information.

“He coached senior teams when I was growing up, so I was always around the senior teams and the senior guys,” Exum said. “Just watching them and how they played the game, seeing how much my dad loved it. My brother played as well, so seeing him play, being a little bit older than me, you always want to be like your bigger brother.”

Exum tried different sports such as Australian rules football, where there’s tackling and no pads. But he told his father that he wanted to be part of a team. Asked by his father which sports most appealed to him, the answer came quickly.

“I always chose basketball when it came down to it,” he recalled.

As Exum grew up around the game, he made hoops friendships. He has known Simmons since the two were kids — a big reason for that is because of his father. Cecil had known Simmons’ father, Dave, from the NBL, and the two men’s sons became close.

Exum started playing on the national team when he was a teenager, and that’s when he first met Dellavedova and Ingles. Exum was traded to the Cavs in December, and a few weeks after, Dellavedova talked about having the Australian connection with his friend.

“I think it’s awesome,” Dellavedova said of having Exum with the Cavs. “The more Aussies the better. He’s dealt with some tough injuries throughout his career, but he’s a great guy, great teammate.”

Shortly after Exum’s big night against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 5, when he scored a career-high 28 points, Dellavedova expressed how happy he was for his friend.

“I was pumped for him the other night to see his hard work pay off,” Dellavedova said. “You could see how excited he was. He deserved that, so I think he can do really well here. I think it’s a great opportunity for him to get to play a lot and just try to string some games together.”

The significance of AIS

Since Marty Clarke joined the AIS as a coach, interest in basketball has boomed.

Clarke, who played at AIS from 1985-87, is now a technical director at the NBA Global Academy, which is based in Canberra. The extensive coaching experience Clarke has in Australia helped him earn the job at the NBA Global Academy. In addition, his collegiate experience of coaching at Saint Mary’s helped him earn his current position.

“They said, ‘Look this academy is being set up, and we know that you coached at the AIS before, and it’s at the AIS,’” Clarke said. “And they thought (of) someone, again, with the familiarity of understanding of how basketball in Australia runs. How the AIS runs as a governing body in sport.”

Before he played at the AIS, Clarke was playing in the NBL. He returned to the league after his time with the AIS, and then he ventured into coaching, starting in a minor league. He also coached high school basketball, along with women’s basketball and under-14 girls basketball.

From 1998 to the middle of 2010, Clarke was an AIS coach, beginning as an assistant through late 2002. He then became the head coach, working with Dellavedova, Ingles, Mills and Bogut.

“Basketball was obviously growing as a sport through that era,” Clarke said. “It had a lot of second- and third-generation kids coming through who lived basketball. Before that, kids had sort of played a bit of basketball. Probably played football or rugby or soccer or something else. But that period, there were a lot of kids that grew up and their first sport was basketball.”

The AIS, established in 1981, is used to produce Olympians. Each sports program can choose how to run its operation, according to Clarke, and the basketball arm chose a junior development path, wanting to develop players for the national team.

The young hoopers play against men in the NBL1, one step down from the NBL. While college programs in America tend to focus more on winning, Clarke said the AIS is all about teaching players to be consummate professionals at the next level.

It’s not just about learning the ins and outs of a pick-and-roll.

“We were just lucky we’re in an environment where we can do more than that, and we can teach them how to practice,” Clarke said. “How to evaluate themselves. How to set a practice plan for themselves, teach them good sleep habits.”

Ingles, in his sixth NBA season, appreciates what Clarke and the AIS has done for him. He was there with Mills and Baynes, along with Dellavedova.

“In Australia when I was growing up, it was like if you don’t (reach the AIS), you’re not gonna make it, really,” Ingles said. “That was the thought process. Obviously there’s players that haven’t been that have made really good careers, but it was all we wanted to do growing up.”

Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown has a history of coaching in Australia, working with the men’s national team as an assistant coach from 1995-2003. Brown became the head coach in 2009, taking Australia’s Boomers to 10th place in the 2010 FIBA World Championships and losing in the quarterfinals to Team USA in the 2012 London Olympics.

The Tokyo Olympics are postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Brown is back as Australia’s coach. He knows how important the AIS is.

“It’s just a philosophical program,” Brown said in February. “They grab these young guys, and they go through tremendous coaching. And for a country of – what, 23 million people? — just look at what the women’s program does as well.

“It’s a very gifted nation coaching wise and the production of talent that has come out of there with WNBA players and NBA players and medals on the women’s side. That’s our goal, to try to find Australia’s first medal in Tokyo. But the AIS deserves a lot of credit.”

The Australian way of hoops

A cluster of Australian NBA players have one thing in common: They can pass.

Dellavedova, Ingles, Exum and Simmons – they are each one of their team’s best – if not the best — facilitators.

Simmons played at the AIS in 2012 before spending most of his high school days at Montverde Academy in Florida. Though he didn’t spend much time at the AIS, he learned the Australian way of hoops.

“Our system of play is about moving the ball and being skillful,” Clarke said. “(Simmons) has a unique combination of skill and athleticism. It’s the skill that we know we can really improve. You can improve athletically, but probably each person has got a capacity. You can be as good at skill, and you can be as good at being a teammate and being a leader as you want to be. There’s no ceiling on those things.”

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