After missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons following their historic ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) championship during the 2015-16 season, the Kuala Lumpur Dragons may have finally assembled a team that has what it takes to taste the victory champagne once again.
It’s still relatively early into the 2019-20 season, but the Kuala Lumpur Dragons (4-3) are currently sitting in fourth place, with two of their three losses coming at the hands of the league leading Mono Vampire (7-2). There is reason for hope though, as both losses to the ABL’s top team came on the road, and the season series could easily be tied at one game apiece with just one more Cade Davis-made free throw.
Widely regarded as an offense-orientated team with past featured players among the likes of Matthew Wright, Reggie Johnson, Avery Scharer, and Kiwi Gardner, it has been the Dragons’ tough defense which has propelled them to their wins thus far, holding their opponents to only 80.2 points per game.
Aside from their resilient, ready-for-combat mentality, the bond shared between players has made Head Coach Jamie Pearlman’s system work. After the Australian coach’s debut ABL season, he now has a better understanding of the type of players best suited for his employed system; he knows what type of leader best suits his young team, how to utilize the strengths of his locals, and at the moment, things seem to be clicking.
The Import Trio
During the ABL press conference in October, Pearlman regarded his new facilitator Amir Bell as a young and hungry player whose do-it-all skillset would fit well into his system, and so far, he has been right in his assumption.
Bell’s athleticism has allowed him to drive past defenders with ease, but what has really amazed fans is his ability to hang in the air and make the right decisions, whether it’s finding the open man or scoring a tough basket. The 6’4” guard’s strong end-to-end pushes have been a vital part of his team’s scoring source and he is currently averaging 16.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per contest.
While Pearlman has found an energetic, young point guard in Bell, the success of his system also needed some form of backcourt stability from a player capable of calming the team down, or even icing the game on his own if needed. The signing of veteran swingman Cade Davis has provided that stability, and where Bell prefers to drive into the lane and create chaos, Davis offers deadly off-ball shooting and underrated defense for the Dragons.
His cutting ability and perimeter movement brings another dimension to Kuala Lumpur’s scoring attack, and once the 31-year-old was able to find his range and confidence, opposing defenses have been at his mercy as Davis is currently scoring at a rate of 21.7 points per game. On the rare occasion that the American import’s shooting goes cold during stretches, his pesky defense can still help steer the Dragons to victories, as was the case for the team’s early road games.
After an impressive ABL debut season, William Artino has been the answer to the Dragons’ offseason woes when it came to landing a dominant big man. The 6’11” double-double machine has proven to be a monster in the paint, with a bag of tricks that include spin moves, pump fakes, ferocious dunks, and finishes through contact.
Artino’s all-around offensive package acts as his team’s primary scoring option, while his defensive versatility and mobility makes the Dragons’ defense more perplexing to breakdown. Following a season where he spearheaded a 1-win Formosa Dreamers team to the top of the league’s standings, the American center has picked up from where he left off, averaging 22.2 points, 15.0 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game, doing the majority of the damage for his new team.
An Improved Locals Lineup
It’s no secret that Malaysia has a relatively smaller pool of local talent in comparison to other teams in the region, a huge disadvantage given the nature of the ABL. But to the delight of the Dragons, the team was able to ink a deal with Malaysia-born Bulgarian Simeon Lepichev, a 6’9” tower who after some speculation regarding his eligibility, was cleared by the league to play as a local for Kuala Lumpur.
Additionally, the team successfully retained the services of veteran shooter Loh Shee Fai, while also bringing onboard youngsters Tem Zhen Jie and Teoh Yi Kang. The return of national standout Kuek Tian Yuan has also provided a boost to the locals lineup.
With the aforementioned names, the Dragons essentially have the required tools to handle just about any task. With Lepichev and Kuek, size isn’t as big an issue as in previous seasons as both are long and mobile enough to be viable defensive presences. Lepichev’s large frame and willingness to get gritty at both ends help his teammates shine, while Kuek’s experience and shooting can give the team an edge down the stretch during tight games.
In Loh and Tem, the Dragons have two capable knockdown shooters, especially in situations where the opposition may opt for zone defensive schemes, and though they may just be role players, the two have proven themselves to be reliable in clutch moments. Either possess the fearlessness to pull up from the perimeter to swing the momentum of games.
The Dragons’ locals lineup may not be the most eye-catching in the league, but it does pack a formidable punch which when used in unison with the imports.
Malaysia Basketball’s GOLDEN BOY
As arguably Malaysia’s most complete player, who dominates its domestic scene, the loaning of Ting Chun Hong to their ABL roster was a no-brainer for the Dragons. The 6-foot-3 swingman has the size and fundamentals to lock down opposing players and the skillset to deliver on offense. In just his first game of the season, his presence on both ends of the floor helped the Dragons secure an important win over the Saigon Heat as he finished with seven points, four rebounds, and two steals.
As an important reinforcement at the forward position, Ting’s international experience from such a young age should prove to be an x-factor for the Dragons this season. As he becomes more established and comfortable within Pearlman’s system, his value should only continue to rise whether it’s as a consistent contributor as a starter or the sixth man off the bench.
Talks of a potential championship winning team in January is unquestionably early, especially given that the Dragons, or any team for that matter, have yet to even reach the threshold of earning a playoff spot.
But what we have seen so far from the Dragons this season has offered more promise than from that of any of the previous seasons since their championship title.
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