Vietnam’s second installment of its domestic basketball league, the Vietnam Basketball Association, is set to begin on Tuesday, September 5th, when the newest expansion team, the Thang Long Warriors host the defending champion Danang Dragons in Hanoi.
The nearly 10-month long offseason has left basketball fans in Vietnam hungry for another season of stiff competition and should provide fans ample reasoning to once again divide into their own separate allegiances after coming together in support of the Vietnamese Men’s National Basketball Team at the 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.
Many things remain the same from the inaugural season of the Vietnam Basketball Association, but in the 10-month span since the Danang Dragons swept the Ho Chi Minh City Wings in two games, some major changes have been put in place that should inevitably shakeup the outlook of this year’s campaigns.
We’re here to bring you up to speed with some of those changes in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 months, or maybe perhaps this is your first time hearing about the VBA. Compiled is a list of some of the reasons why you might want to tune into the action that’s in store, so go ahead and get comfortable while we fill you in on the loop.
1. The Rapid Growth of Basketball in Vietnam
It should come as no surprise that the most popular sport in Vietnam is still dominated by football, or soccer, depending on where you’re from. Call it what you want, but as with most nations in the Southeast Asian region, basketball has and still is taking a backseat to football.
The popularity of basketball has grown, and is continually growing in Vietnam especially amongst the country’s youth. In riding the wave into the hearts of the upcoming generation of youngsters, developmental programs are ushering in a new era of potential professional athletes who wish to someday try their craft in the Vietnam Basketball Association or other professional leagues elsewhere.
The establishment of the VBA got off to a slow start initially as far as attendance was concerned, however, its popularity skyrocketed towards the latter half of the 2016 season. This year, fans have already started flocking to the stands of their favorite teams in show of support even in preseason matchups. That’s also without many of the notable names that were missing due to their ties with the National Team.
With annual summer visits from National Basketball Association (NBA) players coming into the fold through the Jr. NBA program, basketball is certainly on the rise. Names such as Tam Dinh, Horace Nguyen, and Stefan Nguyen are becoming more recognizable with every passing day and should give those who are familiar with the Vietnam Basketball Association more to talk about as they slurp down their daily intake of milk and peach tea.
2. New Face, New Opportunities
The Vietnam Basketball Association is very similar to other basketball leagues within Southeast Asia where teams are able to bring in players that have some sort of tie to that respective nation. Of course, there are limitations as to the quantity of these heritage players (two) on each individual team and the VBA is no different.
In addition to “heritage players,” or more commonly referred to as “Viet Kieu” in Vietnam along with local athletes, each team in the Vietnam Basketball Association is also allotted a single roster spot for an “import” player who is presumptively tasked with carrying a large load for their respective team.
During the offseason prior to the start of the 2017 season, the VBA hosted its first draft which consisted of Viet Kieu players wishing to showcase their skills in the country which their parents originated from.
Perhaps even more crucial to a team’s success than import players are, due to a larger disparity between skill level from one heritage player to the next, many Viet Kieu are realizing their dreams of becoming a professional basketball player, even if it might not be exactly how they envisioned it as adolescents.
Following in the footsteps of athletes that made the same jump just a season prior, the opportunity that the VBA provides for these Viet Kieu players might be their only chance of ever experiencing what it’s like to go pro, and in some regards, can also act as a stepping stone to other opportunities (we’re looking at you Justin Young).
The new Viet Kieu faces for the upcoming season include the Ho Chi Minh City Wings’ Henry Nguyen, the Hanoi Buffaloes’ Vincent Nguyen, the Thang Long Warriors’ Ryan Le (more on him later), and Anthony Vo of the Saigon Heat.
Let’s also not forget the import players that will be making their debuts in the VBA also. These players include Bilal Richardson of the Ho Chi Minh City Wings, Darius Lewis of the Saigon Heat, Deangelo Hamilton of the Can Tho Catfish, and Jordan Collins of the Hanoi Buffaloes.
3. Proving it was no Fluke
The Danang Dragons’ Cinderella run through the 2016 VBA Playoffs raised some eyebrows and turned some heads. How could a team that finished dead last during the regular season, needing a wildcard victory against a fourth-place Can Tho Catfish team just to get in, ultimately win the entire thing?
Oh yea, they also managed to go undefeated in the post-season, sweeping the top-seeded Saigon Heat and the second-seeded Ho Chi Minh City Wings en-route to the title.
Well, for starters, they did technically have four Viet Kieu on their roster during the 2016 season when league rules state that a team can only have a maximum of two. This season, the Dragons will only be returning two of those four players: guard Horace Nguyen, who the team was allowed to hold onto and guard/forward Stefan Nguyen who somehow fell back to the Dragons’ lap during the 2017 Viet Kieu draft.
A notable omission from last season’s core, Vietnamese-Australian guard Jimmy Kien, was a vital piece of the 2016 championship puzzle and his absence could pose a major threat in the Dragons’ repeat bid for this season’s championship trophy.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Dragons’ 2016 post season success lied in their starting import center, Rudolphe Joly. Also the MVP of the 2016 VBA season, Joly was a major force inside the paint on both ends of the floor and will be returning for a title defense.
Other teams throughout the league were able to witness just what a big-bodied presence could provide for a team’s overall composition and have opted for similar type imports for the upcoming season. The 2016 MVP will be facing off against other players that will match up a lot better this time around.
In the preseason games, the Dragons have looked below mediocre and could be off to another slow start. It is after all, still just preseason, but if the defending champions once again limp their way through the regular season, they won’t be as lucky this time around with the new playoff seeding format.
4. What Style Will Reign Supreme?
Personally, I like the two-tone color way jerseys with black fading into blue that the Hanoi Buffaloes will be rocking during their home games this season best. Oh, wrong kind of style.
All jokes aside, as before mentioned, many of the teams this season have decided to go with a traditional back-to-the-basket center similar to what made the Danang Dragons so successful in the 2016 playoffs.
When watching how teams performed during the 2016 Vietnam Basketball Association season, their contrasting styles of play became clearer as the season progressed:
The Can Tho Catfish relied heavily on Viet Kieu Tam Dinh’s isolation play to put the ball through the hoop and Tavarion Nix was there to cleanup any misses.
David “Viet” Arnold and slasher Darrell Miller capitalized in the open court, turning in easy buckets on the fast break for the Saigon Heat.
Todd Purves’ attention to ball-movement and team-oriented basketball really fit the makeup of his undersized Hanoi Buffaloes roster.
Jaywuan Hill and Justin Young formed a tandem that could face-up with a drive to the rim or hit the elbow jumper, all while benefiting from a security kick-out play to the sharpshooting Han Minh for the City Wings.
The Dragons, well, I think by now we know how they played.
It will be interesting to see how teams adapt with the style of import players they’ve picked up during the offseason and should make for compelling dissections for all you basketball geeks out there.
5. Old Face, Different Scenary
The Thang Long Warriors didn’t take long to introduce themselves to basketball fans in Vietnam. In fact, in many ways, it could be considered a reintroduction with the players they were able to obtain for the 2017 season.
Nguyen Van Hung, formerly of the Saigon Heat, is a Vietnamese-born athlete that has already won over the hearts of basketball fans nationwide. A natural center that is experienced with battling bigs both in the VBA and internationally, the “Tank” can be inserted to guard the opposition’s import big-man with confidence, allowing the import player on his team to operate more freely.
Joining Van Hung on the Thang Long Warriors are 2016 fan favorites and dynamic-duo Jaywuan Hill and Justin Young from last season’s runner-ups, the Ho Chi Minh City Wings. Hill and Young split time in the City Wings’ frontcourt guarding opposing centers so look for them to operate more freely this time around, much like what Darrell Miller was able to do for the Saigon Heat last season.
Rounding out the core of the Thang Long Warriors is Viet Kieu Ryan Le. Although this is his first go at the Vietnam Basketball Association, he is no stranger to professional basketball in Vietnam, playing previously for the Saigon Heat in the ASEAN Basketball League.
Other notable offseason additions involve the moves of Huynh Hai and Le Ngoc Tu, formerly of the Ho Chi Minh City Wings to the cross-town rival Saigon Heat.
The implementation of these players on their new teams and their fan reception is something to watch for in the upcoming season.
6. New Team and Playoff Seeding Structure
A new team from the north of Vietnam will be making their debut in the Vietnam Basketball Association this season and they’ll be looking to turn fans from the Hanoi Buffaloes. The Thang Long Warriors will be coached by Lee Tao Dana and feature what could be the most formidable frontcourt in the entire league.
Traditionally, expansion teams in sports generally have a hard time keeping pace with the rest of the league in the first few seasons, but this isn’t your typical expansion team. The Warriors boasts a core made up of extensive experience, unmatched athleticism, and undeniable talent.
Signing the lone Vietnamese local that is capable of guarding import centers is a great way to anchor a roster. Selecting experienced and athletic heritage players in Justin Young and Ryan Le from the draft takes care of the question marks surrounding whether that heritage player can compete professionally or not. Throw in an MVP candidate import from last season in Jaywuan Hill and you’ve got a formula for an instant contender.
On paper, the Thang Long Warriors shouldn’t have too much problem getting into this year’s postseason even with the changeup from last season.
The Danang Dragons benefited from last season’s playoff seeding structure after finishing in last place. Partly due to the odd number and limited amount of teams in the league, the eventual champions were able to book their tickets into the postseason by defeating the Can Tho Catfish in a do-or-die wildcard matchup to determine the last and final seed.
There won’t be a similar type underdog story for this year’s edition of the VBA with the inclusion of the Thang Long Warriors evening out and expanding the number of teams in the league. Teams wishing to make it in will feel more pressure during the regular season as only the top four teams will be eligible to participate in 2017.
7. Rivalries and Derby Days
When you have two professional teams that share the same city, usually one fan base heavily outnumbers the other. Factors that could influence the disparity amongst fan bases could be the length in time of existence and competitiveness between the two.
Though the Vietnam Basketball Association has only been established for about a year, the Saigon Heat have ruled Ho Chi Minh City’s basketball fan base since the organization itself has outlived the VBA with their participation in the ASEAN Basketball League.
The Saigon Heat also have the benefit of being the better team in 2016 over their cross-town rivals, the Ho Chi Minh City Wings, but just by a bare margin. The two teams finished first and second overall in the standings at last season’s end.
Don’t let those numbers fool you though. The City Wings fan base is very much alive in Ho Chi Minh City and they do make their presence known during games. With the Saigon Heat owning a 3-1 record over the City Wings thus far in the rivalry, you can be rest assured that the team playing out of Ho Xuan Huong will be out for revenge.
Also worth noting in this particular rivalry is the atmosphere and level of play when these two teams come together. This year’s edition of the City Wings looks drastically different, however, you can expect a heated matchup with a raucous crowd especially given the history between players of each team: Han Minh and Tuan Trung both played for the Saigon Heat in the past during the ASEAN Basketball League; additionally, Le Ngoc Tu and Huynh Hai have jumped ship from the City Wings onto the Saigon Heat this season.
Vietnam’s northern region is also brewing up a new rivalry for 2017 with the addition of the Thang Long Warrios. The Hanoi Buffaloes have become the jewel of Vietnamese basketball in the capital city and are one of the more established teams in the entire league having a stint in the 2017 Thailand Basketball Super League.
This season’s matchups between the two teams will really test the allegiance of fans in the northern region as both teams bolster a roster of beloved players and both should be in contention for the best team in the league.
Furthermore, the Thang Long Warriors possess two players responsible for the Buffaloes’ semi-finals lost in last season’s playoffs. Did I mention that Justin Young also played for the Hanoi Buffaloes in the 2017 TBSL?
My mouth is already salivating for what will be served in 2017.
8. Brotherly Love
It’s not very often that you get to see two siblings playing a sport professionally. It’s even rarer to have two siblings playing professionally in the same league and playing a big role for their respective teams. Let’s take it one more step even further; you don’t see two siblings playing professionally on the same team and playing a big role for their team. Yea, we’re way past four-leaf clover and double-rainbow rare now.
The Vietnam Basketball Association actually possesses three sets of brothers all playing in the league; two of the sets, playing for the same team. Go ahead and pinch yourself. It’s real.
Long-time Saigon Heat player David Arnold is arguably the best Viet Kieu in Vietnam and plays in the VBA and ABL. His younger brother, Ryan, is starting to catch up in the experience department playing for the Hanoi Buffaloes in last season’s VBA, the 2017 TBSL, and was selected to rejoin the team after the 2017 Viet Kieu draft.
Ryan has continually gotten better throughout his ventures in Southeast Asia, but when the two meet up, you can bet that the elder brother surely won’t let the younger Arnold outshine him.
Next up is a set of brothers which include a player knocking on the door for best Viet Kieu in Vietnam. Tam Dinh was the first to make the jump to the VBA and his success overseas brought his younger brother, Sang, to join him on the Can Tho Catfish.
It’s clear that the two have chemistry from their days playing together in Texas, and if you don’t believe me, just watch whose throwing the lobs for a Tam alley-oop dunk during the Can Tho Catfish games.
The third and last set of brothers in the VBA just so happens to be twins as well. Hoang Ca and Dat Doc didn’t have to choose sides or split up when they both decided to play professionally since Hanoi only had one team at the time. Luckily, for the most part, only one of them is on the court at a time since they essentially fill the same void on the Buffaloes so you needn’t have to be worried about being confused as to who’s who during the course of a game.
If you still can’t determine which is Dat and which is Hoang, just watch how they play. Their styles differ drastically with the ball in their hands.
9. Excited and Loyal Fans
The Vietnam Basketball Association still has ways to go before reaching the talent depth of other surrounding basketball leagues in the Southeast Asia region. One thing that it does have working in its favor is the level of fan following and interaction for a relatively new league.
The early establishment of the Saigon Heat in the ASEAN Basketball League has helped bridge a gap amongst casual and die-hard fans alike, but the establishment of the VBA has broadened those stretches to an even greater extent.
Gone are the days in which the only place to catch a professional basketball game in Vietnam would be in Ho Chi Minh City on a late Saturday afternoon. Now, it would be nearly impossible to find a major city without the inclusion of a team and its accompanying fan base.
The entertainment culture of Vietnam and the accessibility of the VBA certainly draws in a hefty crowd on any given game day regardless of team and locale.
Whether it be a family looking for some entertainment for their children, a group of friends deciding to converse with one another outside a coffee shop, or a date night that breaks away from the conventional dinner and a movie, the VBA seems to appeal to all sorts of demographics.
Where the affinity for going out draws in a crowd, the fun, excitement, and entertainment of a live game keeps these casual goers coming back for more and turns them into not only fans of their local team, but also to the game of basketball itself.
In the VBA, the final buzzer doesn’t only just signal the end to a game. It also signals the moment when fans can step onto the court to meet and interact with their favorite players. From exchanging words with their idols to snapping a selfie with their crush to post on their social media accounts, the VBA offers joyous moments for its attendees and players.
Building these types of relationships between fans and players allows for a much more personalized experience and gives fans an even greater incentive to come back again. To add to that, fans of the VBA also show a great deal of loyalty towards their favorite teams and travel well in support of them.
If you do attend a VBA game, don’t be surprised to be suddenly surrounded by patrons clad in the colors of the visiting team, especially if you arrive early and find yourself a nice open spot with no one else sitting alongside initially.
10. The Rise of a Star
The face of basketball in Vietnam has long been attributed to David Arnold of the Saigon Heat and who could blame him? He has been playing basketball professionally in the country even before the start of the Vietnam Basketball Association and possesses that confident “swagger” that is prevalent amongst many top players.
The 2016 VBA season has, however, found a gem in another Vietnamese-American: Tam Dinh.
Although Tam plays in what could be considered a smaller basketball market in Can Tho, the forward from Texas has made a name for himself throughout Vietnam with his potential to take on anyone in one-on-one situations and his propensity for flashy finishes.
After a very successful individual 2016 season, Dinh was brought onto Vietnam’s National Team to help take the nation to the next level at the recently passed SEA Games in Malaysia. He is also signed to the Saigon Heat for the upcoming 2017-2018 ASEAN Basketball League alongside the player he is unofficially battling against for best Viet Kieu in Vietnam.
With the labels attached to his name, a lot is riding on the shoulders of the second-year pro to take his Can Tho Catfish squad into the postseason after falling just short in 2016 despite finishing fourth overall during the regular season.
The expectations and pressure for 2017 will be even greater as teams should be scheming ways to try and stop the dynamic forward.
As a player that exudes the same type of confidence and swagger found in Arnold’s game, the upcoming season will definitely be one to watch to see if Tam can improve his game even more before facing off against stiffer competition in the ABL.