Josh Boone has played professionally for 10 different teams, in nine different leagues, in eight different countries, and on four different continents, and after a journey that began with an NCAA championship during his freshman season at UConn, continued in the NBA as a first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets, and wound its way through the lows of fighting for game checks in Estonia and battling recovery from a major knee injury, he has finally found another high point, winning a championship and playing some of the best basketball of his career for the NBL’s Melbourne United.
To understand Josh, and to understand his journey, one must first understand his stigma. Playing in the NBA, word can spread quickly about a player’s ability, drive and passion for the game of basketball. For Josh, a stigmatization regarding his love for the game left a rigid chip on his shoulder, one that admittedly would not soften throughout the duration of his career.
“When you’re in the NBA, it is easy to get stigmatized and have a word go around about you,” Josh recalls. “From what I remember, one of the words that went around about me was that I don’t necessarily love the game of basketball.”
A sense of pain mixed with disbelief hangs on every word upon utterance. For years, Josh would fight this association, one that he believes, at least in part, was driven by optics, hearing from the people around him that he did not appear to be working hard. The beauty of optics, however, is that they can change.
This past season with Melbourne United, Josh led the NBL in rebounding, contributing significantly on the offensive glass while operating effectively out of the pick-and-roll. In pick-and-roll scenarios, he showed a continued ability to threaten defenses by converting on dives while using his soft around-the-rim touch, by popping out to hit 15-to-18-foot jump shots, or by pulling up and finding cutters by utilizing his advanced court awareness. Many of Josh’s best attributes are predicated on effort and experience, elements that only arise with a certain passion and longevity seldomly associated with the disinterested.
Often, the foundation upon which experience is built comes in the form of learning and observation, being surrounded by experienced coaches and role models to help guide a path to success. Josh is no exception to this rule, having played with and learned from several of the most successful figures in the NCAA, NBA and overseas competition early in his career.
Josh was not the highest ranked recruit in his college class, that was Charlie Villanueva, yet as a four-star recruit, rated the 54th best prospect in the nation by Rivals, he had received offers from Georgetown and Kansas. His decision to bypass those offers and join the UConn Huskies, however, was simpler than most would expect, predicated on the opportunity to learn from an individual player.
“UConn was the place that I wanted to go mainly because Emeka (Okafor) was there,” Josh noted. “The chance to play for a year either next to or behind a guy who was pretty unanimously considered the best big man in college basketball at the time was an opportunity that I really couldn’t turn down.”
During the 2003-2004 championship season with the Huskies, Okafor was named an All-American, the national Defensive Player of the Year, the Big East Player of the Year, and the eventual NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player. That season, Josh would start 37 of UConn’s 38 games, playing alongside Okafor in the process. Part of Josh’s growth playing alongside Okafor came through observations of his action-driven style of leadership.
“Emeka was much less of a vocal leader and much more of a lead by example guy,” Josh recalled. “You could always tell that there was one thing that he decided that day that he was going to work on. One specific practice, he literally shot every single shot with his left hand because I guess that he had decided that day he was going to work on his left.”
In addition to playing and learning alongside Emeka Okafor, Josh had the opportunity to learn from one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history in Jim Calhoun. While demanding of his players, Coach Calhoun undoubtedly prepared them for the NBA, scheduling and running practices similar to those that his players would later experience in a professional environment.
“Coach Calhoun really did a great job of running the program like an NBA program. When we would get to the NBA we were much more prepared than a lot of other guys.”
That 2003-2004 UConn team would go on to produce six NBA players, including a 21-year-old Josh Boone who was drafted by the New Jersey Nets in the first round of the 2006 NBA draft, one pick after his college teammate, Marcus Williams. With the Nets, Josh would start his career playing alongside Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, three players he credited with showing him the ropes early in his NBA experience. From a playing perspective, Kidd’s superior court vision and ability to evolve his game left a lasting impression on a young Josh Boone.
“Playing with Jason Kidd makes things a lot easier. I used to kind of walk into points by just being on the court and having my hands up with him,” Josh said, later considering Jason Kidd as the best player that he would ever play with.
While always an elite passer, Kidd’s ability to evolve his game and elongate his career truly stood out. A below-average three-point shooter early in his career, defenses began sagging off of Kidd, sacrificing opportunities to defend his jump shot for an increased likelihood of blocking potential passing lanes. Josh noted that Kidd would work with shooting coach Bob Tate before practice, after practice, or in some instances, both, in an effort to improve his three-point shooting ability thereby keeping defenses honest. As a measure of evolution, during the 2009-2010 season, Kidd would rank third in the NBA in three-pointers made and 11th in three-point shooting percentage.
“The thing that impressed me the most with J-Kidd (and taught me the most) was that, as a professional, you need to evolve your game as time goes on, you can’t just be complacent.”
While many early-career points of development came from playing alongside and from playing under respected coaches and players, certain points of development, and areas of added versatility, came from opportunities playing against other accomplished players.
Josh mentions one instance where he was forced into guarding Villanova point guard, Kyle Lowry, after Lowry spent the first half successfully working the offensive glass. Known for his quickness and focus on developing his footwork, Josh was switched onto Lowry for the second half of the game, providing an experience defending one of the fastest young guards in college basketball. The experience would provide an early sign of confidence for a player who would spend much of his career relying on versatility to switch onto smaller players and defend out to the three-point line as needed.
While many experiences early in his career would help shape the player that Josh Boone is today, Josh was already building on a strong skill set that centered around the two value-adding activities, rebounding and pick-and-roll operation.
“Dating back to high school, middle school, and all the way through the NBA and now playing overseas, I’ve always been a good pick-and-roll player,” Josh notes. “The other thing that I have done consistently anywhere that I have gone is offensive rebound. Now this is just something that, throughout the years, I have developed kind of a knack for.”
With Josh absorbing the lead-by-example leadership styles of several of his most successful running mates, another step remained in his career development: vocal leadership. This step in Josh’s development was aided, in large part, by words of advice offered by his coach while playing in Bahrain, Sam Vincent. An ex-NBA player and ex-NBA coach himself, Vincent was familiar from both a player’s and coach’s perspective of the traits required to elevate his teams to greater heights.
“He sat me down at one point and was like, ‘Look, it’s great that you can go out there and calmly show some of these guys the way, but I also need you to talk to them about it…if you see somebody out of position, don’t be afraid to call them out and then tell them where they need to be.’ That was kind of the point where I started being considerably more vocal in my leadership.”
With Okafor providing an early blueprint for leadership and preparation, Kidd showing the value of emphasizing court vision and constant development, experiences against guards like Lowry offering opportunities to defend out of position, and coaches like Vincent offering advice to aid in his development as a team leader, Josh’s foundation was intact and offered a fine roadmap for establishing a long career as a professional basketball player.
It’s March 5, 2018, and top-seeded Melbourne United is taking on the fourth-seeded New Zealand Breakers. Five seconds remain in the second quarter and power forward Tai Wesley misses a free throw, dully bouncing off of the front rim. Josh Boone, 33, begins a tactical transition from his position along the left side of the foul lane. With his defender failing to connect body with body and effectively box out, Josh only has Breakers’ forward Tom Abercrombie between himself and the ball. The ball descends from its apex and both men leap, but Josh elevates faster and reaches greater heights, his elbow ending up at the same elevation as Abercrombie’s extended fingertip.
Despite reaching the ball first, Josh doesn’t quite have the space to secure a clean rebound. Instead, as he has done for much of his career, he labors to keep the ball alive, tapping the ball off of the glass for a chance at a second opportunity. With Abercrombie falling to the right, outside of the foul lane, nobody stands between Josh and the ball. Springing at the second-chance opportunity, Josh immediately transitions into a second leap, ascending up and through the outstretched arm of a Breakers defender to guide the ball onto the rim, rolling around for a brief moment before dropping.
“Six points down and Josh Boone is the reason why this game is close!” excitedly states the announcer.
As the game progresses, Josh continues to play a prominent role, commanding defensive attention. With 9 minutes and 21 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Melbourne United trails by five. As Josh Boone receives a pass on the left block, his head swivels, immediately observing a New Zealand defender dropping to double team. The ball never comes into Boone’s chest, instead staying palmed in an outstretched arm, away from the defender with back parallel to the baseline offering full court visibility. Instead of putting the ball on the floor, Josh remains patient, waiting for the defense to clear and reveal the unguarded man.
Referring to Casper Ware and Melbourne United captain and shooting guard, Chris Goulding, Josh noted: “They both have well beyond NBA range. When you have guys like them that can not only shoot it as well as they can, but guys who can get their shots off as quickly as they can, you can’t really leave them open for a second.”
After the pause breaks, Casper Ware, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season, emerges wide open at the top of the key. Josh zips a pass to the top of the three-point arc, connecting cleanly with Ware. Without a defender within five feet, Ware enters a full knee bend, elevates on a vertical plane, and releases at the apex, ultimately hitting only the bottom of the back rim and, eventually, the bottom of the net, good for three points.
While his passing was on full display, Josh’s ability to dive toward the basket and convert around the rim out of the pick-and-roll would prove crucial at various stages of the game. During multiple sets, Chris Goulding handles the ball in the pick-and-roll. On the season, Goulding would shoot 40 percent from three while attempting just under eight three-point attempts per game, rightfully earning him the reputation as an effective shooter and scorer. Josh, however, would credit Goulding’s effectiveness out of the pick-and-roll as an overlooked strength of the Melbourne United team captain.
“Chris is actually very good in the pick-and-roll, which I don’t think that a lot of people realize because they all focus on his shooting ability,” Josh commented. “He’s a very good decision maker in the pick-and-roll and myself and him have developed a very good chemistry.”
With three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Goulding controls the ball on the left wing, pivoting about two feet off of the left sideline. As the play begins, Josh moves eagerly around the left elbow, taking two calculated steps before squaring up to Goulding’s defender. With Boone catching the defender’s full body, eventually leading to his stumbling to the ground beyond the three-point arc, Goulding is freed up momentarily to operate in a two-on-one scenario. Goulding uses the space beyond the screen judiciously, breaking down and angling toward the basket for a brief moment after working around the Josh Boone pick. With Josh’s defender stepping up to halt Goulding’s momentum, Josh is free to dive to the basket, rushing toward the rim with full momentum. Taking one additional dribble to draw the defender out an extra step, Goulding slings a wrap-around pass to a diving Josh Boone. The defender does not have time to recover nor do his teammates have time to rotate, allowing Josh to slam home an uncontested dunk.
The game would go to overtime, and with 2.9 seconds remaining on the clock Melbourne United inbounds the ball with the game tied at 86.
“It was a player-called play, it wasn’t something where we went to time out and we talked about it,” Josh recalls. “Tai Wesley called the play. We all went along with it, and that was that. It was much more just reactionary. The interesting part is that the play that we called, we actually hadn’t run all year. That was the first time that we ran it the entire season.”
Josh begins the play at the top of the key. Melbourne United guard, Peter Hooley, begins the play on the right block. As players work into motion, Hooley takes several steps up the right side of the foul lane, setting a pick roughly a foot below the right elbow. Josh races toward the basket, opening up toward the sideline, showing his numbers to Casper Ware, the inbounder on the play. Hooley clips Josh’s defender, causing him to stumble out of the play, leaving Josh seemingly wide open below the basket for the game-winning layup.
With momentum carrying him further below the basket, Josh catches the inbounds pass after a slight bobble, about a foot off of the baseline, thereby requiring him to jump in towards the basket to attempt the shot. The act takes a split second longer than otherwise anticipated, a split second long enough to allow Tom Abercrombie to recover on the play and swat Josh’s layup off the glass.
“As far as the mindset for that last couple of seconds in the New Zealand game, honestly, I didn’t really have time to think about it,” Josh recalls.
With just under two seconds remaining, Josh enters his second leap. Abercrombie is now out of the play leaving Boone free to grab the hovering ball. Now a savvy veteran, Josh collects the ball and keeps it high, never so much as bringing it below eye-level before coolly elevating to lay the ball off the glass. Within a moment, the backboard flashes red and the ball rattles around the interior of the rim, dropping through the net, good for two points and a trip to the NBL finals.
While the play call presented a first-time wrinkle to the Melbourne United offense, the play call was not unfamiliar to everybody in the building that night.
“Our coach used to coach at New Zealand, and it was the play that they used to win the championship in New Zealand,” Josh notes.
While this play did not win Melbourne United the championship, it did provide them the opportunity to play for one, and the player converting in the game’s final seconds had rightfully earned the lion’s share of credit. Josh would finish the night with 33 points and 15 rebounds, while presenting an advanced ability to pass out of the pick-and-roll and capitalize on double teams. On this night, Josh led by example, relied on his court vision, and used his quickness on both the offensive and defensive end to both create and defend shots. He had traveled a long way, both literally and figuratively, from the origin of his stigma, and if even the slightest doubt remained about his passion for the game of basketball, few, if any, could remain after Melbourne United defeat of the Adelaide 36ers in the NBL finals.
This upcoming season, Melbourne United will look to repeat as NBL champions. Generally, along with the opportunity to repeat, comes heightened expectations and added pressure. That, however, does not appear to be the case for Melbourne United who seems to be flying under the radar.
On April 2018, former top draft pick and native Australian, Andrew Bogut, signed a two-year contract with the Sydney Kings. The homecoming of Bogut, one of Australia’s most popular players with a physical style of play that blends naturally with the league’s identity, surely offers an increased challenge for the Melbourne United team when considering that Sydney was also able to bring back Jerome Randle, the league’s leading scorer and distributor.
In many regards, the addition of Bogut offers a reminder of the league’s recent growth and of the ever-increasing talent pool in the NBL. That growth, Josh says, is apparent in terms of the league’s game atmosphere, the level of competition and the ease in lifestyle transition for imported players.
From a game perspective, Josh compares the NBL’s pace to a mix between the Russian-centric VTB United League, known for its highly physical style of play, and the fast-breaking, run-and-gun Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), comparing the NBL more favorably to the fast pace of play seen in the Philippines. Resulting from such a pairing is a brand of basketball that both resonates with the gritty style of play pridefully adorned by the local Australian players and fans and achieves the high level of entertainment associated with superb pace and athleticism. Competitively, Josh considers the NBL product to be in the upper echelon of global basketball leagues.
“I believe that the NBL is one of the best leagues in the world. This is coming from someone who has played in the best leagues in the world.”
While the stylistic presentation of NBL basketball resonates with players and fans alike, Josh considers the investment by NBL owner Larry Kestelman into the games aesthetics and fan experience to be equally important elements to the league’s growth.
“They had a new owner come in maybe four years ago by the name of Larry Kestelman who has really turned the league around. He’s changed a lot of things in the presentation of the league, where now going to an NBL game is really as close as it gets to going to an NBA game in terms of the game night atmosphere, from player introductions, the pyro, and just the general feeling inside the arena,” Josh notes. “You can look at some of these EuroLeague teams and you can see that it’s obviously a really, really high level of basketball, but you don’t have the general feeling in the arena itself, whereas you go to a game in Melbourne, go to a game at Perth, and you feel like you’re at a really high-level basketball game in every sense of the word.”
With the competition and presentation of the game taking strides toward meeting the gold standard set by the NBA in terms of overall product, basketball is growing in Australia, and fans are connecting with their homegrown basketball talent in a way that they never have before. This past summer, 2K Sports published their 2K19 video game, premiering in Australia with Ben Simmons, the Sixers soon-to-be-all-star point guard, gracing the cover. Simmons has already reached superstar status over in Australia, Josh says, yet basketball is still growing within the country, trailing sports like Australian Rules Football and Cricket in terms of overall popularity. With the annual development and improvement of the NBL product, the hope is that the growth of Australian basketball culture will continue and that, eventually, players like Simmons will surpass superstar status and ascend to the ranks of megastars.
Perhaps the greatest draw to the NBL is an inherent quality that needs no development. Josh notes that Australia has been rated one of the top tourist destinations and top local cities for several years now, a claim corroborated by an August 2018 CNN article describing the world’s most livable cities, leading with the following line, “Melbourne has finally lost the title of world’s most livable city after a seven-year reign.” Despite what the headline says, Melbourne would check in at number two, hardly a fall from grace. Josh echoed this sentiment, expressing his genuine interest in Melbourne as both a pit stop for foreign imports and a potential long-term place of residence.
“There are a lot of places that you go where you don’t enjoy being and you don’t enjoy living there and Australia is kind of one of those places that you can’t really say that about. Any import that comes to Australia kind of doesn’t want to leave again,” Josh says while laughing contentedly. “We all get there and it’s like ‘Wow! We didn’t know that this type of lifestyle actually existed’ where you could have a very, very normal life.”
Perhaps Melbourne United is being overlooked this upcoming season, and that, rightfully, is leaving the Melbourne United team hungrier to work towards another chance at a championship. Josh is no different, yet, on this day in Melbourne, Josh is happy, he is at peace.
“I’m very happy with where I am. I think that I’ve found a really good spot here in Melbourne and in the NBL in particular. If this is where I’m at for the rest of my career, I’m comfortable with that, absolutely. I enjoy life at this point and that’s something that can’t necessarily be said in a lot of places overseas by a lot of players.”
Having now found success and acceptance in one of the world’s top basketball leagues, with, undeniably, one of its most comfortable living arrangements as well, Josh feels at home. Melbourne, home at last.
Stats used in this article were obtained from NBL.com and BasketballReference.com