Alex Pledger has played over 200 times for the New Zealand Breakers and is a four-time Aussie NBL champion as well as a Tall Blacks international and the 2011 Kiwi NBL MVP. You probably recognise him – he’s the tall one. And he was good enough to spare a few words for the Nichey Niche.
Cheers for chatting, Pledge. Obviously it's a disappointment the Breakers didn't make the playoffs this season, but with a new coach, a new GM, so many injuries and a couple youngsters really breaking through there was plenty going on. How do you assess a season like that?
If you look at it from the point of view “they missed the playoffs”, disappointing is probably the only way you can describe it since we all wanted to be in a position to compete for a championship. But if winning it all is the only way a season can be successful, well you’re going to be disappointed most of the time since championships are not easy to win.
I think we can be proud of the way we competed this year. We faced a lot of adversity this year on the floor, it seemed like every week Pauli rocked up to our first practice of the week with bad news about someone, when you consider all the injuries and new players we had to integrate it would have been easy to roll over and use it as an excuse, but to stick together and step up the way we did in the seasons closing weeks and literally be a few possessions away from the top four, I think despite the disappointment of missing the playoffs by such a narrow margin we can hold our heads high!
It's only the second question, but gotta ask ya about Akil Mitchell's eye, sorry. Did you see it? Was it as horrible as the split-second TV shot appeared? And how the hell was the dude so good-humoured about it all, what a champion!
Yeah I was on the floor when it happened! It was pretty horrific! I’ve never seen anything like it before in any sport. It was pretty shocking to see when you walk over there expecting to see a bleeding nose or maybe a tooth missing or something like that and then you see what we saw, I had no idea how to react or what to do to help him! Despite how horrific it looked, in terms of actual damage to his eye it amazingly was relatively minor and apparently it slid back into the socket in the ambulance on the way to the hospital so no surgery was required and he could go home that same night! That’s probably why he was so good humoured about it, Akil is a pretty laid back and funny guy and since it turned out to be relatively minor that was probably his way of just trying to get over it. If the doctor told him he needed surgery and might go blind in that eye, he probably wouldn’t have been as peppy!
On a personal level you were one of only two players (along with Kirk Penney) to play every game this season. After a couple of years playing through some tough injuries, that must have felt great, right? It definitely looked like you were back to your best a few times there.
It definitely felt good after how the last few years have gone on the injury front for me. There were times where I felt like I was truly back to my best form but I definitely still need to be more consistent from game to game. Going into the season it was one of my goals to play in every game and I’m pretty pleased I managed to tick that one off.
Flashing back to darker times, what's that like as a sportsperson with a long-term injury? Watching from the sidelines, constant rehabbing, not able to compete, not able to do your job even...
It’s rough, to put it simply. When you are on the sideline at practice doing rehab stuff while the guys are out on the floor busting their asses you can’t help but feel you are letting the team down a bit. But I think it’s tougher mentally than physically. The thought of not being able to return to your pre-injury form, the fear of re-injury, etc. … that’s just as tough, if not tougher, than the rehabbing and all the physical stuff.
How would you describe what you offer as a player? Like, what's your role for this team?
Well as the old saying goes “you can’t teach height” (lol)… but I think I provide a pretty big presence on the interior at both ends! A target around the rim, rebounder and rim protector. In the quote unquote “new age’’ of basketball where everyone wants to go small and bomb away from the three point line, I believe regardless of how much smaller/faster the game becomes that there will always be a spot on any roster for a big guy who can defend the paint and mix it up inside! That’s what I try to provide.
Another injury thing, how tricky is it as a player when constant injuries are messing with playing rotations every couple of weeks? You guys went through five import players this season.
It can be pretty tricky! Especially in a season/league like this one when most weeks we have double headers and travel so practice time can be limited to fully integrate a new player, that’s not taking into account recovery and rest time! At times it forced players to play a little out of position, Paul Carter for example played pretty much every position but centre at some point in his first game for us (with no practices) against the Sydney Kings, we also saw a “twin towers” line-up with me and Robbie out there together over the last few rounds! We were forced at times to do things a little out of our comfort zones, but if there is a positive from it all, guys like Shea Ili and Finn Delany got to play extended minutes at multiple positions and that experience I think really boosted their confidence, those guys carried us down the stretch in the biggest game of our season against Melbourne to keep our playoff hopes alive.
Take us through an away game in Perth. It's one of the longest away trips in all domestic sports, what's the journey like and how much does it truly affect the performances on the court?
It’s a pretty long journey heading to Perth! Takes about 7 hours to fly there direct and they are 4 or 5 hours behind us (depending on daylight saving) so if you can imagine playing at 7pm Perth is like playing at midnight back home! So combating the time difference is the biggest challenge. Some people like getting there a few days before the game to adjust to the time zone while some people like arriving the night before the game and leaving as quickly as possible after! We have tried both theories at times over the years and have had about the same level of success with each so I’m not sure if there is a ‘right’ answer… but we have travel protocols for travelling with hydration and compression gear, etc. to help us recover as quickly as possible. Plus airlines are normally pretty accommodating with us taller guys in particular so that definitely helps.
Okay, so imagine Kirk Penney's popping one up from three point range. You're standing a few metres from the basket in the paint. Describe what goes into winning that rebound (assuming that Kirk inexplicably misses).
I always try to get inside position on whoever is guarding me or at the very least level with them and get into their body so they can’t jump. That’s how I win a lot of rebounding battles, take away their ability to jump and use my height and length! There are definitely guys out there who I can beat in just a straight jumping contest but against Ekene Ibekwe/Charles Jackson types, well I’m not going to “out athlete” guys like that so if you take away the ability to jump, being taller than everyone comes in pretty handy, haha.
Being as tall as you are (2.13m according to research!), did basketball always feel like a natural fit for you?
Actually no it didn’t! Outside of playing rugby on a Saturday morning when I was in primary school like most kiwi kids I didn’t really play any sport growing up! I started playing when I was 16 and a sixth former in high school.
I was convinced to play basketball by a coach. As I was walking to school one morning, he pulled over in his car as I was on my way to school, told me the school’s basketball try-outs were that night and convinced me to come along to them. I was about six foot ten at the time and if people think I’m kinda unco now, you should have been at the trials that night, haha. But I quickly learned to love the game and feel very privileged to be able to play it for a living.
Similarly, what's the best comeback you've got stocked away for when people ask you what the weather's like up there?
Haha, I honestly don’t have many comebacks! Now that I think about it people don’t really ask me stuff like that anymore. Most people just stare from a distance. But I’m first to know when it rains, lol.
You were a 60% free throw shooter this season at a position where it's not expected you're gonna hit every attempt, so no worries there. But in an era where dudes like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond are regularly making worse than 45% on their FTs, what do you reckon it is about big guys and free throws?
I think it’s mostly mental. There are definitely mechanical/technique things that can be improved but to use me as an example: in practice I regularly rattle off 30-plus in a row when I’m shooting them by myself and in the NZ NBL, which despite being a very good league is a level below the Aussie NBL, I regularly shoot in the mid-seventies. But in the Aussie league most years I’m in the 60s … it’s hard to say exactly why but I think it’s mainly mental.
Alrighty lad, put the basketballing expertise on the line here: What's your best theory for beating the Golden State Warriors in a playoffs series? Is it even possible?
I think you definitely have to slow the game down against them! If you try beating them in a track meet you might beat them in a game, but four times out of seven? Don’t think so… although it was just the first game of the year we saw the Spurs beat them up on the interior and on the boards! Getting Durant made them even more potent offensively but losing Bogut and Ezeli, that’s about 14 feet and 240kg of muscle in the middle they don’t have and if you can pound it inside instead of trying beat them at their own game that will increase your chances, again you might win a game playing on their terms but 4 out of 7? Nope… I think the best plan is to make it a bit of a slugfest. Slow it down and make it a physical grind rather than a free flowing high scoring series. Much easier said than done… having LeBron on your team would also help!
Who's the best player you've ever played against and why? Must be a couple contenders from Tall Blacks duty in there.
Best centre I’ve matched up against would be Marc Gasol, matched up with him in the 2010 world cup against Spain! But best player regardless of position would probably be Serbian point guard Milos Teodosic! That might surprise a few people, some may not have even heard of him, but in Europe the pick and roll is obviously a massive part of what they do and there is literally no good way to defend it when he is involved. He can shoot the three, he can shoot the mid-range pull up, he can shoot floaters, he can finish around the rim plus he is about six foot four/five so can see over most guards and can see over double teams a lot easier than smaller guards and on top of all that, he is arguably the best passer in the world! Very difficult to defend.
Preferred nickname: Pledgehammer or The Chief? (Or some mystery third option...)
I don’t really have a preference! I’ve got so many nicknames it’s at the point where my Mum hardly ever calls me by my actual name, haha… but Chief has stuck with me ever since I was a development player so if I had to choose I would go with that.
And finally, which is the more badass feeling: dunking on a bugger or blocking him at the rim?
For me it would be blocking someone! Especially if they are trying to dunk it. I’m a pretty vanilla dunker, I’m not some sort of skywalker who can do crazy stuff in the air - an Alex Pledger one-handed dunk probably won’t get the same crowd reaction as a Tom Abercrombie alley-oop would! But a big defensive play around the rim, I think that can give the team and crowd a bigger boost.