Promoted Pledger ready to handle the pressure
It's hard to tell whether Alex "The Chief" Pledger is nervous, excited or unflappably cool about the looming Australian NBL season.
It's a campaign that presents as the biggest challenge of his young career, but at this stage the towering 25-year-old Tall Black is playing his cards pretty close to his chest.
The Breakers big man - all 7ft of him - cuts an intriguingly stoic figure.
Occasionally he'll bust out a display of emotion, like when Cedric Jackson floats up one of those alley-oop passes he's able to slam home with authority. And occasionally he'll get a bit down on himself, and that head of his will hang a little low.
But for the most part Pledger just goes about his business in a matter-of-fact sort of manner that has made him not only a fan favourite but one of the most effective big men in this league.
So effective that the Breakers have elected to run with him as their starting centre for their tilt at a title three-peat which starts on Friday night at the North Shore Events Centre when the Perth Wildcats come to Auckland for a tantalising grand final rematch.
Pledger is long, moves remarkably well for such a big man, and has a surprising package of skills. For the last couple of seasons he has backed up import Gary Wilkinson, and been happy to play Robin to Big Red's Batman.
But the Breakers believe Pledger showed enough after averaging a respectable 8.6 points and 5.3 boards in just over 15 minutes a game last season to get his crack.
So they jettisoned Wilkinson, promoted The Chief and signed the blue-collar Will Hudson as his understudy.
It's a big shift in responsibility for Pledger, and many believe his response to the challenge will be a major factor in whether the Breakers can back up again.
“I've been looking forward to this chance for a little while now,” says Pledger. “I've learnt a lot off everybody here, but especially off Gary, who I guess you could say has mentored me.
“I felt that I was maybe capable of it last year. But I knew if I was patient I'd get my chance, and it's here. I had a pretty good off-season and for the most part a pretty good pre-season too. So, yeah, I feel ready.”
Pledger understands pressure goes with his promotion. But he also feels like he has a game to handle the opportunity. It's one he sharpened in the off-season with personal tuition from Aussie NBA legend Luc Longley - guidance that covered challenges both on and off the court and which he described as “invaluable”.
“He's going to be outstanding,” predicts veteran guard C J Bruton.
“I honestly don't know how long he can stay a Breaker, that's how good I see him becoming . . . over the years we've all seen him hang his head when he gets down on himself, but he's a focal point now and for the first time in his career he can show his true dominance.”
Pledger talks about being a defensive presence and a communicator for this Breakers side.
“We have guys who demand attention on the perimeter and we have guys who can create going to the basket, so I'm sure with minutes the scoring will come. But it's at the defensive end where I can have the biggest impact.”
And Perth first-up presents a perfect early measuring stick.
“They're the standard of the league when it comes to defensive pressure and physicality. They'll be a little different without [Luke] Nevill [now with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA], a little smaller and quicker. It'll be a tough game but it's one we're all looking forward to.” Fairfax NZ
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