Pledger takes centre stage for the Breakers
When you're Alex Pledger there really is nowhere to hide. The fact that you stand an imposing 7ft 1in (2.16m) doesn't help, nor that you are now the starting centre for the best basketball club in Australasia.
That's the position the 25-year-old New Zealand Breaker found himself in at the start of this Australian NBL season. He had been anointed the successor for one of the most popular and successful players in club history, the sweet-shooting, crowd-pleasing Gary Wilkinson, and it was make or break time for a fellow long on wing-span but sometimes short on self-confidence.
After game one, Pledger could have been excused for seeking out a very large hole and crawling up inside it.
He played 19:59 of a crushing 93-72 home defeat to the Perth Wildcats, and finished with eight points, zero rebounds and minimal impact. Yes, zero. When you are 2.16 metres with arms that go on like a Tolkien tale, it's a sin not to at least pick up a board.
It could have been ugly. The critics were murmuring, doubters were surfacing and even his own coach was laying down the law. "Unacceptable," declared a stern Andrej Lemanis. You could almost hear them breaking out the "Bring Back Gary" placards.
Yet a month later, the Breakers have four straight victories and "the Chief" has established himself as arguably the dominant defensive force in the league. Gary who?
Granted, he's not swishing buckets like old Silky Wilky used to, but it's not a bad tradeoff. Pledger had 14 blocks through the first four games to comfortably lead the league in the shot-swatting category. Wilkinson had 14 for the entire 2011-12 season.
He's also bounced back on the boards, averaging just over nine rebounds a game since his opening donut. Throw in 10.4 points an outing at a solid 50 per cent clip and you have a big man pulling his weight in a side still finding its feet.
Relieved only begins to describe Pledger's state of mind. He understands the responsibility and is just glad he's been able to imprint himself as a defensive force.
"That's the area where I can help the team the most," he says. "I've always challenged shots and like to be in the paint rebounding, I can't do a lot of things Gary could offensively but I'd like to think I make up for that with better defensive ability. I'm sure as the season goes on, the offence will come."
Pledger, who had 16 points and 10 boards in Friday's nail-biting win over the Kings, certainly has the faith of his team-mates. They love his presence in the paint and understand, as one of only two seven-footers in the league, he's a potential dominant force.
"He can be so influential and not even pick up a stat from it - the amount of shots he's changing and amount of guys scared to drive in the lane because he's in there," says forward Dillon Boucher.
"The more blocked shots he's getting, the more teams will realise what he can do . . . soon you're not going to see his block [numbers] going up, because people will pull up and take jump shots. That can only be good when he's protecting the paint like that.
"He's a smart shot blocker too. He doesn't jump at everything, he picks his time and goes late."
Not that you'll catch Pledger, a humble sort, talking himself up as the second coming of Dikembe Mutumbo. "I'm not like Dwight Howard who comes out of nowhere and swats shots," he shrugs. "I normally stand there with my hands up and people just shoot the ball into my hand.
"I try to challenge shots where I can and just be that guy back protecting the rim."
Lemanis is not surprised by his big man's growing presence. It was his call to jettison Wilkinson and expand Pledger's responsibilities.
"We are keeping opposing teams to low field-goal percentages, and from my experience, teams who have great shot blockers tend to be very good defensive teams," says Lemanis.
"With Chief it's not only the shots he blocks, but the ones he changes. He has an unbelievable ability to stay in front of people for his size. He's growing into the role and he's finding out just where he fits in this league and just how good he can be."
That's the thing about Pledger. He's still got so much upside. A bit of a late developer, the Blenheim-born, Waikato-raised big man is still figuring out this game.
"I thought it was just going to be like last year except I'd be playing 25 instead of 15 minutes," he concedes. "But I have noticed a little more defensive attention and a lot more physicality. It's just adjusting to that."
Pledger has already shown he's a quick learner - and a growing force.
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