Mika Vukona struggles with new interpretations

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS: Breakers star Mika Vukona in action at Vector Arena.
MAKING ADJUSTMENTS: Breakers star Mika Vukona in action at Vector Arena.

For Mika Vukona, the frustration is writ large on his expressive face, if not on the impressive statline from his opening game in the new Australian NBL (ANBL) season.

The ANBL's clampdown on physical defending is for all intents and purposes an anti-Mika move, hitting the rugged Breakers power forward where it hurts most.

Vukona loves to bang bodies in the low post and use his strength as much as his smarts to out-manoeuvre opponents. That's a big part of why he's rated arguably the premier power forward in the league.

The Tall Blacks skipper is no stranger to foul trouble, but this season it's even more of a concern given the officials' quickness on the whistle.

Vukona fouled out in just a tick over 20 minutes on court in the Breakers' season-opening 92-73 victory over the Wollongong Hawks. However, that was his only negative stat on an otherwise impressive night.

He had 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting, eight rebounds (three offensive), three assists, a steal and a blocked shot. It was encouraging to see him looking for and knocking down the short jumpers with regularity.

The Breakers also showed they were still able to influence the game with their defence, holding the under-manned Hawks to just 45 points over the final three quarters. Still, Vukona could not hide his unease heading into this weekend's road double at Townsville (on Friday) and Cairns (on Saturday).

"I still fouled out in the fourth quarter so I'm still adjusting to it," he said. "Teams are still trying to adjust to that ticky-tack fouling they're calling, and it's going to take a few months.

"That's why training's quite chippy. We're calling every little thing and guys are getting agitated because they want to play."

The NBL's move to make the game less MMA and more NBA has support. The theory is you now need to show your hands on defence, or get called for anything that looks like a hold. The reality is teams are playing a lot of zone while they figure things out.

Vukona remains unconvinced, it's clear.

"How do I say it without getting in trouble? It is about showing your hands but they're calling everything and [the more] you are playing a little bit of netball out there, the better it is for you as a defender.

"We're seeing as soon as guys get a lane it's like the Red Sea parts and people are letting them get to the basket. I don't know if that's how people want to see the game, but that's how we've adjusted as players."

Vukona is adamant defence will remain the key ingredient when push comes to shove later in the season.

"Every team that's won a championship, whether it's the NBA or ANBL, has won on defence. In playoffs it's all been physical and never these ticky-tack fouls being called. But what are you going to do? You can cry and go home, or you try and get better and win the thing."

One thing Vukona does know is that they'll have their work cut out this weekend, starting with a Crocs side who dropped their interstate home opener against the retooled Taipans.

Vukona is more than familiar with both of the Crocs' new imports, playing with Josh Pace at the Nelson Giants in the NBL and against Brian Conklin who led the Southland Sharks to their inaugural title.

"Both guys are competitors and they both know how to score. Conklin can get up double-doubles easily and Pace is deceptive with his left hand and being able to get to the rim pretty quick.

"It's about staying focused and knowing that after Townsville we've got to go to Cairns. Both crowds are going to jump on you pretty quick."

However this thing plays out, Vukona makes one plea: "We've got to stick to Breakers basketball. If you give that up, it's like giving up your identity, and there's no way in hell we're going to do that."

Fairfax Media