Tougher season ahead, but Slingers aren't afraid
S'pore side, who are facing injury and NS issues, still eyeing the title in expanded league
Competition in the Asean Basketball League is set to get tougher, with nine teams competing this upcoming season.
Despite the addition of three more sides, including a franchise from China for the first time, the Singapore Slingers are still aiming to end their title drought.
The Chinese newcomers are Nanhai Long Lions, who will host the Slingers in the season's opening match on Nov 17.
The other two debutants are Taiwanese side Formosa Dreamers, who will replace the disbanded Kaohsiung Truth, and CLS Knights of Indonesia.
At Tuesday's season launch at the Shangri-La at the Fort in Manila, Slingers co-owner, general manager and assistant coach Michael Johnson told The New Paper: "What we did with the problems we had with injuries and national service last season was amazing.
"We had no right to make the Finals with the injuries we had, but our system really works well. We are behind other teams in terms of overall skill level, but we play as well as a team as anyone else.
"For the last six years, to develop local talents, we have signed three imports from a possible four and we will start this season in the same way and look forward to making the Finals for a third successive season."
Last season, the Slingers impressed with their resilience and tenacity, before injuries took their toll as they lost 3-1 to the Hong Kong Eastern Sports Club in the best-of-five Finals.
They look set to face the same hurdles this season. Stalwart Desmond Oh, forwards Wu Qingde, Kelvin Lim and Ng Han Bin are all carrying knee injuries, while up-and-coming duo Delvin Goh and Leon Kwek have NS commitments.
Forward Mitchell Folkoff has left the team to focus on his business, with two-time ABL local MVP Wong Wei Long also yet to sign on as he is tending to his academy.
Big American centre Justin Howard, who posted his 1,000th ABL point and rebound last term as he was named Defensive Player of the Year, has joined the Nanhai Long Lions.
The ongoing National Basketball League, which many of the local Slingers play in, also does not end until Nov 5, less than two weeks before the ABL's season opener.
But there is also cause for optimism with the return of centre Russel Low, the emergence of point guard Lim Jun Yuan, the loyalty of American swingman Xavier Alexander and the signing of Canadian centre Ryan Wright.
Encouraged by a surge in season-ticket and courtside ticket sales, Johnson said: "Russel is a big plus and training well, Delvin's progression has been going upwards and he was a big carry at the SEA Games, and Larry Liew is going to get better this season.
"Justin has done well for us but it's time for a change as he is 36 and picked up a few more injuries last season. Ryan is a bit undersized but he makes up for it with his athleticism and intelligence and you'll see a fair bit of him on the highlight reels.
"We've also got a Filipino-Canadian AJ Mandani on trial with us, whom we hope can turn out to be the import point-guard we have been lacking.
"It's not ideal to have just seven or eight players training on Tuesdays and Thursdays and our 50-year-old coach (Neo Beng Siang) has to run up and down to make up the numbers, but it's what we are used to, and we will continue to give it as good as we have got."
The Slingers will have their work cut out as most, if not all, of the other eight teams look to have quality in their ranks.
Alab Pilipinas, for example, have signed former Atlanta Hawks power forward Ivan Johnson to augment a team that already boast the reigning Local MVP Bobby Ray Parks Jr.
Defending champions Eastern have retained World Import MVP Marcus Elliott and Asean Heritage MVP Tyler Lamb, and Thailand's Mono Vampire have snapped up Reggie Johnson and Jason Brickman, both of whom won the title with Westports Malaysia Dragons in 2015-16.
Vietnam's Saigon Heat are set to take up two-time World Import MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Christien Charles.
The Dragons' general manager Yakub Hussain was equally bullish when talking about the upcoming campaign.
He said: "We gave more opportunities to our local players than usual last season to prepare for the SEA Games, but this time we are going to throw in the best we have because we want to prove a point again."
Besides multilingual coverage on television, the ABL will also be the first international professional basketball league to be broadcast on Facebook Live this season.