‘This is my chance’: NBA scouts circle as Xavier cooks up rare statistical feat
After four years of college basketball, two stints playing the NBA’s off-season summer league, and four NBL seasons with the Sydney Kings, Xavier Cooks believes it’s now or never for a shot at the NBA.
“This better be the year,” he said after training at Auburn Basketball Centre ahead of the Kings’ last two games before the NBL finals. “I’ll be 28 next year, I’m not getting any younger. Hopefully this is my chance.”
Xavier Cooks after training at Auburn Basketball Centre.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone
Cooks has earned his quiet confidence. Widely regarded as the best Australian talent in the NBL, Cooks led the Kings to a 13-game winning streak last season that helped them clinch Sydney’s first championship in 17 years. The 203cm forward won MVP of the Grand Final series for his superb all-round efforts.
As the Kings finish the 2022-23 regular season at the top of the ladder, he’s been nominated for the Andrew Gaze MVP trophy and is the favourite to win the league’s most prestigious individual gong.
Cooks reaffirmed his excellent form last week in the win over South East Melbourne when he grabbed a rebound late in the game and in doing so recorded the season’s first “triple-double”.
He tallied 16 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists to become the fifth Kings player to ever complete the feat, and the first to do so since 2008, when the NBL cut game time from 48 to 40 minutes.
Ahead of the Kings taking on Perth on Sunday, Cooks insists he’s focused on the upcoming finals as NBA agents circle. At least eight watched the New Zealand Breakers beat the Kings earlier in the month with many spotters at NBL games to watch the Breakers’ French wunderkind Rayan Rupert.
But attention is amping up for Cooks as well as he hits a career-high average of 16 points per game.
“I’ve had a couple of lunches with scouts, some Zoom calls. They’ve been ongoing for a couple of months now. But in the last maybe two-three weeks, it’s really ramped up, a lot of DMs and scouts who’ve flown over to watch some games.
“I mostly let my agent handle that. I’ve got too many distractions going on right now. I really try and focus on this team and winning. I really believe that if I win a championship here, that’s my best chance of getting back over there.”
Former NBL player Liam Santamaria is now general manager of the league’s Next Star Recruitment program, which attracts young players with NBA potential to play in the NBL instead of US college basketball. He believes Cooks should get the chance to make the leap to the US.
“He’s just an elite player. He has a really unique skill set for a player his size. He can serve as a playmaker. You can put it in his hands and he can advance the ball, he’s a terrific passer, he’s got great ball handling, he can cross guys over, get to the cup, get to the free throw line.
“Defensively, he’s a guy who can guard one through five, and that is really unique.”
The level of American interest in the NBL has grown exponentially because scouts can watch young prospects test their physicality against older, bigger, experienced basketballers rather than college players, Santamaria said.
After earning last seaons’s Grand Final MVP honours, Cooks is in contention for this season’s MVP award.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone
”NBA executives find the style of play here really intriguing because it’s not the half court, slow-it-down, grind-it-out style that you often find in Europe,” he said. “But it’s also not just the wide-open, free-flowing, quick style of the NBA. It’s sort of a hybrid between the two. It’s definitely the fastest style of any of the top domestic leagues outside of the NBA.“
When scouts arrive in town they’ve often reviewed hours of player footage and compiled individuals stats. It’s the “intangible” elements of a player’s game and character they’re here to investigate.
Scouts will turn up early and watch how a player warms up, his communication skills in a team huddle, and how his mentality plays out on court. They’ll also speak to medical staff about injuries a player might have suffered and how they applied their work ethic during rehab.
“Those types of conversations, or things that they can see in person, are really hard to get data on from afar,” Santamaria said.
Sydney’s Chase Buford, shortlisted for this year’s Coach of the Year award after guiding his side to a 19-7 record, is backing Cooks’ NBA aspirations.
“It’s great for the league, it’s good for the club to continue to be a pathway for NBA guys,” Buford said.
There are plenty of Australians sprinkled throughout the NBA – Josh Giddey, Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Jack White, Dyson Daniels, Jock Landale, Ben Simmons, Matthew Dellavedova and Josh Green – and Cooks doesn’t care which franchise comes calling.
“Whatever’s thrown my way I’ll take it full-force. If I get multiple options I’m probably dreaming, but I’d choose based on what suits my game style the best. I’m versatile, I like to play fast. Some teams play too slow for my style.”
The injuries that nixed his chance to play with the Boomers in the 2019 World Cup and dogged Cooks for the last two years are at bay.
“I felt like I was wasting myself away just being injured. People would say ‘You’re doing a good job’, but I knew I could do so much better. Now I feel a lot more relieved knowing that if I did go down – touch wood – I know that I’ve shown the world what I’m capable of.”
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