Ryan Broekhoff doesn’t technically count as a new acquisition for the South East Melbourne Phoenix, but by his own admission it certainly feels like he is.
From a physical standpoint, the 31-year-old sharpshooter has spent the offseason working closely with assistant coach Judd Flavell, as the club carefully designed a workout program with the idea of increasing mobility and overall athletic ability.
“It’s a strange feeling,” Broekhoff told ESPN. “It feels like season one. Last season was very interrupted coming in halfway wasn’t easy. Trying to find fitness and form and meet expectations for myself was rough. This honestly feels like my first season, now I’ve got a preseason under my belt and starting to feel good.”
His second season in Australia follows an offseason where he took the courageous step to withdraw from the Boomers Olympic campaign due to mental health concerns, in a decision he describes as the hardest of his basketball career.
“Even now, looking back, it was the right decision and one I needed to make for myself first and foremost. Getting myself right, getting myself to a place where I can be present with my family and present on the basketball court and not just going through the motions and hiding things.
“It was very important to step back and find myself some help and work through some of the things that have been bothering me. Just to give my career some extra years and find enjoyment in basketball after a tough couple of years.”
With a sense of comfort on and off the court, Phoenix teammates and staff are seeing a completely different Broekhoff, with head coach Simon Mitchell saying he is “maybe (playing) some of the best basketball of his life”.
“It’s being released from his previous roles. In the NBA he is a catch-and-shoot guy, you go back to his college days, he was a rebounder, could score out of the post,” Mitchell said.
“We’re going to tap into that a little bit more. He’s really putting the ball on the floor and really challenging; he even had a dunk in practice the other day. He’s just doing things that his body didn’t allow him to do last year. He has these talents but wasn’t asked to use them, he can explore those talents again, he’s got some gifts that NBL fans haven’t seen.”
Broekhoff’s skillset is well known within the Phoenix organisation, but what they didn’t expect was the veteran wing emerging as one of the leaders in the locker room.
“About two weeks after the last game, he started calling wanting to get back in the gym,” Mitchell recalls. “He’s been amazing. He’s got the nickname ‘Rowdy’ because he’s generally pretty quiet, but he’s been really noisy in the gym, encouraging guys. He’s just so positive.”
Broekhoff didn’t make a conscious decision to return to the club and stamp his mark as a leader, instead, he feels it’s a result of that work he put in on and off the court in recent months.
“I think it’s just me feeling more comfortable. More comfortable in myself and more comfortable with the surroundings around the team. We’ve got a very talented team but maybe not the loudest group.
“It just felt natural to just be yelling and barking things and talking rubbish during sessions. In a good way, in a positive way, just getting guys motivated.
“When guys make shots just hooting and hollering for no reason just to keep spirits up when things are a little bit tough.
“It just feels natural now, I’ve been around the game a long time, been playing professionally for a long time. I’m the second oldest on the team which is crazy to think about but just pulling guys aside and imparting some of my old age wisdom on them, it feels like a natural progression now that I feel good about myself and positive in my own life and on the court.”
Teammate Mitch Creek draws a smile when he looks ahead to what Broekhoff may be able to contribute to the South East Melbourne roster this season, identifying the external pressure to succeed last season as unfair.
“He sacrificed a lot to come back to the NBL. He gave up things for his family to be in our league and grace us with his excellence. He’s an NBA player,” Creek said.
“He gave up a dream to come back and look after his family and then he came to us and hadn’t played for a long time, so he had to get that rust off.
“Unfortunately, the media and the people sitting on keyboards put a lot of pressure on him that wasn’t warranted. It’s a hard situation to come in and be the man and be a star straight away when you haven’t played for so long. Now to see him have a preseason, an offseason, family time, down time, now he’s fit, healthy and playing at a high level.
“He’s been a very vocal leader and now he’s playing at a high level it demands more from others. It’s been exciting to see him grow into that leadership role, and I know he’s going to have a great year because of that.”
Broekhoff is eagerly anticipating season tip-off on December 4 against the Illawarra Hawks, but should we be prepping a new nickname for the Phoenix star?
“It’s not ironic anymore, I’m actually talking loud so ‘Rowdy’ doesn’t actually suit me anymore, we might have to go with something else,” Broekhoff says with a laugh.