Basketball: Pledger growing into his role

By Kris Shannon

Alex Pledger. Photo / 	Richard Robinson
Alex Pledger. Photo / Richard Robinson

It's not a word Alex Pledger would use to describe himself, but Gary Wilkinson thinks the young centre has been playing with swagger.

While the trait permeated throughout the Breakers' lineup this season as they marched to consecutive minor premierships, and Pledger came into his own as Wilkinson's back-up, the 24-year-old still finds the notion unusual.

"I don't think anyone has ever used me and swag in the same sentence before," he said. "I think I have a lot more confidence in myself. I still have memories of winning that championship and it's a pretty good memory to have.

"It was a good year for me and I have continued that over to this year."

The same could be said of the Breakers' season. With home court advantage throughout the playoffs wrapped up, the Breakers have the luxury of using their final two games, against Townsville tonight and Gold Coast on Sunday, as warm-ups for the main event.

While the Breakers boast MVP candidates in their ranks, the quiet achievers like Pledger have been of equal importance in the team's drive for back-to-back championships.

Gone are the days when a mistake would cause Pledger's head to drop, or see him throw a guilty glance towards the bench. Now the seven-footer plays with - if not swagger - a certain assurance to his game, the results of which have been evident in the box score.

In 26 games this season, Pledger is averaging 8.2 points and 5.2 rebounds in 14.7 minutes compared to 6.1 points and 4.6 boards in 12.3 minutes last season, an increase which has seen him become a reliable presence off the bench.

That improvement has also been recognised by the ANBL, with Pledger nominated for both the best sixth man and most improved player awards. Teammates Mika Vukona (defensive player) and CJ Bruton (sixth man) and coach Andrej Lemanis are also finalists for Monday night's awards, while Cedric Jackson and Tom Abercrombie are among the favourites to be named most valuable player.

"I think I have made a lot of improvements this year," Pledger said. "I am playing more confidently and am more of a threat offensively, while still being a rebounder and a presence around the basket.

"As this season has gone on my role has increased. There have been a lot more times when Gary and I have been on the court at the same time."

That has given Wilkinson the perfect opportunity to asses his protege's progress, and the American likes what he has seen.

"I see his confidence building," he said. "He's starting to produce more and I think that stems from his confidence in his own abilities.

"I think now he's starting to get into a bit of form, and understanding that everyone wants him to be successful. No one will get upset if mistakes happen. He's starting to believe in himself and it's shown on court."

Pledger is on the verge of signing a new deal with the club, an easy decision when his development is aided by having a fellow big like Wilkinson in his corner. If nothing else, Wilkinson has been teaching the seven-footer how to get the most out of his considerable height advantage.

"It's the old saying, you can be seven feet, but being seven feet and playing like a seven-footer are two different things - it's one thing everyone is constantly telling me. I am at my best when I get the ball close to the basket or going to the offensive board or challenging shots defensively.

"It's embracing that role of being the true centre in the team."

Breakers' 2012 NBL awards finalists:
Coach of the year: Andrej Lemanis
Best sixth man: CJ Bruton, Alex Pledger
Defensive player: Mika Vukona
Most improved player: Alex Pledger

- APNZ

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