NBL grand final MVP Xavier Cooks admits he can be a hot head, but becoming a girl dad has helped him find perspective on his fiery personality.
The Kings inked their burgeoning superstar to a long-term deal, aware that there is huge interest from teams in the big league.
“Winning a championship, it was always going to be tough to leave. I love Sydney, it’s been great to me and I’m excited to come back,” Cooks said.
FREE AGENCY LATEST: CLICK FOR EVERY MOVE
Cooks told News Corp a number of clubs — including current finalist Golden State and Brooklyn, where Aussies Patty Mills and Ben Simmons are contracted — had expressed interest in the NBL grand final MVP.
Still just 26, Cooks is entering the prime of his career and, after a pair of previous Summer League appearances, he has shown he deserves a proper tryout with an NBA team.
Watch Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics in The 2022 NBA Finals. Every Game LIVE with ESPN on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-Days Free Now >
“I’m obviously very hopeful,” he said.
“I have an NBA out in case that call does come.
“It’s been a big dream of mine forever.
“I had a two-way offer that fell through in the end and a lot of good talks with Golden State, Brooklyn and a couple of other teams.
“A lot of the teams will wait until draft night, see who they draft and see what happens in the Summer League.
“I’m not too fond of playing Summer League, I’ve played it two times before. Most teams know what I’m capable of now, so just hopefully get that call.”
A once-distant dream close to reality
The NBA is so close he can almost taste it, but it hasn’t always been that way for the kid from Wollongong.
“In Australia, you grow up watching the NBA, but it just seems so distant,” he said.
“There are so few people in the whole country that make it to that level.
“You always think about it, but it just seems like a dream that’s very far out of reach.”
His previous visits to the US only sparked more fire in him to make the grade.
“I went over there for a couple of pre-draft camps and then you get that smell for it and that itch for it and you just see how crazy the facilities are, the resources that they have.
“I still felt really distant from that chance and then obviously this last year, it’s almost frustrating how close it feels.”
Cooks is used to frustration. He spent two seasons dealing with a litany of injuries that cruelled his ability to perform on the floor. He hurt his knee while training for the Boomers 2019 World Cup campaign and then suffered ankle and foot injuries that limited him to just 22 games across his first two seasons in Sydney.
“It was frustrating going through so many injuries in back-to-back years, not being able to show the league what I was capable of,” he said.
“This year, being healthy, having a good pre-season and having the team around me to help me thrive, I had a good year, but a lot of credit goes to my teammates.
“The NBA is something I’m going to definitely keep working towards but, right now, I’m just happy to remain with the Kings.”
Girl dad grows up
Niah Siobhan Cooks is nearly 2 and it’s no coincidence Cooks’ growth and emergence — on and off the court — has coincided with becoming a father.
Cooks says ‘daddy’s little princess’ has kept him grounded and helped him mature.
“It’s (fatherhood) changed me a lot,” he said.
“I can still be a bit of a hot-headed dude but in the past I’d play a bad game and get really worked up about it after the game. Now, to go home and see your daughter who is happy all the time, it puts everything in perspective, it’s just a game.
“You’re playing basketball to have fun.
“Just the joy in her face when she sees you and when she achieves things in her life, it makes you feel really important.”
The Kings did not pick an official captain for NBL22, but it became immediately clear Cooks was the champions’ spiritual leader.
“I’ve been on the team when we had Andrew Bogut, Kevin Lisch, Casper Ware, all these great leaders and you learn habits from those guys,” he said.
“Going into this season, we had six or seven new players. We needed a leader and I knew I was right for the position but it wasn’t just me doing that, it was (Shaun) Brucey, Jordy Hunter, a lot of guys stepped up in that area.”
How about that chip?
Jaylen Adams might have been the league MVP and star, but Cooks was the Kings’ most important player in the title run.
He did it all, leading the league in rebounds (9.81) and blocks (2.15), reeling off double-doubles like he was shelling peas.
But his role in powering Sydney to its first championship in 17 years still hasn’t sunk in — he was basically straight on a plane, bound for New Zealand where he is playing in the Kiwi league with Wellington.
“I think the coolest feeling is when you see the fans, how happy they are,” he said.
“Seventeen years without a championship is a very long time, especially in a major city like Sydney.
“It’s cool for the city and seeing tears in the locker room, that’s how you know it means a lot.
“It was a great experience and I can’t wait to run it back.”
JA and my mate Tommy V
But will he run it back with Adams?
“I haven’t spoken to him since he left, I’m sure he’s been really busy and I’ve been busy once the dust has settled we’ll catch up,” he said.
“I’d love to see him back, but I think it’s going to be tough to keep a player like that in the NBL.
“If he doesn’t get the NBA call, I’m sure there are a lot of teams in Japan and Europe that will offer him over a million dollars.”
Speaking of players’ future, Adams is at Wellington with championship teammate Tom Vodanovich, who has accepted a contract to depart the Kings for the Breakers.
Vodanovich’s daughter Leah, 8 months, and Niah have grown up together and, ironically, the Kiwi got his start at Sydney as an injury replacement for Cooks — now they’re best pals.
“I’m a bit salty and a bit sad we couldn’t get a deal done with Tommy,” Cooks said.
“It’s going to be something different this year but I’m just excited to play these next two months with him and enjoy the moments.”
The Kings are working on keeping their title core together, while adding pieces with Cooks’ joining sharpshooter Dejan Vasiljevic in re-upping and forward Kouat Noi heading south from Cairns.
Bogut reveals champs’ cap spend
Sydney part-owner Andrew Bogut has revealed the NBL champions’ 2021-22 salary cap spend as the Kings added another talented forward to their roster.
The Kings have inked grand final MVP Xavier Cooks and former Cairns Taipan Kouat Noi. And Bogut, in a message to members, said the club had a total spend of $1,501,592.63 last season.
Under the NBL’s rules, teams can pay several players outside the cap, including marquee and next stars.
NBL clubs’ spends and player salaries tend to be closely guarded secrets, much to the chagrin of many fans.
“We were under the salary cap for the season and, just to keep things in perspective, that spend put the Sydney Kings in seventh for total spends,” Bogut wrote.
The NBL set its 2021-22 cap ceiling at $1,637,893.94, while teams must pay players at least $1,474,104.55. These figures will rise by four per cent for NBL23, the ceiling at $1,703,239.36 and floor $1,533,068.73.
Sudanese-born Noi grew up in Newcastle and spent the past three seasons with the Taipans.
Noi struggled last season with a knee issue and hasn’t quite fulfilled the potential that made him second to Lamelo Ball in the 2019-20 rookie of the year race.
He hopes a change of scenery could be the catalyst for a breakout season and said he can’t wait to play under the bright lights in Sydney.
“I think that’s where I belong honestly … bright lights, big city, big organisation … I think I’m going to fit in perfect,” Noi said.
“I definitely have a lot to show.
“The past three seasons with Cairns I don’t feel like I’ve shown what I’m capable of and … that’s why I’m coming to Sydney.
“I’m already feeling stronger. I’m playing in the NBL1 and performing, trying to get consistent.
“Once the NBL season starts I’m going to be ready to go.”
The second year of his contract has a team option.
Key King locked in at title town
Sydney has inked a key piece of its NBL title team to a long-term deal, locking in versatile guard Dejan Vasiljevic.
The deadeye marksman and creative scorer turned his back on overtures from other NBL clubs to make good on his promise, signing a three-year deal to stay with the 2022 champions.
“I remain loyal. I said: ‘It was the Sydney Kings or nowhere’,” Vasiljevic said of his commitment.
“Sydney is a second home to me. My parents’ house (in Melbourne) is number one, but Sydney is next.”
Affectionately known as DJ, Canadian-born Vasiljevic still has aspirations to play in the NBA and European leagues, his contract including out clauses, should those opportunities arise.
“I feel like I can do things in the NBA,” he said.
“I’ll prepare well for summer league and then if the NBA doesn’t work out, I’ll be back with the Kings.”
Vasiljevic, who grew up in Melbourne, fought through the adversity of a ruptured achilles tendon that derailed his NBL21 campaign, returning with a vengeance to average 12.4 points, draining more than two three-pointers per game at 37 per cent.
None of those was more important than the biggest shot of the Kings’ season — his game two dagger in the NBL grand final that gave the Kings victory over Tasmania.
The new deal is for two years, with a mutual option on the third.
Kings sign young DP
Sydney has added Anyiarbany Makoi — better known as Jackson Makoi — as a development player for NBL23.
The point guard, who has played for the South Sudan national team, was born in Egypt before moving to Australia at a young age and growing up in Melbourne.
He played in Croatia last season and, at 21, he has inked a two-year deal, with the second non-guaranteed.
“I grew up in Australia therefore I’ve been aware of the talent and competition of the NBL all my life,” 196cm Jackson said.
“The Kings have always been a quality club in my eyes not to mention they’ve just come off a championship and I’ve seen success with the young players they’ve developed.
“Sydney will be getting a hard worker. Somebody’s who completely bought into the program. On the court I feel like I’ll be a great facilitator who can score, especially playing with such talented players and a great coaching staff.
“I just want to improve as much as possible so that I can play at the highest level possible.
“My goal will always be the NBA.”
Another title-winner departs Kings
A second championship-winning King has left Sydney, Kiwi Tom Vodanovich returning to the New Zealand Breakers.
The 201cm power forward spent his first two seasons with New Zealand, before crossing to the Kings for NBL21.
The 27-year-old provided bench cover for the Kings in their run to the 2022 title, but struggled with his usually reliable three-point shot, making just 20 per cent of his attempts.
On signing the two-year deal, Vodanovich, who follows Wani Swaka Lo Buluk out of Sydney, says his time with the Kings has made him a better player.
“From when I left two years ago to winning a championship, I think my game’s got a lot better,” Vodanovich said.
With Swaka Lo Buluk joining Illawarra, the Kings have Shaun Bruce, Angus Glover, Biwali Bayles, Jordan Hunter, Jaylin Galloway and Next Star Makur Maker — who is eyeing an NBA gig — locked away.
The Breakers, forced to play all their NBL22 games outside of New Zealand, have signed five New Zealanders to their roster, with Vodanovich joining Tom Abercrombie, Rob Loe, Sam Timmins and Dan Fotu under new coach Mody Maor.
“The Breakers have had a tough couple of years with Covid, but they’re putting together a Kiwi core under a new coach,” Vodanovich said.
“It’s a great opportunity and a no-brainer to come back to the club I love.”
NBL free agency shock as Kings lose key piece
The first crack in the newly-crowned NBL champion Sydney Kings’ plans to keep their title-winning core together has appeared.
The Kings have lost defensive dynamo Wani Swaka Lo Buluk in a surprise move to state rival Illawarra.
Swaka Lo Buluk is just 21, but already a three-time NBL champion who stepped up as a starter for the Kings when import RJ Hunter went down with a season-ending knee injury.
He has inked a two-year deal with the Hawks under new coach Jacob Jackomas.
“We’re pumped to add someone of Wani’s calibre to our core moving forward,” Jackomas said.
“Wani will compliment the pieces we’ve already got in place, bring a fresh energy and defensive ability to our club – which is always our calling card on the court.
“He fits with the timeline of our other guys, is keen to continue to improve his game and grow with this group towards a second Illawarra championship.”
Sudanese-born Swaka Lo Buluk lived in both Perth and Canberra and has won a title in each of his three seasons – two in Perth and one in Sydney.
He provides the Hawks with a serious defensive presence at guard, who would form a nightmare partnership with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Antonius Cleveland, should he sign a revised deal, after knocking back the Hawks’ initial offer.
Originally published as NBL: Xavier Cooks inks three-year deal with Sydney Kings as NBA dream