Larry Austin Jr returns to British Basketball League action for the first time in four weeks tonight as Seriös Group Newcastle Eagles look to stretch the franchise’s 5-0 winning streak.
The US guard is tipped to come off the bench at title favourites London Lions with another thrilling backcourt battle on the cards.
And with league leading scorer Matt Morgan enjoying a lightning start to his UK career, Austin Jr’s long-awaited comeback could hardly be better timed.
“Larry will be on limited minutes but it’s great to have him back in contention for the road trips to London and Surrey,” said Eagles’ playcaller Marc Steutel.
“It brings the roster up to full strength towards the end of what’s been a very demanding month of basketball.
“It gives me the kind of selection problem every coach dreams of because Jordan Johnson and Rickey McGill have been excellent in Larry’s absence.
“They’ve had to pick up some slack and been asked to carry a lot more responsibility on their shoulders.
“Both of them have been playing in rhythm and in sync and it’s my job to find the right balance as I look to reintroduce Larry.”
Johnson and McGill are combining for 37 points and 10 assists per game this season and both feature in the league’s top five scorers.
The former was named in this week’s All Star Five following an MVP display at former club Caledonia Gladiators last weekend.
And the in-form duo will be looking to outshine prolific scorer Morgan and make up ground on the Lions’ proven matchwinner.
“Matt’s efficiency in terms of scoring makes him an incredibly dangerous opponent and shows the level of player he really is,” added Steutel.
“But let’s face it — London have talent right across their roster and we can’t focus on one player.
“The last time we played them at their place we caused them real problems and took the game to overtime.
“But London deserved their win in Newcastle and we know we have to be better defensively and put more pressure on their bigs.”
Morgan exploded off the three-point line against the Eagles at the Copper Box Arena last month to orchestrate a thrilling come-from-behind victory.
And the guard’s 21 points per game puts him two points clear of Newcastle star Johnson at the top of the league rankings.
But Steutel is right to highlight Morgan’s efficiency with the Cornell record-breaker shooting 57.8 per cent from the field — including 46.9 per cent from beyond the arc.
“It’s going to be exciting to see how our guys shape up against one of the best players in the league and it looks like another great game for the neutral,” added Steutel.
“I’m really proud of the way Jordan and Rickey have adapted to their roles and bought into what we’re trying to achieve here.
“We have talent and depth in every position but our recruitment was focused on building a team around Jordan, Rickey and Larry.
“We wanted to bring in premier guards and build pressure from the backcourt. That’s started to reap rewards in the last few weeks.”
With Scott Spencer getting another 12 minutes of league action under his belt last weekend and Austin Jr back in the frame, Newcastle look well-positioned to close out the calendar year in winning form.
But London — with just one regular season loss all season — will provide a true test of just how far the Eagles have come.
“Morgan is a threat but we have to neutralise the Lions’ many strengths if we’re going to keep our winning run going,” added Steutel. “It’s an exciting opportunity to measure our progress so far.”
Tonight’s clash is live on Sky Sports Arena and the Sky Sports YouTube channel from 7:30pm with a 7:45pm tip-off.