Taj Benning is already settling into life down under and fitting in at the Cockburn Cougars, and the former Fairfield University Stags captain can’t wait to let his defence do the talking as he begins life as a professional in NBL1 West.
Benning completed his standout college career at Fairfield in 2022 where he was the captain as a senior and put together an impressive season made up of 11.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists a game with his defensive making him a standout.
That’s now exactly what the guard is looking to make his mark on first and foremost as he embarks on his first season playing overseas as a professional.
One thing that has already stood out to Benning since joining up with his Cougars teammates is that he can sense their drive and hunger to put themselves right in the championship mix in 2023 after being a top four team in 2022.
“I’ve definitely got that feeling about this team,” Benning said.
“We’ve got great leaders with Seva (Chan) and Gavin (Field), and they are really good vets who have been around the league a long time.
“Then with the way the coaches are, the intensity and how hard they work, I definitely know that as a group we’re on the cusp of doing something special.”
THAT DEFENSIVE MINDSET
Cougars coach Andrew Cooper has already talked about the impact he expects Benning to have on his team defensively this season, and Benning himself is more than ready to let his defence do the talking.
“I’ve always taken pride on the defensive end. In college I played for a defensive coach, Jay Young, and he really brought that out of me,” he said.
“That brought that competitive side out of me on the defensive end and I always want to guard the opposition’s best perimeter player, and that always just gets me going when I’m fired up about my match up on the defensive end.
“I’ve always felt that defensively is one way for me to bring out my leadership because I’m always talking on defence and stuff like that, knowing the scout and coverages. That’s really important to me.”
While Benning isn’t wanting to come into the Cougars and interfere with the leadership of captain Field and vice-captain Chan, he will be a natural leader with the way he goes about things defensively.
And on the back of being a captain in high school at Bergen Catholic High School and then in college at Fairfield, it’s something that comes naturally to him.
“On every team I’ve ever been on I’ve always been a captain or a leader. It’s a bit different when you’re coming to a team all full of new guys in a new country and new place where you’re learning an entire new system,” Benning said.
“But that’s also one thing I love about defence because that translates no matter where you are. You can always talk on defence and be a leader, and know what’s going on at the defensive side.
“At the end of the day, basketball’s basketball and if I know what I’m doing and understand the game plan and what the coaches want out of me, it will be easy to talk to my teammate and try to lead by example.”
SETTLING IN DOWN UNDER
Benning has now been in town for a couple of weeks to get ready for the season-opening for the Cougars at home this Saturday night to the Willetton Tigers. He’s feeling settled now and glad that it became the first stop in his post-college career.
“I’m feeling pretty good and am settling in. I’m starting to get my sleep schedule down and stuff like that so I’m feeling good. I’m getting my legs together and am feeling good being here,” he said.
“I always knew I wanted to play professionally overseas, I just didn’t know where because it’s kind of unpredictable. You don’t really know until you know but I always knew I wanted to play somewhere.
“I just needed the opportunity so once I finished at college I was just locked into training waiting for my opportunity to go play somewhere.”
While Benning knew he wanted to play basketball professionally and that it would likely need to take him overseas, he had no idea where that would be.
He also didn’t know too much about basketball down under, but once the offer came in from the Cougars and he did some research, he quickly was on board and his assistant coach at college’s experience playing at the Ringwood Hawks was only further endorsement for him.
“I didn’t know much about basketball down here honestly. My assistant coach Bryan Dougher did play overseas here actually in Australia, I think it was in Melbourne,” Benning said.
“Once I got word about coming over here, he definitely told me how amazing of a place it was and how good the basketball was and stuff like that. So that made me feel good about coming down here.
“There was some different places that were brought to me, but this place stood out the most to me just because I felt like it would be the right place to start my career especially with the state of how good the league is, and how good of a place it is, the coaching here and the culture that my agent and I looked into about the club. We just figured that this would be the best fit for me.”
If you take out Field and Chan, and the majority of the Cougars team are either around Benning age or younger so he’s having no trouble settling in already with his new teammates.
“It’s definitely easier because you can relate to guys around my age and you like doing a lot of the same stuff being young men, but I’ve always been able to get along and co-exist with people older than me and younger than me on a team so it’s not that big of an adjustment for me,” he said.
“As far as playing wise, I think it’s a really good fit because everyone is meshing well even though it has only been a week or two. Things seem to be going really well.”
COMPARING HOME LIFE TO BEING IN WA
Having grown up in New Jersey and attending college in Connecticut at Fairfield, it’s fair to say you couldn’t get much different on a number of fronts to then making the move to Western Australia to begin life as a professional basketballer.
Benning has noticed differences obviously, but it hasn’t been as stark as he thought it might be.
“In the New Jersey/New York area, everything is closer together and things are a lot more spread out here with a lot more open land,” Benning said.
“Back where I’m from everything is a lot closer and even the houses and things like that, everybody is like on top of each other. There’s just a lot more space here. But culture wise, it’s not that different.
“Not as different as people would think. It’s real polite over here too and the people are nice, which is a little bit different from the New Jersey/New York area. I’ve adjusted well and it’s not that big of an adjustment as I thought it was going to be.”
While Benning is glad the adjustment to living in Australia has been a smoother transition than he imagined, Perth’s archaic shopping hours are still something he’s getting accustomed to.
“One thing that’s surprised me is how early things close here in the Perth area. Things close a lot earlier and the mall closes by about six instead like 9.30 or 10 back where I’m from,” he said.
“I was looking for something to do one night and was going to go to the mall to see what stores were open. It was about seven o’clock and I got there and it was just empty, so I knew not to do that again. But really it’s been a pretty easy adjustment apart from that.”
BIG START TO THE SEASON
The Cougars now have a fascinating start to the NBL1 West season hosting the Willetton Tigers this Saturday night and then the defending champion Rockingham Flames on Easter Thursday.
That means coming up against Mark Worthington, Gorjok Gak and Michael Vigor from Willetton this Saturday night, and then Devondrick Walker, Marshall Nelson and Tom Jervis from Rockingham next Thursday.
But for Benning, he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Honestly I think as a club and competitors, we wouldn’t want any other sort of start,” Benning said.
“It’s a great way to start the year because you get tested and you can figure out what you need to do, and where our team’s going to be really early and we can figure out what we need to get better at.
“When you’re going up against two what have been called the better teams, you can really see how you stack up so we’re looking forward to that.”