The Tall Blacks’ Asia Cup Efforts Nicely Highlight Kiwi Basketball’s Steady Rise

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International basketball is hardly the pedigreed peak of its sport. Especially in New Zealand, where we’re kinda handcuffed by other situations. But that’s fine, Steven Adams is out there representing Aotearoa in the NBA and the Breakers are built around a core of kiwi players all poised to do some damage next season. The NBL has shown great growth in the last couple seasons despite the obvious financial struggles there – growth largely down to an increased media focus, which is fantastic (we don’t give too many NZ Herald shout outs on TNC for the usual reasons but their live streaming of games has been quality). And look at all the kiwis in college programmes too.

That right there is the best indication of the state of basketball in New Zealand. It’s not about whether the Tall Blacks can win the Asia Cup at full strength, more about how many talented young players are being developed, how well funded and supported the sport is in this country, how many fans get involved… all those things. Get them on the rise and the Tall Blacks will have a strong team by default.

The circumstances around the inexperienced squad that Paul Henare picked for that Asia Cup were all fair enough. He didn’t have to pick a younger, weakened squad but he chose to and that’s fine. What we therefore got was an accidentally interesting indication of where New Zealand basketball is at these days, in the post-Breakers Three-Peat and post Kiwi Steve in the NBA days.

Like, we know what Tom Abercrombie, Corey Webster and Mika Vukona can offer. We know how good Steven Adams has become over in America. But you take a group of fringe players, none of whom are older than 27 years old, to a continental championship tournament and see them gun their way to fourth place then you know that Aotearoa basketball is heading in the right direction.

In the end Australia was far too strong in the semi-final and the Not-Quite-So-Tall Blacks weren’t able to take revenge on South Korea in the third/fourth playoff having gone down by one point in the groups to that lot. Which meant three wins and three defeats at the tourney but all three defeats came against top three sides. Definitely commendable although if this Asia Cup campaign was about the results then half the Breakers woulda been there.

Nah, as encouraging as those team performances were it was the individual ones that really shone. Shea Ili was named as the point guard in the competition’s All Star starting five. Across five games (he didn’t play the 3rd/4th Playoff with injury) Ili averaged 15.4 points, shooting 48.4% with 5.8 assists to only 1.8 turnovers. His best performance was his 22 point effort against hosts Lebanon in which New Zealand produced a bit of a surprise win. He was one of the obvious candidates for a strong campaign in the greater spotlight and he certainly did not disappoint.

But then how about Reuben Te Rangi and some of those highlight reel dunks he threw down? This a bloke who was released from the Breakers before last season with his career on a bit of a downer. Didn’t really have the impact for Brisbane that he’d have hoped for either but he was good for the Southland Sharks and three times scored 15+ at the Asia Cup. Plus he rebounded well and made sure that ball never got stuck in the mud. Still can’t shoot threes with a 4 of 20 tally for the comp but this was still a real statement that RTR has plenty more to offer at this level. When the big dogs return to the squad for the November World Cup qualifiers, he’s a good chance to remain.

Or Sam Timmins who deserves some lovin’ too. Only 20 years old and about to head back for his second college season with the Washington Huskies over in the States, one to remember the name of for sure. His best was also in that Lebanon clash: 13 points (6/10 FG), 8 rebounds & 2 assists. It might have been a closer thing against Aussie had he not been struggling with illness.

Hey and Finn Delany, who won a few fans as an upstart on the Breakers last season, top scored in that classification game vs South Korea with 22 points while Jordan Ngatai did enough to earn himself the final spot on the Breakers 2017-18 roster within a week of the tournament closing. There were also solid showings from Tohi Smith-Milner, Derone Ruakawa and Ethan Rusbatch too.

Rusbatch was one who Paul Henare specifically mentioned as unlucky not to make the Breakers again having graduated from his development role. The difference between him and Ngatai was pretty much that Ngatai offered cover in more vulnerable positions while the import guards would’ve meant few if any minutes for Rusbatch anyway. Meanwhile Derone Ruakawa will front the new season of development players along with Mitchell Newton and Dan Fotu (Isaac’s brother) – though Fotu will play non-contracted so as to stay eligible for the next college intake.

NZ Breakers 2017-18 NBL Roster:

Tom Abercrombie, Finn Delany, Daniel Fotu (DP), James Hunter, Shea Ili, Rob Loe, D.J. Newbill (IMP), Mitchell Newton (DP), Jordan Ngatai, Kirk Penney, Alex Pledger, Derone Raukawa (DP), Edgar Sosa (IMP), Mika Vukona.

Speaking of college, Tai Wynyard has had a tough time of it getting on the court for Kentucky even after redshirting his first year he only appeared in 15 games last time out and usually only for a few spare minutes at best. When he did get a bit more of a leash he had trouble with fouls. However Kentucky, being one of the top colleges and all, has a big player turnover and five players declared for the last NBA Draft along with another three graduating. Three of those players (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo) were picked within the first 14 spots overall.

Specifically relevant here is that Adebayo and Isaac Humphries (the Aussie bugger who went undrafted before signing with the Sydney Kings) were the two players ahead of Wynyard on the depth charts, clearing the path… so long as he’s good enough to fight off what’s bound to be another year’s worth of incredible new recruits, that is.

Wynyard’s been busy in between seasons. He went to the FIBA World Under-19s with New Zealand and was absolutely brilliant. Far and away NZ’s best there and one of the best in general, arguably. Averaged close to 14 points per game along with 9 rebounds while shooting around 60% all in around 26 minutes a contest. P.J. Washington and Nick Richards are the two recruits he’ll most have to jostle for time with, each of them have had lottery pick projections in the past. It’s still gonna be a struggle to get noticed but with three more years of college eligibility and still being only 19 years old he’s got time to make this happen. Key point here is that he’s beginning to show that getting the nod at such a prestigious basketball programme wasn’t just a fluke. Tai Wynyard is for real. Tai Wynyard’s gonna be around for a while.

Wynyard will be far from the only young kiwi bloke doing his thing at an NCAA Div 1 college team either. There are literally dozens and dozens of NZ men and women in American college systems and right at the top of that list, alongside Tai Wynyard at Kentucky, are dudes like Jack Salt (Virginia), Matt Freeman (Oklahoma), Sam Timmins (Washington) a Sam Waardenburg (Miami), to name but a handful.

Then there were the performances of Corey Webster and Tai Webster in the NBA Summer League, how good! Corey’s since gone on to sign on with Israeli club Ironi Nahariya while his brother hasn’t announced his plans yet, with both of them still probably holding out for a NBA Pre-Season offer. Chances are that, with the Breakers all chock-full now, Tai follows Corey into some EuroLeague stuff. Where Isaac Fotu has also been bouncing around, by the way.

The Tall Blacks reconvene in November when they’ll play South Korea (again, but at home this time) and Hong Kong (away). It’s the first of three windows between now and next July during which they play two games in each. China is the other team in their qualifying group - we play each team twice - so it’s tough competition but the top three teams advance to the next round, from which six of twelve teams will qualify automatically and the best of the two fourth placed teams (it’s split into two groups of six) will go through as well. Fourth place at the Asia Cup suggests that a top seven finish there and World Cup participation is well within reach.

Steven Adams may or may not be a part of that but if he isn’t and people get stuffy about it, remember all this other depth that’s developing around the Tall Blacks team. And remember that the measure of kiwi basketball is in the players we develop, the quality of those players and the quantity of them too. Don’t worry about the Tall Blacks being able to pick their best dozen players or whatever… but know that the better those players the stronger the Tall Blacks will be anyway.

Geez, these are fun times for kiwi hoops, aye.


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