Dunno if you happened to be watching but there was a pretty brilliant NZ NBL grand final on Sunday evening, the underdog Hawke’s Bay Hawks getting some big time basketball from the likes of Ethan Rusbatch and Brandon Bowman as they leapt out to a huge lead over the undefeated Wellington Saints… but the champs are the champs for a reason and the Saints put the brakes on that narrative with a 22-0 run, relying on the unparalleled strength of their starting five to surge back and lift the trophy.
It was a wonderful game of basketball to cap a really enjoyable season which has been most enjoyable for how accessible it’s been to kiwi fans. The media exposure for the league was at a whole new level and the more that carries on, the more the NBL will grow, the better the state of kiwi basketball is going to be. (Obviously kiwi basketball being what it is there were still some crazy dramas, looking at the Super City Rangers here, but nobody claimed we’re at the finished product yet – the journey continues).
That’s combined with the Tall Blacks building towards a World Cup, having Steven Adams putting New Zealand basketball on the map over in the NBA, the low-key dominance Sean Marks is having as a general manager in that league, not to mention the women’s side of things going from strength to strength… there’s real momentum for the sport in this country which hasn’t been seen before. Hopefully soon the cashflow will emerge to match that momentum and then the sky’s the damn limit.
Meanwhile New Zealand’s only professional basketball team just signed a Chinese teenager to a development player contract at the expense of a young New Zealander who’d usually get that opportunity. Terry Li comes from the NBA Global Academy which runs out of Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence (as an international hub). He’s a 198cm tall guard, meant to be extremely athletic, and he’s signed on a three year deal (again, initially as a development player), the Breakers winning out ahead of Melbourne United for his signature.
Terry Li: “At the start of this year, I was making plans to go to America to play NCAA college basketball, but during a three-day visit to Auckland to meet the Breakers, I immediately felt comfortable with the club’s management. I am super excited to start competing every day against my American teammate RJ Hampton. I feel honoured as a Chinese player to have this opportunity, and my goal will be to break into the top team.”
Honestly, it’s a little hard to see what the point of this is. The Breakers get three DP slots per season and it’s been a pathway for some of the top current players that Aotearoa has produced. Corey Webster, Isaac Fotu, Tom Abercrombie, Shea Ili, Tai Wynyard, Jordan Ngatai, Tai Webster, Alex Pledger, Finn Delany… it’s a long list of guys who’ve come up playing at least one season as a DP for the Breakers. Obviously a professional team like the Breakers can do whatever they want with those spots and developing a guy like Terry Li, who has the potential to become a useful player at this level (even if he certainly doesn’t appear to be there yet) might have its benefits down the line.
Except… you’d kinda figure that depends on him being able to stay long enough to qualify as a domestic player? Because it’s not like it’s hard to find quality imports, why bother developing them? It’s possible that Li turns out to be something incredible in which case, sure, fair enough. But that’s a supremely high benchmark for success and nothing about him screams out elite prospect in the way that RJ Hampton does, for example. Also if he turns out to be that good then he’s probably not staying with the Breakers when there will be more ambitious and lucrative opportunities abroad, let’s be honest. It’s just really hard to envisage a future where Terry Li is a prominent starting calibre player for this club down the line.
So what’s the point of this then? Well the cynical view with Asian athletes is often that it’s at least in part a commercial decision designed to open up new markets. It’s not a fun view to take because it’s pretty dismissive… but not really sure how this makes sense without that aspect. The only other thing that might work is that the three year deal is in order to get a buyout when he leaves in a year or two, another commercially based idea. Which unfortunately is one more example of the Breakers ownership group doing their carpet-bagging thing at the expense of the local game. Terry Li is only a DP so he won’t get many minutes, at least not initially (and especially not when RJ Hampton has a minutes buffer in his contract), so it’s not like this is a high risk acquisition or anything… but combined with other moves it’s one more step distancing this club from its existing fans. Hopefully the Barstoollers over in the States buy heaps of replica jerseys, aye?
Remember that as a Next Star and DP respectively, RJ Hampton and Terry Li don’t count as import players which means that they could yet sign another three overseas pros on top of what they already have. They may not choose to use all three of those spots given how prominent Hampton is expected to be… but then this team also appears to be lacking a power forward, a centre, and another outside shooter/defender so they might need the lot of them. Which means that with five kiwis on the roster as it stands (Webster, Abercrombie, Delany, Loe & Ngatai) there’s the chance that foreign players outnumber kiwi players this upcoming season.
Now, surely the Breakers will be chasing Jack Salt (another former Breakers DP) as hard as they possibly can right now and he’d fill a hole at the five as well as being another positive-culture local bloke to add to the mix. Get him and things do look a little different. But miss out on him and there’s not a lot of top tier Tall Blacks left available. Tai Webster and Isaac Fotu have just signed in Europe again. Not really sure where else they’d go unless they look to bring through some of the better kiwi dudes in the NZ NBL… and that doesn’t exactly seem like this club’s preferred way of doing things any more. They seem to be run more like a team that just happens to be in New Zealand, rather than a New Zealand team.
We also still haven’t had a resolution in the coaching thing. Eventually Israeli coach Dan Shamir will be the head coach of the Breakers… but Kevin Braswell is digging in his heels over the contract fallout (shot Kev, go get that bag). Shamir arrived in the country two weeks ago though and he wasn’t just here to see the sights (although the sights are lovely, Dan, feel free to go exploring). Three coaches in three seasons under this management is a weird look, particularly when you’ve gone from the New Zealand national team coach and a local legend of a player to a locally-based international coach who used to play for the club to now a foreigner with no previous affiliations to the Breakers organisation.
Also a funky one to keep an eye out for is how much influence the RJ Hampton bandwagon has. There’s a fair bit riding on that dude’s success from an NBL perspective and he’s got assurances in his contract that he’ll get a certain amount of minutes… so what happens if he’s chucking up trash in the fourth quarter of a close game, will Danny Shamir be able to bench the dude no dramas? It’s one thing to want the challenge of pro basketball instead of college but there’s a steep learning curve for young pros no matter how good you are. Hampton’s got a lot of future earnings resting on his success here too. It’s a pretty cool situation and of course the Breakers had to go for it but you just hope that his development doesn’t become too much of a distraction. Seems like they’ve got enough of those already.
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