Dunno about you but I’m getting pretty pumped about this basketball World Cup. Most teams are amassing as we speak, getting in the final licks that they hope will give them that crucial one percent extra, with a tad over two weeks to go until the big show tips off. Friendly games are rolling out all over the globe and Aotearoa’s Tall Blacks are no exception. While the USA team was getting whupped by a G-League and International select team that included the Breakers’ new wing recruit Scotty Hopson, the Tall Blacks were debriefing after finishing off a two-game series and training camp over in and against Japan.
(Not kidding about Hopson either – he was in a 15-man select roster coached by Jeff Van Gundy that outscored Team USA 36-17 in a ten minute scrimmage open to the media. Yup, Hopson is going to be pretty outstanding for the Breakers this season)
Last time the Tall Blacks got a TNC write-up it was after the roster was cut to 14 men. This was our first chance to see those fellas in action and speculate on who might be the two lads to miss out as well as what kind of rotations we could be looking at. Remember that the TBs are without both Mika Vukona and Reuben Te Rangi for this World Cup campaign with the two Brissie Bullets both injured. Meanwhile they were up against a pretty stacked Japanese side that includes a fella by the name of Rui Hachimura who just so happened to be the ninth overall pick in the latest NBA Draft (shame he ended up at the Wizards, aye? Dude’s a super talent). Also there for the hosts was Yudai Baba who came up against a familiar face considering he was in the same Dallas Mavericks Summer League squad as Finn Delany. Plus Yuta Watanabe was there too, he’s on a two-way deal with the Memphis Grizzlies, although an injury meant he barely played.
First game… not so great. The Tall Blacks came out hurling bricks while Rui Hachimura put on a clinic. When you begin a game down 18-2 you know you’ve got some troubles to overcome. Having said that though the Tall Blacks did steadily grind their way back into the contest, particularly when the second units came out, and by half-time they were only down by six. But Japan’s starters picked things up again in the third and no matter how close the kiwis got it was never close enough to avoid the little scoring runs that stretched it back out to safety for the hosts. Japan eventually won it 99-89.
Which wasn’t terrible. It showed that Aotearoa had a lead over the rest of the game after that rotten start, they just dug a little too much of a hole to begin with. Plus, you know, they shot 6/35 from deep which is a measly 17% across the squad. Can’t be that poor in such a crucial aspect of the game, mate. Then there were also some defensive wrinkles, which Paul Henare put down to communication breakdowns, that meant Japan were constantly able to get bucket when they needed one to relieve the pressure. Hachimura had a sensational 35 points, barely missing a shot. For New Zealand Tai Webster was pretty solid with 18 points and 7 assists (although he and his brother were two of the main culprits with the three-point clangers). Isaac Fotu also scored 16 while Corey Webster added 14.
Remember though that a lot of these dudes are well into their offseasons. The Euro stuff’s been wrapped up a little while now and the Aussie NBL finished months ago. A fair few got in some reps in the kiwi leagues but this is obviously a step up from that facing an NBA lottery pick and his compatriots. So perhaps a little rustiness was to be expected and rustiness tends to express itself on the defensive end and with jump shots so with any set back like that you’ve gotta look at what kind of response you get to it because that’s the defining factor.
And you know what? The Tall Blacks came out strong in the second game, built up an early lead, and held it pretty much most of the way. 104-87 was the final score, with a wonderfully balanced Tall Blacks offence seeing five different players score 12+ (plus another two with 9pts) yet none of them topped 16 points. Spreading the wealth around. It wasn’t quite the sprint from the start that Japan had last time but otherwise it might as well have been the inverse of that one. Every little run, particularly in the fourth quarter, was nicely repelled and while Hachimura still looked a handful, he was much better handled with only 19 points this time – plus Finn Delany dunked on him rather substantially. Man, Finn was out there trying to dunk on everybody in sight. He didn’t land another like he did on Hachimura but he threatened a couple posters that could have been legendary. Doubt that there’s been a kiwi baller who’s had a steeper rise over the last probably 18 months than Delany.
Although Ethan Rusbatch might be somewhere on that list too, tell you what. He scored 16 points with 3/5 shooting from deep in this one after popping a couple more on his way to 12 points in the previous game. Before the squad was skittled down it seemed like Rusbatch might have been in a bit of an arm-wrestle with Jordan Ngatai for at least a spot in the rotation if not the squad altogether. Well, Ngatai didn’t even take the court until midway through the third quarter of the second game and only played five minutes in total while Rusbatch scored double figures in each game and played more total minutes than anyone other than Isaac Fotu, Tom Abercrombie, Tai Webster, Rob Loe, and Corey Webster. The five starters, in other words. Rusbatch has earned those minutes and he’s well and truly booked his place on the plane. This isn’t a case of improving his case… his case is set. He’s going to the World Cup, full stop.
Now, the triple numbers are still a worry. They shot a much improved 35% in game two but that still included both Delany (0/3), Jarrod Kenny (0/3), and T.Webster (0/5) going 0-fors. Could be that’s something that’s fixed by more discerning shot selection… though Tai’s a pretty bloody decent shooter these days so perhaps that’s just an outlier. It was only two games, after all. None of our conclusions here can be locked on.
Alex Pledger only played eight minutes in each game but that’s a reliable eight minutes that he’s likely to maintain the whole way through this journey. He’s the dude who doesn’t shoot from range… although he hit a couple very long twos in Japan which suggests something otherwise. But yeah, the old fashioned big fella, not as quick on his feet, is always going to play a more limited role when the Tall Blacks are clearly looking to play quite active basketball, getting out in transition and allowing their swift guards to get to work and attack. It was a notable difference between the two games how successful that approach was. Shea Ili was a benefactor of that with a much more effective performance. However with Fotu being a guy who thrives in the post, this does put a bit of pressure on Rob Loe to make his triples in order to keep things well spaced. Game one he hit 2/7 from deep. Game two he was 3/7. Second most attempts in the first and most attempts in the second. This dude is going to be left open on the perimeter. It happened against Japan and it’ll happen against everyone else too. If he’s knocking them down then the TBs are in a good shape.
Along with a limited cameo from Jordan Ngatai, both Tom Vodanovich and Taine Murray didn’t play at all in this series. Two players are going to be cut from this group in order to get down to the required 12-man World Cup squad and while Tohi Smith-Milner didn’t really do anything but he did log 14 minutes so he might have caught the edge on Ngatai and Vodanovich. Murray was always a bit of a development fella so he was a favourite to drop out when the final cut happens. The other three… well, there are two games left against Canada next week to sort that out.
Both those games are on kiwi telly. Canada against the Tall Blacks, both games in Sydney, taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday… then the squad gets cut before the final warm-up games in China against France, Serbia, and Italy. Three incredibly tough challenges there that should have the lads in a great space to target Brazil in that first game at the World Cup. Which might be a must-win too, just quietly. The third game against Greece is a bit much to expect the W from so in order to progress from the group they really need to win against Brazil and Montenegro before that.
Hey, it’s the World Cup. It’s supposed to be tricky.
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