The Basketball World Cup Is On The Horizon And Squads Are Emerging

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We’re still two weeks away from the day that Paul Henare announces the Tall Blacks’ official World Cup squad. Before then there’s a training camp in Japan (we’re they are right now) with a couple games against their hosts to follow, then two games against Canada in Sydney… and straight after that we’ll get the final cuts to the squad. The FIBA World Cup then begins on the last day of August so it’s officially time to get excited.

The process of selecting a squad to represent Aotearoa began picking up speed in mid-June when the longlist was revealed. 25 players from which the eventual 12-man squad that goes to China 2019 would be selected, a longlist that included a certain Steven Adams. That one didn’t quite go as planned and Adams will not be at the World Cup. Nor will NCAA Champion Jack Salt as he heads to Poland to begin his professional career, he wasn’t even on the longlist to begin with. But from that initial group, whoever was available was invited to a training camp in Auckland at the start of this month.

It was during that camp that a double hammer-blow of bad news emerged with both Mika Vukona and Reuben Te Rangi being ruled out of the World Cup through injury. You can’t really overstate the impact of those two absences. We’re talking about a pair of blokes who are not only Tall Blacks regulars but they’re immensely valuable leaders within the team unit that has gotten us to this point. Vukona’s influence is probably more off-court these days (and hopefully they can still get him to tag along in a coaching/mentor role) but Te Rangi is coming off the best season of his career, winning the NBL Sixth Man of the Year for Brisbane Bullets. So yeah, fair to say that things haven’t been entirely ideal along the journey so far … but then a cheeky wider perspective shows that we’re hardly unique in that matter.

More on that in a sec, first here is the 14-man squad that’s currently in Japan. Whoever the dozen players that go to China are, they’ll be selected from these fourteen:

  • SHEA ILI (G)

  • JARROD KENNY (G)

  • TAI WEBSTER (G)

  • COREY WEBSTER (G)

  • TAINE MURRAY (G)

  • ETHAN RUSBATCH (G)

  • TOM ABERCROMBIE (F)

  • JORDAN NGATAI (F)

  • TOM VODANOVICH (F)

  • ISAAC FOTU (F)

  • FINN DELANY (F)

  • ALEX PLEDGER (C)

  • ROB LOE (C)

  • TOHI SMITH-MILNER (C)

At least half of that group are absolute locks, don’t even worry about it. Guys like the Webster Bros, Abercrombie, Ili, Fotu, Pledger… they were never in any doubt and will be playing big minutes at the World Cup. Finn Delany is basically in that conversation too after the six months he’s just had, while Rob Loe and Jarrod Kenny are reliable alternatives with NBL experience.

As for the others, it’s interesting to wonder who benefited from the missing names of Vukona and Te Rangi. Ethan Rusbatch’s recent surge put him in a bit of a situation where it was sort of a convo between him and Jordan Ngatai… but no RTR means both of them got to be the lucky buggers. Wouldn’t be surprised if Tohi Smith-Milner also have saw the benefits of that – especially considering Isaac Fotu’s a decent bet to see some time at centre. And ol’ Tom Vodanovich has had a nice few weeks for himself too, getting picked to this squad after some lovely basketball for the Southland Sharks towards the end of the NBL season followed by him getting a contract with the Breakers (one of only two NZers signed this offseason).

But the big bolter here is 17 year old Rosmini College lad Taine Murray, who played his way into this squad with a massive effort in the Auckland training camp. The dude’s still in year 12 at school but after winning MVP at an NBA development camp thingamajig in China earlier in the year he’d already emerged as one of Aotearoa’s top prospects and that reputation has only gone up after this selection. Is he likely to make the World Cup squad? Nah, probably not. You never know but with the depth of guards available it’s probably a lot to ask. He’d have a better chance if he was a ball-handling point guard because we’re a little short on those beyond Tai Webster (and veteran Jarrod Kenny).

Which is why this pick is so cool from Henare. Effectively he’s taken a development player on this camp. A development player who has earned his way this far, there’s no room for luggage on this plane, but one that definitely has an eye on the future of this Tall Blacks team. Here’s what Coach Henare had to say about that whole thing in the press release…

Paul Henare: “While the focus today is on the 14 who will move on to Japan and Australia, as a coaching and management team we have been hugely impressed by the entire group. The future of the game is in great hands with the likes of Kruz (18 years), Sam (22), Max (18), Tyrell (20), Hyrum (23) and Taylor (23) waiting in the wings, they are all tremendously talented players and impressive young men who all have great careers ahead of them, I can’t wait to see them back in the black singlet in the near future.”

For clarity, those fellas being Kruz Perrott-Hunt, Sam Timmins, Max Darling, Tyrell Harrison, Hyrum Harris, and Taylor Britt. There were also USA college blokes like Dan Fotu, Yuat Alok, and Yanni Wetzell named in the initial longlist. The end goal of this journey is the World Cup and getting the best possible results there that they can – especially with Olympic qualifying on the line – but this trend of keeping an eye on the future of the Tall Blacks is a pleasant side-mission of Paul Henare’s reign. Henare had the same mission while he was at the Breakers too which is part of why their recent trend away from that (post-Henare and under the infamous new ownership) has been so grating.

Anyway, Australia named their World Cup squad today and as you’d expect it’s pretty daunting. The usual names like Mills, Baynes, Bogut, Ingles, Dellavedova… they’re all there. However Andrej Lemanis did spring a few surprises in the interest of what he felt was the best balance of talents across the squad by leaving out Mitch Creek, Deng Adel, and Brock Motum. There are five NBL players in the squad. This is all super relevant to New Zealand as well, even if we don’t play them, because in order to qualify for the Olympics without going through a ruthless mini-tournament next year (which is how we missed out last time) we need to be the best finishing team from Oceania at the World Cup (which means, duh, progressing further than Australia).

And this, good mates, is where we swing back to the dramas worldwide. New Zealand wasn’t able to convince Steven Adams to take part this time and that news was predictably met with anger in all the usual parts of the kiwi media (many of which are best left well alone). But Australia had their own situation with Ben Simmons initially announcing that he’d be playing in a video made straight after the NBA season ended, then changing his mind to only play in the warm ups, then withdrawing entirely so as not to be a distraction during World Cup prep. Bit of a shambles, that one.

Likewise was the shambles of the exhibition games he nearly played, with the Aussie media initially advertising a full-strength USA squad to play the Boomers only for NBA stars to persistently and periodically withdraw from selection. It’s gotten to the point where Gregg Popovich’s probables squad is getting outplayed by the invitation possibles team in scrimmages now, apparently. An initial 20-man training roster was named in June and 60% of those players have politely declined since then, as well as plenty more who’ve been invited as replacements. Even players who will probably never get this chance again. Which has funkily opened things up for Torrey Craig to potentially make it – a dude with both Aussie and NZ NBL experience, how about them apples?

Here’s a list of notable players who have declined invites:

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Eric Gordon, Tobias Harris, Paul Millsap, JJ Redick, Montrezl Harrell, Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond & Julius Randle.

And that’s just of the ones that were initially considered. Of the eleven All-NBA players from last season who are eligible for Team USA, only Kemba Walker is going to be there. Kyle Lowry and Khris Middleton will probably be the only other All Stars on the roster. Without a doubt there was a domino effect of peer pressure keeping dudes from wanting to stay in once others started pulling out. But hey, this is still America. And their coach is Gregg Popovich, the master of making the most of his role players. They’re still picking a team of entirely NBA players and they’re still going to be the favourites at this World Cup… but they’re not going to be unbeatable for once.

As you might expect the Canadian team has been similarly bashed up by player withdrawals. The Canadian side had the potential to be one of the dark horses at this World Cup but frankly they haven’t been able to muster up the players. Gone are the likes of Jamal Murray, Andre Wiggins, RJ Barrett, Tristan Thompson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dwight Powell. Kelly Olynyk and guard Cory Joseph are still hanging in there but behind them is mostly fringe NBA talent of overseas dudes. Considering they’re in Australia’s group… this is kinda mud news for New Zealand.

Curiously a lot of the Euro teams haven’t been affected by this same mass exodus of NBA players. Sure there are a fair few unavailable for various reasons but Spain still have Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio. Italy should have Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli – even after Gallinari underwent and appendectomy this week. Serbia have a terrifyingly good team that features Nikola Jokic, Boban Marjanovic, Nemanja Bjelica and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Cedi Osman and Ersan Ilyasova will represent Turkey. France should have Rudy Gobert, Nicolas Batum, and Evan Fournier. Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas are keen to go for Lithuania. And all three of the Antetokounmpo brothers in the NBA (yes, including MVP Giannis) are expected to feature against the Tall Blacks in Group F.

But we can worry about all that later. First things first… it’s all about this Tall Blacks journey. Fire it up, folks.

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