Paul Henare may be chilling out at the NBA Summer League, scouting for those precious last couple import spots, but one glimpse at the current NZ Breakers roster as it stands for next season and there’s something that immediately catches the eye: they’re all from Aotearoa.
Alex Pledger, Rob Loe, Mika Vukona, Tom Abercrombie, Finn Delany, Kirk Penney, Shea Ili and now the new lad James Hunter. Eight players all under contract and every one of them hails from New Zealand. Not only that but seven of them were there last season. There’s a real pattern emerging within the Henare reign and it’s no shocker given the bloke is also the Tall Blacks coach. In other words: he’s the most important man in NZ basketball not named Steven Adams.
James Hunter definitely wouldn’t have been many people’s pick for a Breakers spot. At 2.08m he’s got plenty of size and he had a full four year career in college (albeit at four different schools). There’s experience in Europe, experience in Australia where he’s lived a lot of his life, but he didn’t do anything special with the Southland Sharks in the NBL this year. He was good, but nothing spectacular… especially considering the spot he’s taken on the roster used to belong to the MVP of the league, a certain Corey Webster.
But he’s tall with a bit of skill and he’s got plenty of motivation. At 25 he’s still learning but he’ll also bring a reliable presence for a rookie. And, look, he’s the third big man. We’re probably only talking a few minutes a game behind Alex Pledger and Rob Loe. Too small a role for an import, may as well chuck a kiwi in there.
By the way, Hunter’s dad is Tod Hunter of the 70s rock band Dragon. As in: ‘April Sun in Cuba’, Dragon. Which is why the fringe kiwi international was born and raised in Australia.
Paul Henare on James Hunter: “We have been on the lookout for another player to join our bigs, and our preference was always for a Kiwi to fill that role. He will give us hustle and size off the bench, can score in a number of different ways and will give us commitment and presence on the boards.”
See that’s what’s cool about giving a contract to a guy like James Hunter. He’s not ever gonna be pushing for an NBA place but he’s a talented kiwi baller who can now make a living out of the game. With growing numbers of New Zealanders getting into college systems there are more and more talented players being brought through and we’re seeing more and more of them able to sustain a career in the sport. That’s how you build the sport here: you’ve gotta have that base of solid pros propping up the top tier of dudes. The better that base, the better the top tier. Foundations, baby. Paul Henare knows how it works.
The big winner from this deal, other than Hunter himself, is Rob Loe. Clearly they’re picking him to make some big strides in his second season with the team and realistically he should. For a floor-stretching big man like he is, there were way too many games where he couldn’t stay on the floor for fouling. He could be scoring double figures a night if he played to his abilities. But with the club looking for two import guards and therefore moving on from the usual Akil Mitchell/Charles Jackson kinda signing then that means they’re backing Loe to provide some serious impact.
Also prioritising the guards for those import slots is just a smart decision. Those are the most skilled, most influential positions in modern basketball – therefore the ones that’ll give you the most impact. Assume that whoever the imports lads are, they’ll be the best players. You want your best players in the positions that’ll best affect the game, bingo. Although don’t necessarily expect them to fill that third international spot quite yet. They kept it free for the start of last season in order to hold a bit of flexibility for when things inevitably went wrong and in a season as injury-packed as the last one that turned out to be crucial. Being able to replace Corey Webster on the fly, that’ll keep you slugging away at the playoffs where other teams might crumble.
Plus, you know, the team might just not perform like you’d hoped and some unforeseen hole might need filling. You’re obviously better off filling it with a genuine overseas pro rather than an NBL battler – and when you’re getting import-level scoring out of a guy like Kirk Penney (hopefully) then you can afford to hold up on that.
The season doesn’t start until October 8 (at home to Cairns) so there’s plenty of time to go until we get serious about things. Before then there’s the Asia Cup to worry about. It’s been well-publicised that Henare’s gonna take a largely inexperienced squad to the tournament, looking to build depth at what’s a pretty inconvenient tournament at this stage. We’re not gonna have our best players available in August for this thing and it has no effect on World Cup or Olympic qualification. No worries there – it’s the World Cup qualifiers in November that will get prioritising and for the first time the NBL will allow an international window for them to compete, which is awesome. Somebody tell the A-League it’s not that difficult.
Henare will name a 12-man roster for the Asia Cup within the next two weeks, with extended trials to take place from July 20-26. Even with none of the experienced pros available, even with most college players unavailable, even with Steven Adams very obviously having better things to do… we should still see a team worth keeping an eye on, with Breakers players like Shea Ili, Finn Delany and James Hunter all likely to feature.
International basketball isn’t the pinnacle. The strength of Australian basketball at the moment is down to player production, not Boomer priorities. Big numbers of NBA players and a local league that’s every year cutting the distance between itself and the best leagues in Europe. The Breakers are a part of that and this Tall Blacks team is gonna overlap the best young prospects there and the best young prospects in the kiwi NBL. All about bringing up that next generation.
So don’t worry about the weakened team, this season is about player depth. We’ve already seen the invitational tour to China and the Under-19 World Cup just polished up – where Tai Wynyard was bloody fantastic ahead of a crucial college season for him at Kentucky (where the two players ahead of him in his position both left for the NBA: Bam Adebayo and Isaac Humphries). We never used to play in the Asia Cup anyway.
As for the Breakers, it’ll all depend on how good the imports they get can be. They’ll need a point guard for sure with Shea Ili the only bloke really covering that right now… although unlike when he got injured in preseason last time Ili ought to come in hot for 2017-18 following all his Tall Blacks stuff. Could Tai Webster be that starting PG? Yeah, he honestly could be. Add another scorer on the wings, ideally someone who can also be a lock-down defender, and this could be a team good enough to challenge in the playoffs again. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet.
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