New Zealand hasn’t traditionally been thought of as a basketball powerhouse on the world stage. But the sport is growing, and many kids who in years past would have taken to the rugby field are straying away from the country’s national game and trying their hand on the hardwood.
Much of this can be attributed to the success of the national team, the Tall Blacks, in the 2002 World Championships, sparking an interest in the sport that saw its popularity skyrocket.
It is only now that we are beginning to see the effects of this. The youngsters who were once inspired by their heroes a decade ago are reaching college age, and among them come prospects of the quality that haven’t been seen out of New Zealand since Kirk Penney.
The Under-19 National Championships were recently held, with the country’s best coming together to do battle in a four-day tournament. It was this class last year that brought the highly touted Steven Adams and rising star Isaac Fotu.
The 2012 edition looked impressive, and while no one has yet emerged to receive the same hype as Adams, there were a handful of prospects that could be worth keeping an eye on over the next year.
Tai Webster, 6'2", Guard
Tai Webster had class written all over him for the entire tournament, possessing the skill set and explosiveness that would make him a very good college player. He proved himself capable of shooting the outside jumper, while also adept at getting to the hoop and finishing while drawing contact.
He was outstanding in the final, dropping 42 points in a losing effort, at times keeping his team in touch seemingly by himself.
More recently, Webster made his debut for the New Zealand national team and didn’t look out of place at that level by any stretch. In his international debut against Brazil, he led his team in scoring, notching 8 points and shooting four from five from the field in just 12 minutes.
This was against a team possessing a handful of NBA players. But then it shouldn’t be a surprise, if one thing was clear about Webster at the tournament, it was that he would have the confidence to take on anyone.
Reuben Te Rangi, 6'7", Forward
Webster’s team mate, Reuben Te Rangi also showed that he has what it takes to play at a higher level. Like Webster, he brings a strong skill set and great athleticism to the game, but with extra size.
He is an outstanding shooter from the perimeter, while also having the ability to get to the hoop, making him a tough matchup. He was solid defensively, and proved hard to score on.
He was a key player in the Harbour Heat side in the New Zealand National League competition, showing he could mix it with the best in the country. His best performance came against the Southland Sharks, where he shot six from six from the three point line.
He finished the season with the second-best three-point percentage in the league and won Rookie of the Year honors, an award that was last year picked up by Pittsburgh’s Adams.
After the tournament, Te Rangi attended the Nike All-Asia Camp and impressed, being named the Most Valuable Player. He was also named as a trialist for the New Zealand national team.
Watch out, potential Hoop Summit player.
Tohiraukura Milner-Smith, 6'9", Forward
A key player on the championship winning Waitakere team, Tohiraukura Milner-Smith, has the size and skill to further his game.
At 6’ 9” he is big enough to be a threat to down low, but what made him stand out from the other big men came in his ability to handle the ball, even leading the fast break on occasion. Along with this he showed the ability to shoot the outside jumper, displaying good range.
He appeared unfazed by pressure situations, drawing a foul from beyond the three-point line in the final second of the championship game, before heading to the line to drain the winning basket.
Milner-Smith also played in the New Zealand National League with the championship-winning Auckland Pirates, while also being invited to the New Zealand national team trials.
It’s hard to believe he’s only 16, and as the equivalent of an American high school junior this year, he’s only going to get better.
He was a key member of the New Zealand high school national champion Rosmini in 2011, a team which is the hot favourite to repeat.
Notice a common theme throughout this? The kid certainly knows how to win championships.
Tom Vodanovich, 6'8", Forward
An athletic forward, Wellington’s Tom Vodanovich showed why he is one of the most highly regarded young players in New Zealand.
He is very much a blue-collar player, rebounding and playing tough throughout the tournament, displaying good hustle and commitment. His leadership skills have been well recognised too as captain of the New Zealand Under-19 team.
Vodanovich attended the Albert Schweitzer Tournament with this team, averaging 10.5 points per game and 5.3 rebounds. He also attended the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp.
But it is many of the intangibles that make Vodanovich the player he is. His hustle and toughness will see him contribute to any team.
Other Notable Prospects:
*Karena and Burton both from the next age-group and didn't play in the tournament.