New Zealanders to Look out for Against Team USA
New Zealand have had a less-than-ideal start to their 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup campaign. The inability to close out their opening game against Turkey cost them after an otherwise good performance, while a tired-looking team never found their rhythm the next day against the Dominican Republic.
Now New Zealand will battle to make the top 16, something that was considered to be the lowest acceptable finish for the team prior to the tournament. Games against Ukraine and Finland are both winnable, although even if both are won, their fate will still depend on other results.
In their next game though, they face a formidable USA team. Even the most optimistic New Zealand supporter would give their team little chance of winning this game. While it is undoubtedly novel to see the New Zealanders playing against NBA superstars, the reality is that they will be largely out of their depth.
This is made even harder considering New Zealand are without many first-choice players due to either injury or unavailability. For a country as small as New Zealand, where the best athletes play rugby, cricket and rugby league, to be without players such as Steven Adams, Alex Pledger, Reuben Te Rangi and Mark Dickel is a huge handicap.
That said, New Zealand will fight hard and there may be a few players who can make life difficult for their superstar opponents. Here are a few to keep an eye on.
Kirk Penney is without a doubt the best player on this New Zealand line-up. In fact, many would argue that he is their best-ever player and, without Steven Adams, their only player who could currently be considered truly world-class.
He has struggled to get his game going so far, scoring just nine points in the tournament opener and 16 the following day. But he is too good a player to continue in this vein.
Penney is an outstanding pure shooter, capable of hitting from deep and pulling up from mid-range. In the 2010 FIBA World Championship he proved difficult to contain, finishing as the second overall leading scorer with 24.7 points per game.
If New Zealand are to be competitive, Penney needs to find this form once more. Realistically, they need to be getting at least 25 points per game from him.
He has an impressive resume. At college he was part of the 2000 Wisconsin team which made the Final Four, before being named to the All-Big Ten first team the next two seasons. Shortly after this he was a member of the New Zealand team who finished fourth at the 2002 FIBA World Championship.
He has played in many leagues around the world since leaving college, including ones in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and he even had a stint in the NBA.
New Zealand basketball is known for its physicality, hustle and intensity. No one epitomises this more than Mika Vukona, the veteran New Zealand undersized forward.
Despite being only 6'5", he plays well above his height and is one of the better rebounders on the team. He will attack the boards aggressively, throwing himself at any loose balls and making himself difficult for the big men to box out.
Vukona will not take a step backwards defensively, either. He is not the athlete many of the Americans are, but he will hustle and defend with a toughness few others have. Consequently, he can often find himself in foul trouble when the game is being called tightly by the referees.
Over the past couple of years his offensive game has developed, and he is now capable of shooting from mid-range, while also being capable of getting to the hoop.
He is perhaps not your prototypical basketball player to beat the USA, but he will be very different to a lot of what they have come up against before. If there is one player who could frustrate them, it will most likely be Vukona.
Isaac Fotu is beginning to make quite a name for himself and seems destined to step into the role Mika Vukona has filled for so long.
Like Vukona, he provides high amounts of intensity, hustle, energy and physicality. However, at 6'8" he has a few inches on Vukona and can use this extra size to his advantage.
Coming off his sophomore season at the University of Hawaii, Fotu remains one of New Zealand's up-and-coming big men. Along with Steven Adams, Rob Loe, Jack Salt and Tai Wynyard, he is part of a group that could really make New Zealand competitive at this level in a few years.
He has shown tremendous potential though, having been named in the All-Big West first team as a sophomore, having been an adept rebounder and scorer for Hawaii.
His game in the low post is good, possessing strength and good footwork to get to the hoop and the intensity and attitude to chase down rebounds. Along with this, his passing game has improved a lot and his performances in this World Cup have shown his ability to defend bigger players in the post.
If he can continue improving he is has a real shot at making the NBA, and there is no better time to test himself than against the USA.
Tai Webster is the other current college player on this team. Having left New Zealand late last year with a big reputation, he had what some might consider a quiet freshman season at the University of Nebraska.
There is no doubt the college experience has influenced his game though. Prior to leaving his homeland he was known as an enthusiastic player with huge amounts of confidence who would look to score.
Having played on a strong Nebraska team has clearly taught him patience, and he is now content to set others up and has developed into a very unselfish player. In fact, he perhaps needs to be more selfish at times to make himself the threat he is capable of being.
Webster is an explosive guard, capable of getting to the hoop and also can shoot from the outside. Like the others on this list, he does not lack for energy and will go looking for rebounds and go after any loose ball aggressively.
Despite his youth, Webster has played against a handful of top players and has a good resume. Along with the top guards in the Big Ten, he also has experience playing against the likes of Dante Exum and Mark Dickel.
At 17, he was the youngest player to ever play for the Tall Blacks. He quickly made his mark on the team in what was a successful year for Webster, which also included a National Secondary Schools Championship, where he was named the tournament's MVP.
In 2011, he was a member of the New Zealand team that won the Under 18 World 3x3 Championship, along with Isaac Fotu.
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