Yanni Wetzell was 17-years-old when he started playing serious basketball and fast-forwarding only six years, he finds himself on the only undefeated division one men’s basketball team in America.
San Diego State, NBA star Kawhi Leonard’s alma mater, are 26-0 so far this season, the best start in the school’s history.
So, how did the Kiwi get himself into this situation after only committing to the hardwood in his second-to-last year of high school?
Well, it helps that he’s 6”10, but it is also a culmination of hard work, patience and a skill set carried over from a game played with a racket.
“Being mobile for a big guy was one of the advantages when I first started playing and my hand-eye (coordination) wasn’t bad either.
“I was pretty late to the party with basketball and I’m not sure that if I’d committed to another sport as I did with tennis, that I’d have transitioned to basketball they way I did.
“Mum wasn’t very happy when I gave it (tennis) up, with all the money she spent on lessons, although I’m sure she’s not too mad now with how it’s all worked out.”
Wetzell is one of five children born to parents Clem and Jenny, who raised their family in Castor Bay on Auckland’s North Shore.
He was no different from any other kid in trying various sports throughout his childhood, but he took a particular liking to tennis and at 13 decided to put all his eggs in one basket.
“I was playing a bunch of sports when I started high school. I was playing rugby, athletics, tennis and a bit of basketball, but I kind of quit everything to focus on tennis.”
His goal at the time was to get a college scholarship to the United States and after receiving a world junior ranking, he had all the makings of an ace.
However, over the summer of ‘12/13, Wetzell went from being a big guy to a “big, big guy”.
“All the way through high school my dream was to go over to America and play tennis. The turning point was in sixth form when I started playing basketball socially, just like once a week in a rec league for a few months and that was about it.
“By the end of the summer going into my last year, I grew about six inches, so that’s when I decided to try out for the high school team.
“I was still keen on tennis and was just looking to play basketball on the side. Things sort of changed when I made the premier team and the North Harbour rep team, and then all of a sudden I’m like this is crazy, I’m loving this sport more and so why not give it a proper go.”
He was then selected for the Junior Tall Blacks (Under 19) following strong outings for Westlake and Harbour, assuring himself, and mum, that the decision to put tennis on the backburner wasn’t in vain.
One of the downsides to Wetzell’s meteoric rise was scouts had little tape on him to consider offering him a scholarship. The school leaver needed more exposure and went through a recruiting portal to garner more interest.
The middleman distributed his basketball CV and returned with some opportunities in division two. Wetzell accepted an offer from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.
He averaged close to 12 points and seven rebounds per game as a rookie and went on to be named the Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year. He backed this up the next season by upping his points average to 15, while also playing a larger role in his team’s defence.
His improvements over those two years made enough noise for division one coaches to take notice. The countless hours of showing up early to practice and leaving late had finally paid off.
“I’d always wanted to play against the best and after doing pretty well as a sophomore, I decided to take up the challenge of playing D1.
“I had a bunch of offers, but I chose Vanderbilt because it felt like the right fit at the right time.
“It was actually one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in all honesty, because I’d formed a family in San Antonio and the coaches had really taken me in.
“It was a tough decision but it was definitely in my best interest academically and sporting wise. I honestly felt like a traitor, but I had to remember that this industry is a business and you can’t treat it like it’s not.”
The move from Texas to Tennessee forced him to redshirt the ‘17/18 season under NCAA transfer rules, giving him extra time to focus on his studies.
He graduated from Vanderbilt (one the best academic schools in the US) with a degree in economics, something he says he will look to use after basketball.
Wetzell went on to make 32 appearances for his new school and struggled for court time in what was a difficult year for the team as a whole. The Commodores went 9-23, which resulted in their coaching staff getting let go.
The firing left him in an unstable position, but thanks to a new rule which allows graduates to transfer without having to forego a season, he was able to move to a more favourable environment.
Despite putting up modest numbers in his short stint in Nashville, some of the most successful programmes still came knocking for his services.
“I don’t have anything negative to say about my time in Vanderbilt, only things didn’t go to plan and for my last year of eligibility I wanted to go to a programme that was established and had a good winning record, so I decided to leave.
“The two schools that I narrowed it down to were Texas Tech and San Diego State. I took the visits to both schools and ended up falling in love with San Diego State.”
It’s fair to say the feelings are mutual between the Aztecs and the forward, with the Kiwi playing a leading role in his team’s unblemished campaign. He’s averaging 12 points while shooting a Mountain West Conference-leading 60.8% from the field, and six rebounds a contest.
The team is only three games away from completing a perfect regular-season before they then depart for their conference tournament. It can be tough to look for ways to improve when you haven’t left the winner’s circle, only these group of guys know there’s no room for complacency.
“It’s been an amazing run so far, we all get along and the coach has instilled a lot of confidence in all of us. We play with a lot of freedom and feel like we can do anything, within reason, as long as we stick to the systems.
“In terms of not getting too ahead of ourselves with the winning, coach has done a really good job in film sessions and practices in identifying areas where we can get better.
“At the end of the day, we’re playing other division one athletes, who are playing at this level for a reason, so we know that if we don’t prepare, play and recover properly we’re not giving ourselves the best chance to win.”
Wetzell, as you can see, prefers to stay in the present rather than thinking too far ahead, but was candid when asked about his basketball aspirations following his collegiate career.
“I’d love to be able to play professionally, wherever that may be. I’m just taking it day by day at the moment though.
“I’ll look to get an agent when the season is finished and from there we’ll see what opportunities come my way.
“Playing for the Tall Blacks is one of my other dreams I hopefully get to tick off. I’ve had a couple of stints with the NZ Select Team which I really enjoyed and hopefully, I can go that one step further because it is something I have on my list and I’d love to be selected for them.”
It’d be hard to imagine that given his current form he isn’t on the Tall Blacks’ radar and should he receive a cap for the national side, there’s an argument to be made that his path to the black singlet is the most abnormal.
In an age wherein some sports primary school kids are being groomed to eventually be paid to play a game, we have an example of how it’s never too late to chase your ambition, as long as you’re willing to put in the work.
Wetzell acknowledges that his journey to San Diego State isn’t the way he would’ve chosen to do it if you asked his 17-year-old self, but he knows that he wouldn’t be the same player had he not taken the off-beaten track.
“When I look back at how far I’ve come since I left home, it is weird to think that I went from playing div 2 to now being on one of the best teams in the country.
“It took a lot of hard work and support from so many different people. I can’t thank those close to me enough for pushing me and getting me where I am.
“I think if I could give any sort of advice it would just be to back yourself and work for an opportunity because you never know where you could end up.”
San Diego’s favourite Kiwi and his team will look to defend their undefeated record this Sunday when they take on UNLV at home.