Two days on from a memorable win over China in front of 8,000 fans at Spark Arena, a result that sees the MBO Tall Blacks top Pool A after the first stage of qualifying for the FIBA World Cup in 2019, Head Coach Paul Henare reflected on another successful FIBA window and the further development of his largely young team.
The headlines were grabbed by some of the usual suspects, but this Tall Blacks team has a depth chart perhaps like never before in its history, with role players aplenty at Henare’s disposal – and remember this was a Tall Blacks roster minus two of their ‘go-to’ offensive talents in Corey (club locked in China) and Tai Webster (NBA Summer League), while 7-foot centre Alex Pledger made himself unavailable for selection.
Tom Abercrombie was a key offensive weapon in the two games against Hong Kong and China with 18 and 14-point hauls, Isaac Fotu was all powerful in the post, mostly backing his way to 17 and 15 points and starting point guard Shea Ili led the guard line with 16 assists across the two games.
Henare though highlighted the impact of almost each and every one of his players after the determined and passionate win over China in Auckland.
“Our strength is in our ability to go deep in our roster, whether it is a defensive effort or putting the ball in the basket, we are loaded with players who unselfishly give their all for the greater good. That is ingrained in our culture, it is part of our identify as a team.
“Look at someone like Jack Salt and the impact he has had on the team this window, his first appearance in the black singlet for five years but is still only 22 years old. The change in him physically but also in his maturity and leadership while at Virginia has just been phenomenal and he delivered big time for us on and off court and has a long international future ahead of him.
“Sometimes you have to look beyond the stat line to evaluate a player’s performance, we asked Jack to do a job on Wang (Chinese centre) and Wang finishes up fouling out and going 1 of 3 from the floor, a lot of that was down to Jack’s defensive strength. China base so much of their play around Wang, he is a very good international player and we saw handling him as a huge key.”
Rob Loe was another to impress mightily, the former Breaker and now Cairns Taipan finished up with 31 points on 11 of 16 shooting, including an incredible 8 of 11 from deep in the two games. Loe was also a menace on defence against China, muscling up for 10 rebounds and 4 blocked shots as he constantly denied China in the paint.
“Rob Loe is unique and has found a way to flick the switch and found some rhythm against Hong Kong and played crucial minutes tonight, he was tremendous after not playing any basketball since the Commonwealth Games. His ability to stretch the floor for us and give us that variety in our bigs is a huge asset to us.”
Henare referenced the ability of everyone in the 12, indeed in the 14 named for the two games to contribute to the team’s cause.
“Jarrod Kenny is a player you can rely on, he is vastly experienced, calm and a great leader in some of those big moments. His final quarter three tonight was critical, but just as important is the direction and guidance he brings us when the situation might suggest panic would be the order of the day. He is the type of character that you trust in those moments.
“Reuben Te Rangi continues to grow and mature as a leader of this team, still just 23, Reubs brings strong defence and versatility to the floor and the ability to score when we need him to make plays. He is gaining in experience with every outing and wears the singlet with pride, he has been fantastic this window.
“Dion Prewster returned to the black singlet after an absence of a few years, and he took every opportunity. We asked him to play lock down defence every time he was on the floor, and he has the ability to knock down clutch shots, he is another player who is unfazed by the situation, the challenge for Dion is to take that back to the Sal’s NBL and lift those around him.”
Jordan Ngatai and Finn Delany also made considerable contributions across the two games, playing crucial minutes and high tempo defense against China and draining buckets as they can when given license to do so against Hong Kong, with 14 and 15 points respectively.
Perhaps it is appropriate though that the final word is about the captain of this team, a captain who was told by his coach that he would not be starting, that his role was to come from the bench and further inspire his team mates and lift the level of intensity.
“I don’t know what you say about Mika, I am truly lost for words as to how you describe his impact on this team – any team he plays for. He was the best player on the floor in that final quarter, not for making buckets, not for fancy assists – but for his effort plays, his lock down defence and simply the way he wears the opposition down as only Mika Vukona can do. I know I shouldn’t be amazed by now, but I am every time he pulls on the black singlet, it is something we should never take for granted.”
Of the others in the 14, 19-year-old Isaac Letoa gained further experience against Hong Kong but was not required against China, his future is clearly bright though and already he has made great strides since first appearing at the Asia Cup in 2017.
Tohi Smith-Milner could not force his way into a crowded forward line, but at just 22 years old remains a great option for Henare, with his challenge now to force his way into regular minutes with Melbourne in his first fully contracted season in the Australian League and maintain pressure on the players ahead of him.
Kruz Perrott-Hunt was at 17 years of age the youngest in this group of 14 and while not seeing any court time, he was a keen student throughout every moment in camp, whether in practice, in the video sessions or talking to coaches and other players at meals or on the team bus and is again, one that Henare has earmarked for a big future in the game.
The next opportunity for the team will fall in the September FIBA Window, when the Tall Blacks will play another two games, one on the road (against Syria) and one at home against Lebanon, with venue details and dates yet to be confirmed.