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A basketball flying between New Zealand and the USA.
Image: Archi Banal

SportsFebruary 11, 2023

How New Zealand is becoming a proven pathway to the NBA

A basketball flying between New Zealand and the USA.
Image: Archi Banal

With first round draft picks regularly passing through the Breakers in recent years, New Zealand is becoming recognised as a world-class destination for young NBA hopefuls to hone their skills.

After a superb regular season, where they placed second in the Australian NBL, the New Zealand Breakers, have a home semi-final this Sunday. But even in the midst of a great Breakers season, when New Zealanders discuss basketball, they typically talk about the USA. After all, the USA is home to basketball’s top men’s league, the NBA, and many of its biggest stars.

There’s an assumption that the NBA is miles ahead of leagues outside the USA in every possible metric. But in terms of pace, the NBL is right up there – far closer to the NBA than any other international league. Which makes it a perfect place to develop NBA talent.

In recent years, New Zealand has carved out a role as a legitimate proving ground for NBA-level talent to hone their skills. The Breakers have been the catalyst for this development, but so has the changing environment for basketball’s top youth players.

A graph showing the pace level of several international basketball leagues, showing the NBL - where the NZ Breakers play - as second only to the NBA..
A graph showing the pace of play of international basketball leagues, showing the NBL as second only to the NBA. (Graph: Francesco Olivo)

Once upon a time, NBA hopefuls were essentially forced to play college basketball – a billion dollar industry that doesn’t directly pay the players – en route to the big leagues. Michael Jordan spent three years at the University of North Carolina, as did Steph Curry at Davidson College. Some prospects, like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, were so talented that they could go straight to the NBA from high school, skipping college altogether. But the NBA banned this practice in 2006 – now, players must be 19 or older and at least one year removed from high school.

In recent years, however, paid opportunities for NBA prospects have expanded. Getting paid has long been an option for international players, particularly in Europe. But now prospects from America, Australia and everywhere in between are forfeiting college to use their talent to put bread on the table for their families. This is a fantastic evolution for player empowerment and economic opportunity, something the New Zealand Breakers have capitalised on.  

In 2018, the NBL founded its Next Stars programme for top young players to fast-track their development while forfeiting their college eligibility. Prospects can earn upwards of US$50,000 ($77,046), receive additional training and are provided with an apartment and car. The scheme attracts players from Australia and around the world.

In its first few years, the Next Stars programme attracted top US talent away from college, including 2022 NBA all-star Lamelo Ball and first round draft pick RJ Hampton. Ball was already a star before he got to the NBL, so the league had to fork out an unprecedented AU$100,000 ($107,714) to secure his talents. The Next Stars programme has been so successful that it’s inspired global change to pay youth players – including in the USA. With paid opportunities now at home, American prospects are choosing to stay put. So the NBL has shifted its Next Stars recruiting focus to Europe. 

RJ Hampton and Lamelo Ball go head-to-head in the NBL (Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Of the six NBL Next Stars prospects to make the NBA since 2018, two played for the New Zealand Breakers – RJ Hampton (2019-2020) and Ousmane Dieng (2021-2022). The only other team to have two Next Stars players reach the NBA is the Sydney Kings, with one each playing for the Illawarra Hawks and Adelaide 36ers. Not only have the Breakers’ elevated their Next Stars prospects, they’ve done the same for the international youngsters on ordinary contracts with the club – Hugo Besson (2021-2022) being one example.

Besson was picked up by the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks last year, though he has yet to suit up for the team, instead playing at home in France. Speaking of Frenchmen, the New Zealand Breakers’ 2022-2023 Next Stars prospect is 6 foot 7 (2m) 18-year-old Frenchman Rayan Rupert. If Rupert makes it to the NBA, which he is projected to do, the Breakers will overtake Sydney to become the NBLs most successful team at elevating prospects into the NBA. 

All the young Breakers players mentioned above played between 18 and 27 minutes per game at the club. By giving them regular playing minutes, the Breakers have proven that their prospects are ready to compete against grown men – something college teams can’t provide. Other NBL clubs haven’t showcased their international prospects to the same extent – the Tasmania Jackjumpers only played their 2021-2022 Next Stars player, Nikita Michailovskii, for six minutes the whole season. Before joining the Jackjumpers Michailovskii was a blip on the NBA’s radar, but once he left Tasmania he was a non-consideration. 

Oklahoma City Thunder player Ousmane Dieng playing for the Breakers (Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Thanks to the Breakers, New Zealand has become a true destination for international basketball prospects to hone their skills, illustrate their potential and make their case to the NBA. Hugo Besson said he had no doubt that playing for the Breakers’ was the best option to prepare him for the NBA. But could the league, and the Breakers, empower homegrown talent to make the NBA?

Dontae Russo-Nance is one player who comes to mind. Russo-Nance dominated local school and representative basketball and played in the New Zealand NBL, our top national men’s league as a schoolboy. Now he’s at an elite basketball school in the USA, Oak Hill Academy, having received 11 top college offers. But maybe Russo-Nance, our biggest NBA hopeful since Steven Adams, could receive an offer closer to home.

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