NEW Zealand may be heading to the Fiba Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Manila this July without their biggest weapon in Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the young, athletic Tall Blacks vow to be tough and combative as ever despite being heavy underdogs.
According to report from the New Zealand Olympic Committee's website, the Tall Blacks coach Paul Henare named his 14-man pool set to travel across Asia and Europe starting on June 8 to prepare for the Manila OQT, where they face global basketball powers like France and Canada, as well as host Gilas Pilipinas for the lone spot to the Rio Olympics awaiting the winner of the tournament.
Notably absent from the pool is Adams, whose Thunder team currently leads the Golden State Warriors 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals. Adams had already decided not to make himself available for national team duty back in February.
Henare, however, is confident with his picks that pack a potent mix of youth and international experience, athleticism and outside shooting, banking on a core that carried New Zealand's valiant effort against 2015 Fiba Oceania champion Australia that was led by NBA players Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellevadova.
Leading the charge for the young and tall New Zealand team (average age of 25, average height of 6-foot-5) is the wily Mika Vukona, the 34-year-old forward who made his debut for the Tall Blacks in the 2006 Fiba World Championship under current Gilas coach Tab Baldwin.
He will be paired on the wings with another gritty forward in the 28-year-old Tom Abercrombie, who's also done many stints for his country starting in 2007.
Both, by the way, stand at 6-foot-5. Think Gabe Norwood, but both Vukona and Abercrombie are slightly taller, heftier, and craftier scorers.
Corey Webster, though, will be the man carrying the offense, the same way he led New Zealand's scoring in the 2015 Fiba Oceania tournament. The sweet-shooting guard will have another sniper in the backcourt with Everard Bartlett, while the point guard duties will be shared by 2014 Fiba World Cup starter Tai Webster and 2015 Fiba Oceania court general Jarrod Kenny.
While the backcourt remains the Tall Blacks clear strength, the frontcourt remains formidable as well with athletic bigs in the versatile 6-foot-8 Isaac Fotu and 6-foot-9 Rob Loe (their tallest player). Newcomers Michael Karena and Finn Delany round out the bigs rotation, with all four standing at least 6-foot-6 and are all less than 24 years of age.
Henare names Vukona, Fotu, Abercrombie, Corey Webster and Loe as his prospective starters, calling them 'the backbone of our efforts to qualify for Rio.' He's also aware of their standing in the face of tough competition in the Manila OQT but his faith on his squad is undeterred.
"I have every belief that we can overcome the odds and achieve that goal. And yes, we will be underdogs, but how many times are we ever the favorites going into a big contest?" he said.
"The Tall Blacks have shown through the years that we don’t mind playing the part of David, often in the past we have thrived on it, and we aim to bring down a Goliath or two in July," added Henare.
Here's the 14-man pool of New Zealand for the Manila OQT:
Tom Abercrombie, Forward, 6-foot-5, 29 years
BJ Anthony, Forward, 6-foot-5, 28 years
Everard Bartlett, Guard, 6-foot-3, 29 years
Finn Delany, Forward, 6-foot-6, 20 years
Isaac Fotu, Forward, 6-foot-6, 22 years
Shea Ili, Guard, 6-foot, 23 years
Michael Karena, Center, 6-foot-8, 22 years
Jarrod Kenny, Guard, 6-foot-1, 30 years
Rob Loe, Center, 6-foot-9, 24 years
Jordan Ngatai, Forward, 6-foot-4, 23 years
Ethan Rusbatch, Guard, 6-foot-4, 23 years
Mika Vukona, Forward, 6-foot-5, 34 years
Corey Webster, Guard, 6-foot-2, 27 years
Tai Webster, Guard, 6-foot-3, 20 years
According to the website Basketball New Zealand, the Tall Blacks prepare for the Manila OQT, starting with:
• Japanese Tour and Training Camp, 8 – 13 June, Tokyo, 2 closed door games v Japan
• Chinese Tour, 14 – 19 June, Suzhou (close to Shanghai), Pool A: Japan NT, Chinese B, Belarus NT, New Zealand. Pool B: USA Selection, Lithuanian Selection, Iran NT, Macedonia NT
• Latvian Tour & Training Camp, 20 – 28 June, Riga, Game v Iran (26 June), Game v Latvia (27 June)
• Lithuanian Tour, 28 – 30 June, Lithuania (city TBC), Game v Lithuania (29 June)