THIS much is true: Gilas Pilipinas has a daunting task ahead in the Manila Olympic qualifiers, after drawing France and New Zealand in its group. But while the French team is largely considered a global basketball powerhouse, little is known about the New Zealand squad, leading some to take the Tall Blacks lightly.
Gilas coach and former New Zealand mentor Tab Baldwin has warned the team and the public that underestimating the Kiwis is a huge mistake.
"I think a lot of people are under-selling the strength of New Zealand, New Zealand is a team that last year beat China in China to win the Stankovic Cup, which was no mean feat," Baldwin told SPIN.ph.
[See Tab: Don't sell NZ short]
SPIN.ph now digs deeper on the available data about the New Zealand squad Gilas could face come July, starting with the Tall Blacks’ recent performances.
It’s fair to note that in the said Stankovic Cup tournament held last August, part of New Zealand’s preparations for the 2015 Fiba Oceania championships, the Tall Blacks faced China’s Under-23 team. But apart from beating the young Chinese squad, New Zealand also defeated eventual 2015 Fiba Americas champion Venezuela, 72-65, and then triumphed over the Gustavo Ayon-led Mexico team, 70-66, to claim the championship.
And in warm-up friendlies a month before the Stankovic Cup, the Tall Blacks almost won against world No. 12 Croatia (68-70), if not for a game-winning trey at the buzzer by Croatian point guard Rok Stipcevic, then suffered another close loss to world No. 13 Slovenia, 68-73.
They also played in the 2014 Fiba World Cup and made the Round of 16, only to get knocked out after a five-point loss, 71-76, to world No.3 Lithuania. They still had former NBA player Kirk Penney in the lineup at the time, but the 35-year-old point guard was noticeably absent in their most recent tournament, the 2015 Fiba Oceania championships.
Friendlies and other international tournaments carry less weight compared to the major Fiba tournaments. So to paint a clearer picture of the Tall Blacks squad, it’s better to dissect their performance in the two-game series the Kiwis played against Australia for the Oceania zone’s automatic berth to the Olympics.
2015 Fiba Oceania performance
Under new coach Paul Henare, who previously played under Baldwin during New Zealand’s stint in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Championships, the Tall Blacks feature a young, tall, athletic squad (average age of 25, average height 6’5”) that plays inside and out.
To illustrate, in the 2015 Fiba Oceania two-game series with Australia (which Australia swept), New Zealand took roughly 45% of their shots inside the paint and about 40% beyond the arc. They mostly play with a small ball lineup of savvy playmakers 6-foot-2 Corey Webster and 6-foot-6 Reuben Te Tangi in the backcourt, crafty and gritty Mika Vukona and Thomas Abercrombie at the wings (both stand at 6-foot-6), and sweet shooting big man 6-foot-8 Isaac Fotu.
This is a team that doesn’t have a post presence, but its 6-foot-11 center Robert Loe (who plays professionally in Belgium) is a serviceable big who’s quick on the break. And once it gets seven-foot Steven Adams of the OKC Thunder to man the post, the Tall Blacks will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.
For now, though, Webster and Fotu are the team’s most formidable threats, forming a deadly pick-and-roll game that offers the Tall Blacks plenty of options. Both young guys can shoot from the outside and can take their man off the dribble, while the rest of their teammates, especially Vukona and Abercrombie, are smart cutters and lethal from the perimeter as well.
The 21-year-old Fotu plays in Spain while the 26-year-old Webster is an MVP-caliber player in Australia’s National Basketball League. The ninth leading scorer in the 2014 Fiba World Cup, Webster even played some NBA preseason games for the New Orleans Pelicans, but returned to scorch nets in New Zealand after the Pelicans waived him last October.
And by the way, during the Oceania championships that featured NBA players like Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, and Patty Mills, the Tall Blacks’ Webster and Fotu stood out as the zone’s best. Webster led the tournament in scoring (19.5) while Fotu led all players in rebounds and efficiency rating (9 boards, 17 PER).
Chinks in the armor
New Zealand is not a great defensive team. Australia shot almost 49% from the field against the Tall Blacks that doesn’t have an intimidating shot-blocker (unless the 22-year-old Adams suits up) or lock-down defenders other than Vukona. Rebounding is suspect as well, even with their length, getting outrebounded in the Oceania series by an average of 13.5 boards.
Their youth can also be something more veteran teams can exploit. Still, their shooting, pace and style of play, and length (more so if Adams gets on board) present a lot of problems not only for Gilas but for the rest of the competition in the July 5-10 qualifiers in Manila. And that’s a positive for Baldwin and the rest of us, a challenge that hopefully spurs Gilas to prepare even harder for the dog fights ahead.