Ten years ago the idea that over 100 Kiwis would be on basketball scholarships in the United States in any given year, with almost half of them at NCAA Division I schools, would have been unimaginable.
In the recently concluded 2019-2020 US collegiate season, no fewer than 101 New Zealand players were at US universities with a further six playing in Canada. This is the third season in a row that numbers have passed the century mark.
In the most recent NCAA season, 21 Kiwi women and 19 Kiwi men were at NCAA Division I universities and those numbers have grown steadily during the past decade. The Kiwi supply chain to the upper echelons of US college basketball doesn’t look like ending any time soon.
Nine Kiwis completed their senior years in 2020: Kayla Manuirirangi, Katelin Noyer, Shalae Salmon, Khaedin Taito, Matt Freeman, Izayah Mauriahooho-Le’afa, Jackson Stent, Sam Timmins and Yanni Wetzell.
While their journeys have come to an end, a set of fresh faces from the Aotearoa are hopeful of starting their journeys this year including Sam Mennenga (Davidson University) Tom Webley (University of Hartford), Tayla Dalton (St Mary’s, California), Rochelle Fourie (University of California, Northridge), Helen Matthews (Wofford College) and Olivia Williams (University of California, Irvine).
There have been plenty of Division I players go before them. A number of current Tall Blacks including Rob Loe, Jack Salt and Tai Webster, and Tall Ferns like Micaela Cocks, Stella Beck and Kalani Purcell all had fine college careers. Before them, the likes of Michael Hurring, Kirk Penney, Sean Marks, Mark Dickel, Megan Compain and Noni Wharemate were celebrated collegiate athletes.
The ten-year participation trend is clearly on the up.
WHY THE INCREASE IN KIWIS ABROAD?
Basketball New Zealand High Performance Director, Leonard King, says the long-term trend of Kiwi athletes playing in the US can be attributed to a number of reasons.
“It stands to reason that the larger the participation base, the greater chance there is of more at the elite level and the number of athletes securing scholarships,” says King.
In the last decade, the significant growth and popularity of basketball in New Zealand has been widely noticed. Basketball New Zealand says there is more growth to come. Soon-to-be-released Kiwi Hoops figures will show primary school kids are loving basketball more than ever. They are following their older brothers and sisters – basketball is the second most played sport in New Zealand secondary schools, which is another strong participation trend. In 2010, there were approximately 17,500 high school players and by 2019 that number had escalated to over 25,000.
King says more Kiwis are also securing US scholarships through exposure at BBNZ’s annual Secondary Schools Nationals. This is the largest community tournament on BBNZ’s calendar. The finals and some playoff rounds have been broadcast and livestreamed over the last few years, and the tournament has added another channel of exposure for young players looking to secure scholarships.
“The tournament has gained a lot of recognition not only in New Zealand, but also internationally. The number of American college coaches and scouts attending to observe the talent on display has consistently grown. Many young talents have been scouted from this event and been offered Div’ 1 scholarships.”
An example of this Takki Fahrensohn, who was recruited at the 2019 Schick Champs by the Assistant Coach at the University of Portland, Ben Johnson. Coach Johnson said he was impressed with the level of play he found on New Zealand’s shores.
“There is some really good talent [at the National Championships]. I’ve been impressed with the level of skill and their ability to play an unselfish team concept of basketball. It’s a style that fits into our philosophy at Portland, so I’m really excited with what I have seen here. I’ve been telling people for the last four years to look out for New Zealand, their basketball is really on the upswing.”
Brigham Young University (BYU) Women’s Assistant Coach Lee Cummard was also in attendance at last year’s event and was blown away by what he observed.
“I’m here to recruit on the women’s side of things, but I couldn’t help watch some of the men’s games and I have already called my guys back at BYU and told them ‘you should be down here. I’ve seen a number of players who are Division I level’. I’ve been impressed.”
Yet seeing scouts visiting New Zealand shores is not essential. King says modern communication also plays a major part in the escalation of scholarships being offered to New Zealanders. It is far easier now for college coaches to view footage of players.
“Ten years ago, coaches probably had to rely on the word of trusted contacts or fly half-way around the world to meet a player. Tools like Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram allow for much easier and affordable communication between athletes and college coaches.
“Also, the international FIBA events that the New Zealand age-group teams play in are livestreamed and well-followed by scouts.”
Success stories help promote the US pathway too. The Obvious one is Steven Adams – the first Kiwi to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft in 2013. Add the New Zealand Breakers winning four Australian NBL titles in the last ten years – a team playing at home, achieving big results and creating homegrown heroes. Jack Salt’s success in becoming the first-ever Kiwi to win an NCAA Division I Championship with Virginia in 2019 adds to the popularity of the game. This year Yanni Wetzell was making headlines too – another inspiring story.
The profile of the Tall Blacks and Tall Ferns has certainly grown, as has the success stories of those teams’ athletes. Of the 20 players that represented the Tall Blacks in 2019, all but five had spent some time playing college basketball in the US, seven of them at Division I colleges.
The Tall Ferns numbers are startling. 17 players donned the black singlet in 2019 and only Zoe Richards, Toni Farnworth and Charlisse Leger-Walker were non-NCAA Division I athletes. Richards has just completed an outstanding career at Eckerd College (NCAA Division II), Farnworth pursued a career in accounting and Leger-Walker was in her last year at school.
Obviously not all players exiting college basketball will play for the Tall Blacks or Tall Ferns or forge a career in professional sport. However, if this dream doesn’t come true, they have the memories of a life-changing experience and the benefits of a free education without the burden of a student loan. It’s an appealing route that more Kiwis are seeking out.
WHAT ABOUT 2020/2021?
COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill and with that the suspension of most organised sports. Among the most heavily affected are scholarship athletes, with seniors in some sports facing the possibility of not being able to compete in their final year of eligibility.
The NCCA Division I Council voted against an additional season of play for winter-sport athletes, which included basketball players. Kiwi Yanni Wetzell’s team was unbeaten this year and favoured for a March Madness title, but his opportunity at winning a national championship was dashed with the cancellation of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament earlier this year. The Council’s verdict means he will be unable to return for the 2020/2021 season.
For athletes who have signed for 2020 and were expecting to arrive for Summer School in June/July or start the Fall Semester in August, the NCAA has acknowledged the uncertainty for athletes through their website, noting University campus closures and travel restrictions.
“Individual states and the NCAA will make decisions over the next couple of weeks on whether universities within their State will be able to open for summer school (June/July, 2020). This will be a state by state and NCAA decision, so each university and athlete’s situation could be different. While we wait for the state and NCAA’s decisions, it is looking likely that the earliest start date will be the Fall Semester in August for most if not all States,” said the NCAA in one of their updates.
The fact that each State will make its own decision could be complicated, with NCAA Conferences crossing State borders. So, this year’s class of Kiwi scholarship athletes will need to sit tight for now and wait to see what happens next. Hopefully we can see the US pathway safely re-open for these talented young Kiwis soon, so they can pursue their academic and athletic dream.
Kiwi basketball players in NCAA Division I US Colleges over the past decade:
Women (Alphabetical order by surname)
Georgia Agnew (Utah Valley University 2013-2016)
Kate Aleman (Mercer University 2012-2014)
Stella Beck (St Mary’s College, California 2014-2018)
Jacinta Beckley (Seattle University 2014-2018)
Brooke Blair (Idaho State University 2013-2018)
Tessa Boagni (California State University, Northridge 2014-2018)
Amiee Book (California State University, Fullerton 2018-Present)
Alicia Carlisle (Portland State University 2014-2015)
Anna Cameron (University of Nevada-Reno 2013-2015)
Tiarna Clarke (University of Northern Colorado 2017-2018)
Aleesha Coulter (University of Louisiana at Monroe 2013-2015)
McKenna Dale (Brown University 2017-Present)
Penina Davidson (University of California, Berkeley 2014-2018)
Jasmin Davis (University of Wyoming 2013-2015)
Rebecca Dew (University of Hawaii 2008-2012)
Matangiroa Flavell (Houston Baptist University 2018-2019)
Ella Fotu (Boise State University 2015-2016)
Mary Goulding (Fordham University (2016-2019)
Tegan Graham (Colgate University 2016-Present)
Kendell Heremaia (Fordham University 2017-Present)
Joellen How (Wagner College 2017-Present)
Jordan Hunter (South Eastern Missouri University 2012-2014)
Zara Jillings (Fordham University 2017-Present)
Breanna Jones (University of Hawaii 2014-2015)
Ashleigh Karaitiana (University of Hawaii 2012-2016)
Tylah King (University of the Pacific (2015-2019)
Jade Kirisome (Furman University 2018-19, & St Mary’s College, California 2019- Present)
Krystal Leger-Walker (University of Northern Colorado 2016-2019 & Washington State 2019-Present)
Keziah Lewis (Kent State University 2013-2017)
Kayla Manuirirangi (Tulane University 2016-Present)
Tara Manumaleuga (University of Arizona 2019-Present)
Esra McGoldrick (North Carolina State University 2018-2019)
Freya Newton (Idaho State University 2013-2017)
Michelle Nicholls (La Salle University (2017-19 & University of Purdue, Fort Wayne 2019-Present)
Tsubasa Nisbett (Georgia Southern University 2018-Present)
Katelin Noyer (Fresno State University (2016-Present)
Chevannah Paalvast (Monmouth University (2009-2014)
Pareunora Pene (University of Tennessee Chattanooga 2018-Present)
Sariah Penese (University of Maryland, Baltimore 2018-Present)
Kalani Purcell (BYU, Provo 2015-2017)
Akiene-Tera Reed (Virginia Commonwealth University 2017-Present)
Gracie Roberts (University of Detroit Mercury 2014-2017)
Erin Rooney (Monmouth University 2009-2011 & Fordham University 2011-2014)
Terai Sadler (Central Arkansas University 2013-2015)
Shalae Salmon (BYU, Provo 2016-Present)
Kaylee Smiler (BYU, Provo 2018-Present)
Te Oramae Solomon (Portland State University 2015-2016)
Rhaiah Spooner-Knight (Utah Valley University 2013-2016 & Monmouth University 2016-2018)
Josie Stockill (Colgate University 2012-2016)
Moengaroa Subritzky (University of Maryland Eastern Shore 2015-2017)
Khaedin Taito (University of Southern California 2015-16 & BYU, Provo 2016-Present)
Dru Toleafoa (Santa Clara University 2015-2019)
Jelana Vucinic (Louisianna Tech University 2010-2014)
Laken Wairau (Indiana University 2015-2017)
Witnee Wehi (University of the Pacific 2015-2016)
Amy West (Liberty University 2018-19, & St Mary’s College, California 2019- Present)
Charlotte Whittaker (University of Colorado 2019-Present)
Sariah Wi-Neera (Utah Valley University 2016-2017)
Men (Alphabetical order by surname)
Steven Adams (University of Pittsburgh 2012/13)
Yuat Alok (Texas Christian University 2018/19 & University of Central Florida 2019/20)
Flynn Cameron (DePaul University 2018-Present)
Tobias Cameron (Abilene Christian College 2017-Present)
Quinn Clinton (St Mary’s College of California 2018-Present)
Richie Edwards (Valparaiso University 2011/12 & Arizona State 2013/14)
Takiula Fahrenson (University of Portland 2017-Present)
Dan Fotu (St Mary’s College of California 2018-Present)
Isaac Fotu (University of Hawaii 2012-2014)
Matthew Freeman (University of Oklahoma 2016-2019 & UC Santa Barbara 2019/20)
Max De Geest (Long Beach State University 2019-Present)
Jonothan Janssen (Cleveland State 2014-2016)
Michael Karena (Wright State 2014-2016)
Robert Loe (St. Louis University 2010-2014)
Isaac Letoa (Dartmouth 2017-Present)
Izayah Mauriohooho-Leafa (Sacramento State 2016-2020)
Callum McRae (University of California Riverside 2018-Present)
Angus McWilliam (Texas Christian University 2017-2019 & University of California Riverside 2019-Present)
Harrison Meads (Pepperdine University 2017/18)
James Moors (Colorado State 2019-Present)
Kruz Perrot-Hunt (South Dakota 2019-Present)
Dion Prewster (Stephen F. Austin 2010-2011)
Angus Riley (Bryant University 2014-2018)
Anzac Rissetto (North Carolina Charlotte 2019-Present)
Jack Salt (Virginia University 2015-2019)
Jackson Stent (Houston Baptist University 2018-Present)
Shane Temara (North Texas 2016-2018)
Troy Temara (George Mason 2016/17)
Sam Timmins (University of Washington2016-2020)
Thomas Vadonavich (James Maddison University 2013-2017)
Sam Waardenburg (University of Miami 2017-Present)
Tai Webster (University of Nebraska 2013-2017)
Yanni Wetzell (Vanderbilt University 2018/19 & San Diego State 2019/20)
Tai Wynyard (University of Kentucky 2015-2018)
Zach Young (Nicholls State 2014-2018)