Tai Wynyard has had an amazing 2014. The 16-year-old could top it all off by helping New Zealand get to the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship. Photo by Photosport

Tai Wynyard has had an amazing 2014. The 16-year-old could top it all off by helping New Zealand get to the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship. Photo by Photosport

What a 2014 it’s been for Tai Wynyard. But there is still one big moment left for him this year. The 16-year-old power forward – widely considered the next great thing from New Zealand – hopes to play up two years and lead the Junior Tall Blacks to their first ever qualification for the FIBA U19 World Championship.

Okay, let’s take a step back.

New Zealand actually played at the 2009 FIBA U19 Worlds. But the event was hosted in Auckland and the Junior Tall Blacks were automatically guaranteed a spot in the tournament.

The only way New Zealand can usually get a spot in international tournaments is to beat the mighty Australia – something the Kiwis have never been able to do at the U18 level. And that is the reason New Zealand have only played at one FIBA U19 Worlds while Australia have played at all 11 tournaments dating back to 1979, including Andrew Bogut leading the Emus to the title in 2003.

Some observers believe that Australia could actually capture the title at the 2015 FIBA U19 Worlds – or at least challenge for the podium – with a full roster, including Ben Simmons, Thon Maker (if he doesn’t play for Canada), Jonah Bolden and the sextet of players who helped Australia to second place at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship – Isaac Humphries, Dejan Vasiljevic, Tom Wilson, Harry Froling, Kyle Clark and Jack White.

But first they have to get past New Zealand at the Oceania Junior Basketball Championship in Suva, Fiji from December 1-6.

While that’s been all but a foregone conclusion in the past – New Zealand have an 0-9 record in the last three FIBA Oceania U18 Championships in 2006, 2008 and 2012 – this time it might be different.

New Zealand coach Judd Flavell has perhaps the country’s most talented U18 roster of all time. And the depth is there to give the Aussies a run for their money.

“It might have been in years gone by that we were struggling to find reasons to include players, now it is very much a case of trying to justify how we can leave some players out, even in the very early stages of selection,” said Flavell.

“The competition just to get to this stage of the process has been intense and has led to some very tough decisions already, the final call this week on our ten to travel to Fiji will be the toughest of all. We have good depth across all positions, with good decision makers in the guard line and the ability to dominate and with outright size in our bigs.”

Flavell continued: “The fact some of these players have already been recognized with Tall Black selection or are playing important roles in Bartercard NBL teams is a clear indication of their maturity and ability. They cannot rest on those laurels though, they must bring that experience to the group and lead every day to help us become a better team.”

That’s where Tai Wynyard comes in.

CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK

In one regard, he would love to hear he’s a chip off the old block. But on the other hand, he’s probably heard that joke a million times despite being just 16 years old.

Both his father Jason and his mother Karmyn are world champion woodchoppers. So Tai would love to take part in a world championship.
Actually his father is a living legend in lumberjack/wood chopping sports. Less than two weeks ago, Jason Wynyard won his sixth Timbersports World Championship title and he has also captured the number one spot in the Stihl Timbersport series in the United States 11 times since 1997 including two runs of four straight titles from 1997 to 2000 and 2009 to 2012.

Tai, however, is looking to make his name in another spot. And 2014 has been a wildly successful season for that. Despite being just 16 years old, the 2.04m/6-foot-9 power forward played in nine games for Blond Super City Rangers in the New Zealand NBL league, averaging 4.6 points and 2.4 rebounds.

In April, Wynyard travelled to New York to play in the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic, where he struggled against the best from around the world with two points, one rebound and one assist before fouling out in just 11 minutes of action.

Less than two months later, Wynyard was in Guangzhou, China for the 2014 Nike All-Asia Camp, where he received instruction from NBA players Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving, who were the coaches for the camp. Wynyard bounced back in tremendous fashion from the showing at the Jordan Brand Classic and came back from China with the MVP trophy.

Wynyard’s whirlwind year wasn’t close to being done.

In July, he won a spot in the extended Tall Blacks squad for the home series against South Korea. As the youngest player to ever take the court for the senior side, Wynyard collected eight points and five rebounds in 16 minutes across the two games.

Wynyard remained with the Tall Blacks in the preparations for the 2014 FIBA World Cup but was the second to last cut before the final side was announced.
At the club level, Wynyard garnished a spot with the Australian NBL league side New Zealand Breakers as a development player. He even played for the Breakers in the NBL Blitz pre-season tournament against the Adelaide 36ers, collecting 12 points and nine rebounds and missing just one shot in 15 minutes.

Wynyard wasn’t even able to catch his breath at home, where he has been flooded by letters, emails, messages and the like from U.S. college coaches hoping he would come to their institution.

Among the schools to already visit him are St. Mary’s, Hawaii and Pittsburgh and his name has been connected with Texas, Wake Forest, Utah, Villanova and Boise State.

Niall Anderson even tweeted on September 21, 2014 that Kentucky coach John Calipari “is set to visit Zealand to meet with Tai Wynyard about playing college basketball at Kentucky”.


“He’s pretty well aware he’s going to have some options, and he’s grateful for that. When the time comes we’ll go through that process of choosing where the best place for him is going to be,” said New Zealand U18 coach Flavell, who is also the Breakers Academy coach.

“The best thing for Tai is to take his time. We’re in his ear a little bit and telling him there’s no need to have pressure on himself. We’re just reminding him he holds the cards, and he doesn’t have to pick up the phone every five minutes to talk to them.”

Wynyard, who doesn’t turn 17 until February 5 next year, has also received praise from the top minds in New Zealand basketball. Tall Blacks coach Nenad Vucinic called Wynyard the best talent at his age he’s seen in the Kiwi game and Breakers head coach Dean Vickerman says he is NBA material.

“There’s a brute strength and he’s got really good touch around the rim, and is capable of making perimeter shots as well. There’s definitely a chance for him to play either power forward or centre at the next level, depending on how much growth is left in him,” Vickerman said.

But the Junior Tall Blacks are anything but just Wynyard.

TALL BLACK LE’AFA COMING BACK FROM CONCUSSION

Izayah Mauriohooho Le’afa played for the Tall Blacks in 2013 on a China tour ahead of the FIBA Oceania Championship as a 16-year-old and was in the running to make the New Zealand team for the FIBA World Cup in Spain until a concussion in July 2014 at the national trials in Auckland.

The lightning-quick 18-year-old point guard has a history of concussion with multiple cases in the past two years including during a Wellington Exodus Saints game against the Super City Rangers in Auckland on April 27.

Le’afa, who didn’t turn 18 until November, played his second season with the Saints in 2014 and averaged 4.0 points and 1.2 rebounds per game in 18 games, including three double-digit scoring contests. He served as back-up to Tall Blacks point guard Lindsay Tait on the NBL title-winning Saints, where his father and former multiple New Zealand NBL title winner George Le’afa is an assistant coach.

The father Le’afa was a long-time NBL teammate of Tall Blacks assistant Pero Cameron, who gave the young Le’afa his first NBL experience as Saints head coach in 2013.

Despite not playing at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, Mauriohooho-Le’afa did receive a boost of confidence playing for New Zealand at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games in August, where the Kiwis lost in the Round of 16 against Poland.

RISE IN OTAGO BASKETBALL

One of his teammates in China will also be his teammates in Fiji against Australia in Sam Timmins. The 17-year-old big man Timmins is actually major part of a re-birth of basketball in Otago, in the south of the South Island.

Timmins and U18 teammate Joe Cook-Green helped Otago Boys High School knock off Westlake Boys High School for the 2014 Secondary School National title in October. Westlake is located in Auckland, one of the main hotbeds for basketball in New Zealand. But it was Otago who took the hardware – which is the result of a new era in hoops in the area. Otago was the first South Island school to win the title since Nelson College in 2000.

Cook-Green is a strong guard who can finish in contact and can get to the basket at will while Timmins is a 2.06m center looking to follow in the footsteps of New Zealand NBA center Steven Adams.

Otago hasn’t produced any higher level player in years and it was the work of one of the region’s native sons that has led to the push. Dunedin native Mark Dickel is the widely considered the best player the region has ever produced. The U.S. college point guard played many years in Europe in Turkey, Belgium, Russia, Poland, Greece and Germany before returning to New Zealand and becoming a coach.

Dickel also was the director of development at Basketball Otago from 2011 to 2014, where he implemented the Basketball Otago Academy, which produced six players for the local NBL team OceanaGold Nuggets with the goal also of preparing players from Otago to attend colleges in the United States.

Timmins is definitely looking forward to attending a university in the States and has already received offers. He also comes from a successful sports family as his father Brendon Timmins was a stalwart of rugby in Otago, playing lock for the Highlanders team from 1996 to 2002, when they reached the Super 12 semi-finals four times, losing in the final in 1999. Sam’s grandmother Sandra McGookin won six national javelin titles in the 1970s and placed sixth in the 1974 Commonwealth Games while his grandfather Ron McGookin played rugby for North Otago.

Timmins was named the MVP of the high school tournament as he collected 26 points and 23 rebounds in the final – with Cook-Green finishing with 16 points and six rebounds.

The team that Otago beat in the final was Westlake, which is led by Matt Freeman, who join the Otago leaders as well as Wynyard on the U18 New Zealand team in Fiji.

The 2.04m 16-year-old Freeman, who had 19 points and 13 points in the final against Otago, was also with Wynyard at the June Nike All Asia Camp in China. Freeman has been in the Breakers system since he was 13 and has already played alongside New Zealand internationals Reuben Te Rangi and Isaac Fotu – both of whom also went to the Nike camp. Freeman also attended the 2014 Adidas Nations in Los Angeles.

SOME OF THE REST

One of the leaders of the New Zealand team will likely be Dane Brooks, an athletic combo guard who played 17 NBL games in 2014 for The Good Home Taranaki Mountain Airs, averaging 4.0 points and 3.8 rebounds.

Brooks’s U18 teammate Beauden Giddy was also in the Taranaki system and got in five games, scoring three points in 23 minutes of action. Another combo guard for Flavell in Fiji will be the 18-year-old Luuk Witteveen, who went to the Nike All Asia camp in 1993 and will be joining the Breakers system after the competition.

While many from the New Zealand team dream of going to college in the U.S., Jayden Bezzant is a step closer as he moved to the United States in January 2014 to attend Westwind Prep Academy in Phoenix, Arizona. Bezzant averaged 16 points, five rebounds and four assists for Westwind.

MISSING PLAYERS

Despite all the talent the Junior Tall Blacks have, there are two major players missing for Flavell, both of whom would be huge parts of New Zealand’s chances against Australia.

The 2.11m/6-foot-11 Jack Salt is a freshman at the University of Virginia while 2.03m/6-foot-8 Gus Riley plays at Bryant University. Salt has yet to play for the Cavaliers this season while fellow freshman Riley scored nine points in both of his games thus far while also averaging 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists. Salt and Riley would be very useful against the 7-foot duo of Isaac Humphries and Harry Froling.

Still, New Zealand are ready to roll out one of their best U18 teams ever and seriously have a chance to finally knock off their nasty neighbors to the northwest.

 

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For those wanting to see a bit of the guys, here are the NZ U18s at Aussie State Champs 2013 with Brooks, Witteveen, Le’afa, Freeman and Bezzant – as well as the missing Riley.

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