Five NZNBL players to keep an eye when Showdown tips off

Like many of you, going without live sports during lockdown was an unbelievably tough first world problem to battle through. Watching old games is great, but there are only so many early 2010s Celtics games a guy can watch on YouTube, before yearning for something new.

My hankering for live sports reached crisis point in April, when I found myself scouring the internet for a dodgy live stream of a Taiwan Super Basketball League playoff game in the early hours of a random morning. It wasn’t my proudest moment. Luckily, those nights are long gone — live sports are back baby! Even better: basketball is back. And even better than even better, is that the mighty New Zealand National Basketball League (NZNBL) is back on 23 June!

The newly-minted NZNBL Showdown is not perfect and has faced valid criticism from numerous angles. Still, general manager Justin Nelson and company should be commended for putting together a competitive competition in the face of unforeseen circumstances.

It's understandable that a significant majority of top-tier Kiwi talent will not be playing. On the plus side, the lack of stars will give us a far greater look at some of the younger, less established talent New Zealand has to offer.

In particular, here are five intriguing prospects worth keeping your eyes firmly trained on.

Benoit Hayman, Otago Nuggets

Benoit Hayman is the draft’s mystery man — the 23-year old point guard was picked in the sixth round and, if I’m being honest, I hadn't heard of him until a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t until Sam Garriock hinted that he would be the steal of the draft that I was alerted to his existence.

Hayman, a product of Basketball Otago, has quietly plied his trade in Switzerland over the last couple of years for BBC Nyon, utilising his mother’s nationality to play as a local. Over the past season, Hayman’s been holding his own in the top-tier of Swiss basketball — by all accounts, a league that is at least on par with the NZNBL. After helping his team win promotion to the top division, Hayman started around half of his games and put up solid numbers in the top flight in 2020. With this information alone, Hayman should’ve been coveted in the draft. Yet, the Nuggets snagged him in the sixth round.

That conclusion was reached without taking a deep dive into his stats. One look at his RealGM page will reveal that Hayman has all the makings of an uber-efficient, low-usage point guard. During the 2019/20 season, Hayman posted an outstanding True Shooting rate of 57.8% . Despite not having the prettiest shooting form I’ve ever seen, in each of his two seasons in Switzerland, Hayman drilled over 40% of his threes and over 80% of his free throw attempts. Assuming those numbers hold, Hayman will stroll into the Showdown as one the league’s most accurate bombers.

Hayman’s assist numbers don’t jump off the page, but a peek at his highlight reels reveal that his playmaking instincts are underrated by the box score. I genuinely can’t wait to see Hayman try to replicate this dime.

Perhaps more pressingly: he’s a lefty. I am irrationally drawn to, predominantly, two things in basketball: hyper-efficient guards who are happy to play off the ball, and lefties. To say that I’m all in on Hayman is an understatement.

Hayman has all the makings of one of the draft’s biggest steals. If he plays at the level he did in Switzerland, he’ll draw a number of new admirers and make his draft slot look silly.

Taane Samuel, Manawatu Jets

Watching Taane Samuel and not marvelling at his physical presence is impossible. It’s like watching Jarrod Kenny and not making at least five comments about his luscious mullet. Samuel isn’t overwhelmingly tall for a power forward but he is built like a freaking Mack Truck.

Samuel’s taken a roundabout path to the NZNBL — he was highly touted coming out of high school before heading to the Philippines, where things ended badly. He found himself back in New Zealand last year with the Manawatu Jets, where he showed flashes of his sky-high potential. While he wasn’t particularly efficient (eFG% of just 49%, per RealGM) and his overall shot selection was questionable, it’s worth remembering that Samuel’s just 21. At this point, the rough parts of his game that clearly need refining are still far less important than the potential he oozes.

To go along with his physicality, Samuel’s got the ability to stroke it from deep and is an incredibly underrated playmaker. Around the basket, few bigs will be able to compete with him over the next few weeks. Per Spatial Jam, he shot 61% at the rim last season against better opposition than he'll face at the Showdown. His explosive athleticism and frame mean that opposing rim protectors are always in serious danger.

Any human with his finishing ability, frame, and athleticism, who can also occasionally throw wildly awesome passes like this gets my immediate attention:

On top of this, he’s adept at taking lead-footed bigs off the dribble. Samuel isn’t always an off the dribble weapon or a potent passer but the mere possibility of a pseudo-point forward who can score inside and out is truly tantalising.

To elevate his game above NZNBL levels, Samuel will have to get better defensively and gain a more efficient shot selection. Although, teams in higher leagues might not care about his deficiencies once they see him wreak havoc in the weakened NZNBL. While he was a part-time starter last season for the Jets, because of the talent drain, it’s possible that he becomes their offensive hub this year. Outside of Samuel, the Jets will be relying heavily on Tom Vodanovich, Hyrum Harris, and Jayden Bezzant to generate their offence. The former two have never been big-time scorers and Bezzant is a college returnee, making it hard to know if he’ll step into the primary creator role immediately.

All of this could leave Samuel with the opportunity to showcase every single one of his offensive gifts. If so, watch this space — he might just be the name on everyone's lips in August.

Isaac Davidson, Franklin Bulls

Davidson is a bit of a wildcard. He was a fixture in age-group teams and was a standout during his high school days with Rangitoto College. However, since moving to the U.S. and playing four years with NCAA Division 2 side Sonoma State, Davidson has gotten lost in the shuffle. After a quality college career, Davidson returns — he’s still young, but just how high his ceiling is remains unclear.

There isn’t much about Davidson’s game that would suggest he’ll be anything less than a dependable, productive role player from day dot. He has prototype size for a wing at 6’7’’ and is solidly built. Adding on to that, he displayed consistently great shooting touch across his college career. Per RealGM, in four seasons, Davidson attempted 264 threes and nailed over 40% of them, while also hitting 73% of his free throws. At the very least, he projects as a big-bodied wing who’ll be able to space the floor efficiently. If he can defend at a reasonably high level, he’s automatically an incredibly valuable pick up, especially as a fifth-round selection.

With his frame, he may even find himself best suited to playing as a small ball four whenever one of Dom Kelman-Poto or Sam Timmins exits the game. The Bulls didn’t draft a ton of offensive firepower, so Davidson could be used to make life easier for the weapons they do have. Sliding Davidson up a position in certain lineups would allow the Bulls to create more room down low for Kelman-Poto and Timmins and open up more driving lanes for the Bulls’ guards. With this potential versatility, it’s conceivable that Davidson exits the Showdown with us talking about him as one of the competition’s very best supporting players.

With his youth, size, shooting ability, and potential versatility, a solid showing could put Davidson back on the map and shoot him to higher places. Few players at the Showdown possess his combination of attributes.

Taine Murray, Auckland Huskies

Anyone who is planning on watching the NZNBL and somehow doesn’t already have a vast amount of Taine Murray stock better buy up quick. It’s not an overreaction to say that Murray is one of the most promising basketball prospects New Zealand has ever produced. Along with Tafara Gapare, he will be at the very centre of New Zealand basketball’s next era (presumably one of pure dominance).

If you don’t believe me, here’s just some of Murray’s basketball accomplishments to date:

  • Two-time Secondary Schools National champion.

  • MVP of the Nike All-Asia Camp All-Star game last year.

  • Attended Basketball Without Borders twice and was viewed as a standout in 2020.

  • Made the Tall Blacks squad at age 17, becoming the second-youngest Tall Black ever.

  • Has managed to get the New Zealand media to report on basketball.

It’s also worth noting that Murray was drafted in the fourth round by the Southern Auckland Huskies and may already be one of the league’s best players, even though he's 18. He’s not even halfway through his final year at the basketball factory and all-around brilliant high school, Rosmini College (which coincidentally also produced the author of this very piece).

At his young age, Murray already does a remarkable amount on the floor. He’s a tenacious on-ball defender and has the makings of an offensive stud. With his shooting touch, the increasing ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own shot at all three levels, and developing playmaking traits, Murray is primed for great things.

Murray will be joining up with the Huskies for the NZNBL Showdown, who arguably have the most stacked roster in the competition. With NBLer Tohi Smith-Milner and highly touted college returnee Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa in tow, the Huskies should roll. Despite the Huskies’ talent, Murray likely won’t be struggling for touches and opportunity — he’s truly that good already. It's possible that he assumes the mantle of being the Huskies’ secondary creator on the perimeter immediately. Regardless of the outcome of that experiment, it’ll be a fantastic test of Murray’s ability.

That test is exactly what Murray needs at this point. In spite of the lack of stars, the 18-year old Murray will still be playing against a mixture of professionals, grizzled NZNBL vets, and other youngsters trying to prove themselves. It’s also worth noting that no one he matches up against will have to worry about finishing their English homework after each game.

No one should expect the world out of him, but if he can step seamlessly into his role for the Huskies and play at a reasonably high level against NZNBL competition, that will be the surest sign yet that Murray’s future is as bright as they come.

Tom Cowie, Canterbury Rams

There are a bunch of youngsters one or two years removed from high school that will be worth a closer watch. Marvin Williams-Dunn (another Rosmini College product playing for Auckland), Mitchell Dance (another Rosmini College product, but playing for Taranaki), Mac Stodart (a productive, skilled big with Canterbury), and Tom Webley (a productive, skilled gargantuan with Canterbury), among others, all fit in this category.

However, it’s the Canterbury Rams’ Tom Cowie that I’m most interested to watch.

Throughout his high school years, Cowie was always touted as one of New Zealand’s hottest point guard prospects. He has since, somewhat, fallen off the radar. Cowie played with the Southland Sharks in last season’s NZNBL, but received basically zero meaningful minutes, with Jarrad Weeks blocking his path to game time. The weakened Showdown will provide Cowie with an opportunity to finally get real minutes and showcase himself.

Cowie’s got a diverse and exciting offensive skill set that could form the basis of a three-level scorer and creator at some point down the line.

The talent is clearly there, but he’s still got a bunch of kinks that he needs to iron out. At just 19 years old, though, Cowie’s got all the time in the world to refine that skill set. Still, if there’s one thing a young point guard needs to grow and develop his game, it’s reps and as many of them as humanely possible. Lead guards aren’t plug-and-play machines — they need time to develop and learn how to run a team.

In that respect, this year’s NZNBL is exactly what the doctor ordered. Few players need the experience of an elevated role in a weaker competition more than Cowie.

Additionally, with Jack Salt out, the Rams will likely have to get the vast majority of their offence via playmaking from their guard rotation. Joe Cook-Green will likely see the bulk of that burden, but he alone can’t carry the offensive load. Taylor Britt, now their highest draft pick with Salt out, is good but isn’t much of an off the dribble shot creator.

It’s therefore easy to see how Cowie’s scoring ability off the bench could prove crucial to the Rams’ chances of success. As a result, expect Cowie to be in line for the game time he needs and for him to finally be able to show us what he can do.