How the NBL's Next Stars program adapted, survived, and thrived
The Next Star name found recognition and hype with LaMelo Ball, but has since evolved and found its own niche for draft prospects.
Credit: Daniel Bennett Photography
“With the 43rd pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, the Portland Trail Blazers select Rayan Rupert.”
Like every NBA draft pick, this one was about more than just the player. It was about Rayan Rupert’s family, whom he shared long embraces with before making his way onstage at the Barclays Center; it was about his communities in Strasbourg, where he was born, and in Paris, where his basketball talent was nurtured; and it was a time for coaches and teammates, past and present, to celebrate.
It was also a significant moment for an entire league sitting halfway across the globe, with Rupert the latest of multiple success stories from the NBL’s Next Stars initiative. After spending last season with the New Zealand Breakers, he became the fifth player in the last four years to be drafted directly from the program. While he couldn’t join fellow graduates LaMelo Ball (2020), Josh Giddey (2021) and Ousmane Dieng (2022) as lottery picks, he will likely be offered a multi-year deal by the Blazers in a huge vote of confidence from the franchise.
With his draft experience a rousing success and his NBA career underway, there are no regrets from Rupert about his year in New Zealand. “It was a good opportunity to grow up as a player and as a person, play far from my country, so it was an amazing journey and I’m happy to be here,” Rupert said in his introductory press conference in Portland.
Sitting a few seats down, Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups was equally pleased with his new charge’s NBL stint. “Rayan has played pro in a very, very physical, tough league in Australia, so I don’t feel that these dudes are young. I think that they can all contribute right away with our team,” Billups said.
Those thoughts are clearly shared by plenty across the NBA, with more and more professional pathways becoming available to players. The depth of international talent is more evident than ever; consider NBA superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokić and Luka Dončić, none of whom developed in the United States prior to turning pro. And with five of the top seven picks in this year’s draft coming from outside the NCAA college system, teams are willing to trust them more than ever.
It’s a shift in mindset that has opened the door for the NBL as a legitimate option for players, but in the same breath, it could have very easily killed off the Next Stars concept.
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