Scouting the New Zealand U-17 Nationals

Last weekend, New Zealand held its annual AON Nationals for the U-17 and U-15 age groups. Three games, the two semi-finals and the final, of the U-17 competition were live streamed and that gave me the chance to have a look at the majority, though definitely not all, of New Zealand’s best prospects in the ’03 and ’04 class. All of the reports on players from Waikato are based on three games, the ones on Waitaha Canterbury on two and the ones on players from Waitakere West, Harbour and Auckland only on a single one, which explains the varying degrees of depth of the reports (when it comes to height, age, etc., I listed everything I could find, which was a lot for some and almost nothing for other players).

It turned out to be a high-quality tournament as I believe there are multiple surefire D1-prospects highlighted in this article, some who could possibly make it, and others who also have a place somewhere within the USA’s collegiate system if that’s the route these players choose to go down.

Kazlo Kawharu Evans

Birth Year: 2003 / Nationality: New Zealand / Height: 6’1″ / Wingspan: 6’2″ / Team: Waikato

  • After making the All-Tournament team last year, Evans took a huge leap this year and earned himself the MVP title. The 6’1″ guard demonstrated an amazing offensive skill set, which should definitely pique the interest of D1-coaches.
  • Offensively, Evans got to rim with great frequency despite an average first step, thanks to a shifty handle, including a very deceptive crossover, and an astounding ability to use pace changes to his advantage. At the rim, he finished efficiently with great touch and, despite being quite skinny, an impressive ability to absorb contact. He mainly finishes with his right hand, but he also had some impressive touch finishes with his left.
  • His playmaking was quite spectacular as well. He recognizes help defense quickly and punished it with timely kick-outs and a ton of accurate lay-offs to Nwafor and McBirney-Griffin. Interestingly enough, most of his one-handed passes were with his left. Despite his young age, Evans’ Pick-and-Roll game is already quite advanced. He created space for himself and his teammates by expertly changing speeds and even putting his defenders “in jail” at times.
  • Evans made nine threes through the whole tournament and shot 7-17 in the last three rounds. His form is decently consistent with good hand placement and no off-hand input, but it also involves an extreme swing of the legs, possibly to compensate for missing wrist strength. He also occasionally loses balance on long three-point shots, but that issue should resolve as he adds core strength in the upcoming years.
  • Defensively, Evans had a lot of success in the passing lanes with his quickness, 6’2″ wingspan and good anticipation, but didn’t do a good job covering the point of attack. While his foot speed is quite good, he gave up penetration way too easily and often didn’t make any effort to recover into the play. When he did try, he did a good job using his body to shield penetration.

Kenechukwu Nwafor

Birth Year: 2003 / Nationality: Nigeria / Height and Weight: 6’7” and 209 lbs / Team: Waikato

  • Nwafor was one of the revelations of the tournament. He excelled as a mobile play-finisher, team defender and rim protector, displaying good vertical athleticism and an excellent understanding of defense. These were the first two games I’ve seen of him, but I’m nevertheless already convinced that he’s a D1-prospect.
  • Offensively, Nwafor did not create for himself much, but efficiently converted his teammates’ passes. He displayed impressive touch around the rim, mainly with his right hand, even finishing some layups from extremely tough angles and some through contact. He also showed flashes of a post game, facing up and beating his defenders with his quickness.
  • Nwafor most eye-catching skill was his team defense. His mobility and long arms allowed him to impact shots as a weakside rim protector, and he consistently showed his feel for the game. His rotations were always quick and on-point – he made up for a lot of his guards’ mistakes – and he always had his hands up to impact his matchup’s vision. He was also very vocal whenever one of his teammates made a defensive mistake, which, if he’s as hard on himself when he makes mistakes, could be the trait of defensive anchor/leader.

Akiva McBirney-Griffin

Birth Year: 2003 / Nationality: New Zealand / Height: 6’9” (w/o shoes) / Team: Waikato

  • Besides George Washington-commit Tafara Gapare, McBirney-Griffin was one of the most physically advanced and definitely the most experienced player in the tournament, as he recently finished his rookie season with the OceanaGold Nuggets of the New Zealand NBL (due to this, I hold him to a different standard than all the other players in this article). At the junior level, he was the centerpiece of his team, effectively protecting the rim with his size, length and good positioning while also showing decent touch around the rim on the offensive end.
  • At the next level, McBirney-Griffin will have to shift into a smaller role and as his physical advantages disappear against adult competition, he’ll need other calling cards. His passing is quite impressive for a man his size – he even made some high-level live-dribble wrist passes – and combined with decent mobility and touch around the rim, this could make him a dangerous roll-man.
  • While he was an effective rim protector at this level, he lacks the vertical pop and mobility to be an elite one at the next level, but with his size and length, he could possibly develop into a decent one once he inevitably adds more muscle.
  • His perimeter flashes were quite interesting in this tournament. He’s not a self-creator in isolation; he tried creating from the perimeter a couple of times, but while a fluid athlete, he’s not explosive enough to beat his man, so he often resorted to spin moves into difficult shots. He was, however, able to create advantages against closeouts and take the ball to the rim from time to time as well as use his passing ability to create for others in these situations. To effectively create against closeouts against adult competition, he will need to improve his three-point shot. He shot 0-7 from downtown in the NZNBL, but seems to possess some level of touch (he made one quite nice-looking shot with a foot on the three-point line).

Joshua Book

Birth Year: 2003 / Nationality: New Zealand / Team: Waitaha Canterbury

  • Book was the primary creator of the Waitaha Canterbury team and impressed with his playmaking as well as his ability to score on all three levels. He was listed at 6’2” when he was New Zealand’s leading scorer in their final loss against Australia at the U-15 Oceania Championship 2018 and he doesn’t seem to have grown (much) since then.
  • Book creates with ease against closeouts and in P&R with a decent first step and the occasional dribble combination, taking advantage of his scoring gravity on the perimeter. He wasn’t very successful from three in the two streamed games (3P: 11 of 40 in the four available boxscores), but he showed great shooting range and a consistent shot with good balance, hand placement and no off-hand input. Because of this gravity, he got into the paint with regularity. He finished well at the rim with either hand, and despite being skinny, he had a few good finishes through contact.
  • Because of his scoring ability, he consistently drew help defense and created passing windows, which he often found. He completed countless lay-offs to the dunker spot – some with both hands, and some only with his right – even from almost impossible angles. Additionally, he made multiple kick-outs to three-point shooters, although only two-handed ones.

Hunter Adam

Birth Year: 2004 / Nationality: New Zealand / Height: 6’7” / Wingspan: 6’10” / Team: Waitaha Canterbury

  • Adam is an inside player with impressive athletic ability. His perimeter game is in early stage of development, so he would be even more intriguing if he was 1-2 inches taller. He’s still barely 16 years old, so maybe he can still grow, but he doesn’t seem to have grown (much) since he represented NZ at the U-15 Oceania Championship in late 2018.
  • Adam is a fluid athlete, who can finish above the rim with decent touch and even shows some flashes scoring on self-generated drives, which he creates with a solid handle, including a nice crossover. He can even make some plays for others on these drives, like laying it off to the dunker spot or kicking it out to a three-point shooter.
  • Defensively, Adam impresses as a mobile weakside rim protector, who makes decent rotations and challenges shots with good vertical jumping ability, great timing and a +3 wingspan. If he can grow a bit and add a lot of strength – he has a decent frame – he could also evolve into a viable primary rim protector at the next level. Especially for someone this young, Adam played an amazing tournament, and if he continues improving his perimeter skills, I’d expect him to be an intriguing D1-prospect once he finishes high school.

Ezra Smiler

Height: 6’3” / Team: Waikato

  • Smiler impressed as an all-around off-guard next to Evans. Offensively, he was comfortable handling the ball in traffic, had some nice possessions finishing at the rim with up-fakes and Eurosteps and made numerous plays for his teammates when attacking closeouts, recognizing help defense quickly and even making some quite advanced reads. He “only” made six threes throughout the tournament, but shot 5-11 from three and 11-13 from the line in the last three rounds. There’s definitely still room for improvement with his shooting mechanics as he bends his knee inwards and also has relatively consistent sidespin on his shot. Since he doesn’t “thumb”, it’s possible that his shooting hand is positioned slightly off the middle of the ball.
  • Defensively, Smiler did a good job using his body to shield penetrators away from the rim and also displayed decently quick hip turns. Out of all the players in this article, him and Luka Vea showed the most ability defending the POA.

Dontae Russo-Nance

Birth Year: 2004 / Nationality: New Zealand / Team: Waitakere West

  • The reigning tournament MVP didn’t have the best performance of his career in the semi-final, the only game of his which was streamed, as his team lost by 34. He didn’t look dominant at any point, but the flashes of his talent were still there.
  • Despite an average first step, Russo-Nance expertly creates in Pick-and-Roll, displaying a nice variety of live-dribble passes, including bounce passes and lay-offs. In this game, however, similar to the games of last year’s Nationals, he settled for too many floaters. While his touch on these floaters seems to be good, his reluctance to challenge bigs at the rim prevents him from opening up some of the most valuable passing windows.
  • His three-point shot, which is mechanically consistent, especially relative to his peers, with good hand placement and balance, didn’t fall in the crucial parts of this game, as he missed his first six. In garbage time, however, he showed his abilities when he made three threes in a row, all of them with defenders in his vicinity.
  • In my opinion, Russo-Nance is one of the best international initiator prospects of the 2004-class. The combination of a solid three-point shot and quite advanced passing/playmaking skills make him a D1-prospect, who should generate significant interest from colleges in the near future.

Ethan Skelton

Birth Year: 2003 / Nationality: New Zealand / Team: Waitakere West

  • Was listed at 6’1” in December 2018 when he represented New Zealand at the U-15 Oceania Championship. May have grown an inch or two, but still looks to be guard-sized. Seems to have added upper body strength throughout the past two years.
  • Quick in the open court, decent first step allows him to create against closeouts, shows some ability playing at different speeds. Displays impressive touch at the rim, especially with his right hand.
  • Quickly recognizes help defense and punishes it with accurate passes, especially kick-outs and lay-offs. Made all of these passes in this particular game with both hands, but the accuracy and quickness of the reads was still impressive.

Luka Vea

Class of 2022 / Nationality: Tonga / Team: Auckland

  • Vea is a skinny two-way player with good guard, maybe even wing size (was 6’3” 16 months ago). In this game, he excelled especially as a perimeter defender, displaying good foot speed when sliding with his matchups and making their shots difficult with his long arms (6’5” wingspan last summer). Like pretty much any other teenager on earth, he still needs to add a lot of strength to not get knocked off his spots at the next level, but the flashes defending the perimeter are very encouraging.
  • He also showed some promise on the offensive end. He was able to comfortably handle the ball in the halfcourt (some decent moves included), found open teammates relatively quickly, made some basic kick-out reads in P&R and converted two three-pointers (throughout the whole tournament, he averaged 16.7 PPG and made eight threes in six games).

Sataan Tawera

Birth Year: 2003 / Nationality: New Zealand / Team: Auckland

  • At the 2018 U15 Oceania Championship, where he averaged 11.2 PPG for New Zealand, Tawera was listed at 6‘0“. He may have grown a little bit since then, but he’s still guard-sized with a strong upper and lower body, which allows him to absorb contact quite easily.
  • He seems to primarily be a slasher, who creates occasional advantages, especially in Pick-and-Roll, with a decently shifty handle and a passable first step. He can finish at the rim with either hand, even against contact and shows the ability to make basic kick-out reads on the move as well as some live-dribble wrist passes. Also converted seven threes in six games.

Zach Riley

Birth Year: 2003 / Class of 2022 / Nationality: New Zealand / Height: 6’5″ / Wingspan: 6’5″ / Team: Harbour

  • Riley had an outstanding game against the eventual champion Waikato, finishing with 28 points and showing off his impressive arsenal of passes. He used screens and his decent handle to get to the rim and finish there at high efficiency, especially with his right hand. In addition to that, he made multiple impressive passes; a left-handed wrap-around to a corner shooter, a live-dribble kick-out with his right hand and multiple accurate bounce passes with his right. His first step is below average, so the main question will be if he can still get by defenders to create passing windows and scoring opportunities at the next level.
  • One way to enable his advantage creation skills at the next level would be to be such good a shooter that he has to be guarded tightly. He made nine threes through the six games and displayed a workable shooting form. The only issue I can see with it is the consistent sidespin on the shot, though it was hard to determine from the footage whether that’s caused by hand placement issues, his fingers slipping before the release or off-hand input. His recruiting profile states that he’s an 85% FT shooter, so he clearly has some shooting upside.

Other players I would’ve include if I had more/any of their footage: Tafara Gapare, Ezekiel Priest, Jett Thompson, Jaskaran Singh, Rufus Rushholme Cobb and more …

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