Basketball: Four new names in Tall Blacks

Josh Bloxham. Photo / Getty Images
Josh Bloxham. Photo / Getty Images

Four players will make their Tall Blacks debuts at next month's Fiba Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela with the roster determined by a war of attrition.

When forward Isaac Fotu withdrew to prepare for his upcoming scholarship at University of Hawaii, coach Nenad Vucinic was left with just 12 candidates for 12 spots and no decisions to make.

The team departs for Australia on Wednesday before attempting to earn one of three remaining Olympic spots in Caracas from July 2-8, and Vucinic must now hope there are no more injuries or withdrawals before then.

"It hasn't been an ideal process," he admitted. "We started with 24 players on our list, but we've had so many injuries this year and unavailability, there weren't really too many guys to pick from.

"That's unfortunate, but I'm still looking forward to this trip and the guys are very motivated."

All four debutants are among guards, where the Tall Blacks have lost Mark Dickel, Mike Fitchett, Kirk Penney and Corey Webster from last year's squad.

Teenager Tai Webster, viewed as more of a long-term prospect when the selection process began, will enter international basketball in similar circumstances to older brother Corey four years ago.

He turned 17 just a few days ago, making him one of the youngest ever selected for the Tall Blacks, while Breakers development player Josh Bloxham will get to show what he's learned during the franchise's two championship seasons.

"Initially, we probably didn't intend to go this deep, but with all the injuries, they have their chance," Vucinic said. "We're very pleased with what Tai showed us during the trials and would have gone close even if there had been more players - I believe you always have to have players for experience and the future."

After more than a decade on the fringe, veteran Hayden Allen, 32, will finally follow father Glen into the national team. Allen's promotion comes less than a year after surviving a near-fatal car accident.

"Hayden has been one of the unluckiest players in terms of selection, because he was always playing behind great players like Kirk Penney and Phill Jones, who kept him out of the team," Vucinic said. "It's really pleasing for us coaches that he'll be there."

Everard Bartlett is another who's been close to making the Tall Blacks for several seasons and showed dramatic improvement in the Australian NBL over the past 18 months.

"Everard is still a young player and this is another level up, but he should feel confident that he belongs here."

The biggest decision Vucinic - along with assistant coaches Pero Cameron and Paul Henare - had to make was who would fill the one naturalised spot available on the roster. The position eventually went to incumbent Casey Frank, who beat out the challenges of guard Kevin Braswell and forward Marcel Jones.

Braswell, a former Breakers import, never really got the opportunity to push his case after he was unable to secure New Zealand citizenship in time.

Although Jones, a small forward with the Manawatu Jets, was sworn in by the Department of Internal Affairs on Thursday, Vucinic has decided he needs Frank's experience more.

"Casey has been with us for some time and knows what we need," Vucinic said. "We have some very promising, big Kiwis coming through, but they are a little short of experience right now - Casey gives us that."

Frank arrived in New Zealand 10 years ago as an import for the Auckland Stars and has stayed ever since. He made his Tall Blacks debut in 2005 and gained his citizenship in time for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games the following year.

Full Squad:

Hayden Allen (Auckland Pirates), Josh Bloxham (Nelson Giants), Everard Bartlett (Bay Hawks), Casey Frank (Wellington Saints), Leon Henry (Otago Nuggets), Jarrod Kenny (Bay Hawks), Robert Loe (St Louis University, US), Alex Pledger (Auckland Pirates), Lindsay Tait (Auckland Pirates), Jeremiah Trueman (Manawatu Jets), Mika Vukona (Nelson Giants), Tai Webster (Auckland Pirates)

- APNZ

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