As the curtain fell on the New Zealand Breakers’ rise back into the NBL’s elite with their 77-69 grand final loss to the Sydney Kings on Wednesday, it brought with it plenty of questions for the franchise to answer.
Unlike a year ago, a solid core of players remain contracted through to the end of next season — including key contributors Izayah Le’afa, Tom Vodanovich and Cam Gliddon. However, the majority of their core rotation players will enter free agency.
It’s not an unfamiliar position to be in when it comes to overseas talent. The import spots are often a carousel for most NBL teams with new players making the trip down each season. Jarrell Brantley, Dererk Pardon and Barry Brown Jr all joined on one-year deals and will test the waters on the open market, while Next Star Rayan Rupert will declare for the NBA draft where he is expected to be a first-round selection.
Of the local players, long-serving captain Tom Abercrombie and big man Rob Loe were signed until the end of the 2023 season. Both players are toward the end of their careers — at 35 and 31 years old — but made big contributions this season, so the Breakers will have to decide whether to bring them back.
They will have to assess who to bring back and prioritise accordingly, with point guard Will McDowell-White also off-contract and sure to pique the interest of plenty of teams. This season, McDowell-White emerged as one of the league’s top point guards showing improvement in every element of his game — posting career highs in points, assists and rebounds per game.
It was a breakout campaign for the 24-year-old, who Breakers coach Mody Maor has helped develop into a bonafide star in the league over his three seasons with the club.
“[It’s been] like a father watching his kid,” Maor said of seeing McDowell-White blossom this season. “It’s not really this series, for me and Will it goes three years back where he couldn’t make a shot that wasn’t a layup.
“Year three this season was about taking a step forward as an individual and taking responsibility. Now step four is consistency and I’m really looking forward to taking this step together as well.”
The Australian international will be highly sought after as he is a proven game-changer and is a local talent opposed to an import.
While McDowell-White is expected to have plenty of admirers trying to entice him in another direction, Breakers owner Matt Walsh is confident they can bring their star playmaker back for another season and look to build on the foundation he set in this campaign.
“We love Will, and it’s been well documented how much Mody loves Will. I love Will because of the way he plays basketball, aside from how he is as a person. He’s smart and does all the right things,” Walsh said.
“Watching him progress over the last three years has been amazing and we’re going to do everything we can [to bring him back]. There’s a business side of this, right? But we’re going to do everything we can, and I think he’ll be back.”
The free agency period is interesting for all clubs, as nailing your import selections is such an important part of building a championship team.
So, while McDowell-White’s signature will be a focus for the club, so too will be ensuring they are able to sign imports who fit in with the vision of Maor, and will play hard on both ends, not tolerating anything less.
Maor got his recruitment spot on last year with Brantley, Pardon and Brown Jr, who were the team’s top three scorers. Maor received a glowing review from Brantley — who popped into the post-game press conference following Wednesday’s game-five loss in Sydney with a message for any potential imports for the team in the 2023-24 season.
“That’s a special coach right there, man. If he recruits you, [you’re] special, man,” Brantley said.
“He’s one of a kind. I love you, Mody. Good job. I’m sorry, man.”