Opinion: Five Kiwi college basketballers you need to keep an eye on

Jack Salt has been shining at the University of Virginia.
Jack Salt has been shining at the University of Virginia. Photo credit: Supplied

OPINION: For Kiwi students, heading overseas on sports scholarships has become an extremely attractive post-high school option.

Basketball is proving to be a legitimate pathway for our young, talented ballers looking to make a name for themselves, while at the same time earning a free college education.

Over 120 of our best young talents are currently taking to various hardwood floors across the States. Of those players, six in particular (the injured Tai Wynyard aside) are making a case for recognition beyond simply the diehard basketball heads.

Jack Salt

The Aucklander's game has gone from strength-to-strength through his three-year career at the University of Virginia.

After making his Tall Blacks debut in 2013, the Westlake old boy now co-captains his Cavaliers side which recently earned 2017-18 ACC Regular Champions honours.

Salt ensures his presence felt on the court. He stands 6-foot 10 tall and weighs in at 113 kg, largely fuelled by what appears to be an addiction to Chipotle, an American favourite.

His season per-game averages of 3 points and 3 rebounds may not be the most eye-catching, but it’s his defence, screening, and rebounding that makes him a player to watch for the future.

Stella Beck

Arriving at St. Mary’s College in California as a freshman in 2014, Beck wasted no time in letting her team and opponents know what she was capable of.

By the end of her first season, she was named the West Coast Conference Newcomer of the Year and to the WCC All-Freshman team.

And the Hutt Valley Native isn't just gifted on the basketball court. For three consecutive years, she's earned a spot on the WCC All-Academic team.

Saint Mary's Women's Basketball vs Gonzaga Bulldogs
Photo credit: Supplied

Beck finished the academic year with a 3.63 GPA in Psychology, specializing in Neuroscience, while anchoring her team's starting line-up in a highly-competitive conference.

An offensive blitz in February, top-scoring in three of four games, has boosted her average to just over 15 points per game, while also registering the most minutes of any player on the side. In three of those four February matches she notched over 20 points, top-scoring in each.

There’s no doubting that Beck is a key leader for her side, a crucial cog at both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.

Beck made her international debut for the Tall Ferns back in 2013 and is now in her senior year at St. Mary’s. The WNBA could be just around the corner.

Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa

Opinion: Five Kiwi college basketballers you need to keep an eye on
Photo credit: Supplied

Known by his teammates as "Zay", Mauriohooho-Le’afa is the starting point guard for Sacramento State. It may have taken coach Brian Katz three months to learn how to pronounce his name properly, but it didn’t take nearly as long to realise the Wellingtonian was worthy of a starting role in his Sacramento team.

The St. Patricks College Old Boy started all but one game in his freshman year and has since continued to earn the starting nod, with per game averages of just over 9 points to go with 3 rebounds and 3 assists.

His basketball career prior to moving off-shore was decorated with representation at both domestic and national level. Mauriohooho-Le’afa spent three years playing for the Wellington Saints and was selected to play for the Tall Blacks in 2013 at the age of just 16, easily making him the youngest player on the squad.

Basketball runs in his blood, with father George playing for numerous title-winning Wellington Saints teams before later progressing to a coaching role. Mauriohooho-Le’afa was also the captain for the Under-19 Junior Tall Blacks national team in 2014 and in the same year represented New Zealand at a 3-on-3 tournament at the 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games.

There’s no doubt that his vast international experience will pay off as his college career grows.

Penina Davidson

Davidson (known as Nina by her teammates) attends the highest-ranked university in the PAC 12 conference, Cal Berkeley. As a high-school player, ‘P’ was awarded Young Sportsperson of the Year for Basketball in 2012 and 2013.

She led Waitakere to the 2013 national title with an MVP-winning performance of 33 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks on her way to spot on the Tall Ferns, making her debut in 2013 alongside Stella Beck. With freakish stat-lines like that, there was no doubt Davidson would make waves in America. And that she has.

Opinion: Five Kiwi college basketballers you need to keep an eye on
Photo credit: Supplied

After representing New Zealand at the Under-16 level, the West Aucklander took her talents to California's Golden Bears in 2014, where she's now a veteran presence on the team. Davidson’s consistent health has been a key to her successful college career, missing just one game in her four-year tenure with the side.

Her scoring has increased each year, currently averaging 7.7 points to go along with 7.2 rebounds in her senior year. Speaking to The Daily Californian last year, Davidson touched on being a role model for younger athletes back home, and the special feeling of playing against other Kiwis.

“I think me being here is more of a reassurance. If I’m out here, you can be out here, too. If you’re out there, I can be there, too. It’s just good to know that there are other Kiwis making their mark in some way.”

Sam Timmins

Opinion: Five Kiwi college basketballers you need to keep an eye on
Photo credit: Supplied

Originally from Dunedin, 6-foot-11 Timmins is a sophomore at the Washington University, a college that may be familiar to Kiwis for a couple of reasons.

Timmins and his team visited New Zealand in 2016 on an Australasian Tour, playing against an invitational team in Christchurch. He was also a teammate of 2017’s top pick in the NBA Draft, Markelle Fultz, during the year he spent with Washington.

That same season, Timmins was the starting centre for the Tall Blacks at the 2017 Asia Cup in Lebanon, where he averaged an impressive 6.7 points and 8.0 rebounds. Similar to fellow big man Jack Salt, he prides himself on his on-court IQ and protection of the rim. He currently averages 5.6 points and 5 rebounds per game in the 19 minutes he spends on the hardwood each night.

The Dunedin-native has a prolific list of achievements through his high school years, leading Otago Boys to the NZ Secondary Schools National Championship in 2014 before relocating to Middleton Grange High School in Christchurch, where he played under the guidance of Tim Bennetts and Canterbury Rams coach Mark Dickel.

Still with years remaining in his college career, be sure to track his progress as he grows into a highly-intelligent ‘defence first’ player.

George Berry is an intern reporter at Newshub Sport.