The Taranaki Augusta Mountainairs basketball team has been in a rebuilding phase now since the 2014 season.

With a goal of developing local talent — both players and coaches — this Taranaki team has the most home-grown players of all the National Basketball League sides this year.

They are taking on opposition choking with talent — two teams this year have almost exclusively Australian National Basketball League-level players — the league the Breakers play in.

Over the past three seasons Taranaki’s youngsters have been building experience to add to their talent and head coach Trent Adam is excited to see how his pool of skilled youngsters will measure up against the legends of New Zealand basketball.

Trent Adam thought his young team were tracking well leading into this year’s NBL season, but admits he really had no idea until they stepped out on to the floor of their first match this season.

It was against the Nelson Giants, who last year missed the play-offs by a marginally deficient points for/against record against the Super City Rangers, who not only claimed the fourth play-off spot, but went on to the finals.

After the first quarter of their inaugural 2017 match, the Airs trailed 31 – 15.

The best defensive team of 2016 were starting the new season on track to becoming the worst defensive team in the league.

But at quarter time Trent ‘tweaked’ a few things on defence and they conceded just 45 points for the remainder of the match, winning decisively by 93 -78.

He was heartened by the turnaround of the team during that game and concedes everyone was probably a bit rusty and getting used to each other.

“We feel we’ve constructed a team that can defend, that can rebound, get some paint scores, shoot the ball and run a bit more than we have in the past. We’ve got some athletes that can run up and down and defend, we think we work well together and I’m pleased with the construction of the team and how all the bits and pieces fit together to create an overall package.

“We like who we are but we’re also excited about who we could be.”

Led by Aaron ‘Aunty’ Bailey-Nowell (35) and vice-captain Houston O’Riley (27), the rest of the team is made up of young men in their late teens and early 20s. Even the imports are relatively young, both aged 25.

The bulk of the young local players honed their basketball skills at New Plymouth Boys’ High School, coached by David Bublitz, who Trent has secured as his assistant coach for the Airs.

“Boys’ High has been a good school team for a long time and they’ve constantly had kids playing in NZ age group teams, JTBs (Junior Tall Blacks), U18s, U16s. So in their age bracket, they’ve been considered good players. If we invest time in these guys it means that as the older guys start leaving the league there has to be a new wave of people coming through. We’ve got players we believe, that given the opportunity can perform at a very high level. So it’s important we commit to giving court time to our local guys to give them the opportunity to grow. We obviously want to win games and be successful, but we want them to be a part of that success and with their skill sets they can contribute right now. As we continue to develop them, we think they’ll be able to contribute even more.

We feel they could create a very strong core for the team in the future.”

The coaches then had to decide what kind of imports were needed to complement their roster of predominantly young, raw talent.

“It all came back to what we thought we had with our local players, and what we thought we still needed.”

Trent looked at successful import players from previous years in the NBL to settle on a template for the kinds of players they wanted.

“Torrey Craig (who played for the Wellington Saints in 2015 and 2016) was a great import for our league. He played the three spot and the two spot, was quite versatile and a great defender. We looked at him and thought his skill set would have been great on our team, so we searched for a player like him.”

They found that person in Tylor Ongwae, originally from Kenya. At 6’8” with a 6’11” wingspan, Ongwae has plenty of length.

“Great length means a player can cover ground in a short amount of time, get into passing lanes, get deflections and steals, defend without fouling. Tylor can shoot, he can rebound and he can defend.”

The team’s second import was modelled on one of last year’s Taranaki imports, Daniel Miller, after it was confirmed Miller wasn’t available for this year’s NBL season.

Daniel Gomis is from Guyana and is 208cms tall (around 6’10”).

“Daniel’s first game he got 16 rebounds and he’d only been in the country a week. He defends well, contesting shots without fouling.

“It’s a little bit hit and miss with imports — you never know what you’re going to get — but they have both exceeded our expectations.

The last piece of the puzzle, was Alonzo Burton, son of legendary BP Bears player, Willie Burton.

Alonzo was born 23 years ago when his parents still lived in New Plymouth. The family moved to Hawkes Bay when Alonzo was young but Trent grins, “we still count him as a local.”

At 6’4” with a 6’8” wingspan, Alonzo is another player with length.

“We feel Alonzo could address our outside shooting. He’s a very good knock down shooter, without detracting from our defensive focus. Our first two weeks of training everything was a steal and deflection — no-one was used to passing around a guy with that much length. He’s from a really good basketball background, he’s fundamentally very sound. His versatility defensively is a good addition to our core group.”

Last year’s coach, Ross McMains, built the Augusta Mountainairs into the NBL’s best defensive team. They attained their best win/loss ratio for eight years and McMains was not only awarded Best NBL Coach 2016, he picked up a contract as assistant coach to the Santa Cruz Warriors — the feeder team for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.

Trent Adam was his assistant coach and he has committed to continuing the style of play developed last season.

“Ross came up with some great concepts and it was important we carried them on. All the guys that were here last year have had a year’s worth of learning and it makes sense to build on that.

“Last year we were one win away from being a top four team, and we had four very close losses that with a few minor tweaks, we could have won. So we’re focusing this year on improving some of our numbers just that bit more than our stats from last year. With that incremental improvement, the extra wins should come for us to make the top four.”

The main core of the team remains defence.

“We believe three point shooting in today’s game is important and have brought in players who can do that for us. Tempo, and how fast the game is played, player movement and ball movement, it’s important to get players involved and show them you value what they can do.”

In their first three games the Airs have had four or five players in double figures and another one or two players on 8 or 9 points.

“That’s the team we are. We’re not going to have someone get 30 points and someone else get 25, and then not much else. The scoring will be more spread out and we think that engages players more. If they’re feeling involved they’re going to perform better — at both ends of the court.

He knows there are star-studded teams in the league who can have a slightly off game, and still pick up a win.

“We’re a team that if we play well, we can win, but if we don’t play well, we’ll lose. So a big part of our challenge is learning how we can put our best foot forward game in, game out.”

The initial goal is to make the top four.

“Then you play two one-off games and all you have to do is beat one team once, then the next team once.”

With no-one rating the Airs, if they do make the play-offs, the pressure will be on their opposition.

“I understand we’re probably not favourites to win the league (the TAB gave the Airs the longest odds at the start of the season with 26-1), but I like our depth, I like our personnel, I like our chemistry, and I believe, on our day, we can knock these teams off.

He also thinks this year’s personnel actually fits the Airs’ style of game, better than the players from last year.

“We have a core group of about fourteen, and an extra three guys from the local secondary schools who did a lot of work with us over the summer: Oscar Robertson, Cameron Tretheway and Morgan Trott,” says Trent. “We wanted to help them as they all have New Zealand trials coming up, plus they helped us out, so it worked well.”

The Airs have committed to developing coaching in the area too.

“Sam Garriock is a young coach who has moved to the region to learn and be involved in NBL basketball. He helps out with the scout and getting the guys in and working on individual skill sets. When you have passionate people they are looking at positive things rather than negative things.

“There’s a team here, that in the not-too-distant future, is ready to contend on a regular basis. We have to continually invest in them and give them the time to grow.”

“Given a year or two, if all these dudes are playing together, they’re going to have a great continuity and camaraderie and culture.”

#12 – Brad Anderson

“He has been in the league for a long time now and he’s been an offensive spark off the bench. He can come on and make a shot and get out in transition. He’s continued to work on being a good defender, something he initially struggled with as he is a more offensively minded player, but he’s doing a really good job, especially man-to-man. He demonstrates leadership on the floor and overall knowledge of our systems.”

#5 – Xavier Shaw

“He played a bit for us a couple of years ago and has spent the past two years down in Canterbury finishing his degree. He has picked up a job here and his body has developed a lot over the past 2-3 years — he’s now put on size and strength. At 6’8” he has a wing skill set and a forward body type. He has great hands — people can penetrate and dump it off to him around the basket — he catches a lot of that stuff. It’s another skill set that’s often under-utilised.”

#10 – Dane Brooks

Dane’s back in the region which is great for us. He’s another guy that’s played at the Junior Tall Blacks level and in his age group is considered one of the better players around. He’s one of the best defenders in the league. He’s been able to defend high-level players since he was a young schoolboy player, defending imports. When you put Dane on the floor he can defend whoever we put him on. He’s great in transition being so athletic and we see a big role for him. It’s now a matter of our coaching staff adding more skills to his skill set.”

#2 – Beauden Giddy

“Beauden was in the same JTB team as Dane. He has good length as a point guard, he pushes the ball in transition, he shoots well so helps us in spacing the floor.

At The Blitz (pre-season tournament) he was getting people involved, running the offence, executing the plays, defending and getting the right person the right shot … there’s value in that. He’s a smart player with high IQ.”

#20 – Thane O’Leary

“Thane is a very unusual player in that he can defend at an NBL level straight out of school. Thane can protect the rim without fouling. He’s very good on verticality, which is jumping straight up and down. We think he can play week in, week out in our league. He’s been involved in the JTB group for the past year, so a very good player in his age group. He has high IQ, great team defence and understands the offences really well. At the Blitz (pre-season tournament) he was calling out defensive coverages and he’s like 18 years old. Leadership’s a skill, as is composure, and he has both.”

#0 – Jaylen Gerrand

“Jaylen’s moved to us from Auckland. He was part of the Westlake High School team that won the National Secondary Schools title in 2013, and was MVP that year. He was in America at a junior college and things didn’t work out. He’s a young guy that fitted our age demographic to develop a group of young players. He has offensive ability and gets shots for other people. He plays very similar to Houston, which we like because if Houston gets into foul trouble, or gets injured, the other players don’t have to adjust their game too much.

“He’s going to have some big games for us off the bench, and between him and Beauden, we think we now have versatility in the point guard spot.”

#11 – Lachie Fenwick

“He’s another talented age group player as well and probably the most versatile player on our team — he can play positions 2, 3 and 4. He has the strength to defend a little bit bigger than what he is, and the skill set and shooting to space the floor for us. He’s one of the smarter players in the team in that he knows the offence, and knows it in three different positions. He’s a great team mate and it’s important to get the culture right.

#30 – Matthew O’Connell

“Matt is from Francis Douglas and is part of the New Zealand U18 squad.

He’s very fast, very fit, shoots the ball and is able to get to the rim. He’s someone we want to keep around and keep developing. He has a future in the game and is an exceptionally hard trainer. We match him up with Houston as much as we can and he does a great job of communicating with the younger players and teaching, passing on his knowledge.”

#4 – Brayden Inger

Brayden has moved to us from Auckland. He’s part of the JTB wider group, is 6’8” and has a great body type. He was at Rangitoto College last year and they won the National Secondary Schools title. He wants to learn, train and stay in basketball shape for upcoming JTB trials. We played him a little bit at The Blitz and he can contribute at this level.

Words Irena Brooks   Photos Glenn Jeffrey