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The pipeline never stops
Rayan Rupert and Mojave King join a long list of NBL Next Stars to be drafted to the NBA.
Going into the 2023 NBA Draft, there was a lot of intrigue at the top of the class. Everyone with a passing familiarity with what basketball is knew the San Antonio Spurs were taking Victor Wembanyama, aka “the best prospect since LeBron James” with the first overall pick.
Directly after that though, the dice rolls began.
Would the Hornets really pass on Scoot Henderson for Brandon Miller? Yes.
How would the Thompson twins and Overtime Elite be evaluated? As it turns out, very highly (Amen fourth to Houston, Ausar fifth to Detroit, making them the first set of brothers to ever be drafted in the top five of the same draft).
Would teams really be scared off by Cam Whitmore’s pre-draft process and rumoured medical reports? Well he fell to 20th after being universally considered a top five talent, so you tell me.
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Later on in the evening though, some more interesting dominoes fell, as it specifically pertains to Australian basketball and the National Basketball League’s Next Stars program, with both Rayan Rupert (43rd to Portland) and Mojave King (47th to Indiana via the LA Lakers) hearing their name called by NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum.
Both men, of course, are graduates of the NBL’s Next Stars program, a league initiative started in 2018 to entice potential NBA draftees into the league by offering an alternative pathway to the NBA, incentivising the move with something the NCAA couldn’t offer at the time…pay.
That’s obviously changed since with the advent of NIL (name, image and likeness) payments for college athletes, but the strength of the Next Stars program hasn’t.
And before we move on, you may have noticed that the Next Stars program has shifted into a more international flavour the last few years. Why? Well, according to Sydney Kings guard Dejan Vasiljevic, foreigners don’t get paid NIL money while in the USA, so that could explain the attractiveness of Next Stars to the European market.
You can hear my full interview with Vasiljevic here.
Back to the Next Stars, Rupert and King become the fifth and sixth Next Stars to be drafted into the NBA following their stint in the NBL, joining LaMelo Ball, RJ Hampton, Josh Giddey and Ousmane Dieng in this club, while other Next Star alumni like Justinian Jessup and Didi Louzada joined the program after being drafted.
Brian Bowen II, the first Next Star in 2018-19 with the Sydney Kings, was undrafted following his season before signing with the Indiana Pacers.
The rise of the NBL and the Next Stars program has not only given credence and validity to the NBL, but it has also helped raise the reputation of strong performers in the league by elevating their NBA stocks.
The strength of the NBL is such now that the reputation of the league itself is a major contributing factor in the heights some of its exports have gotten noticed by.
Ousmane Dieng probably got himself drafted as high as he did (11th in 2022 to Oklahoma City) thanks to a strong second half of the season with the New Zealand Breakers.
Xavier Cooks, following two years of MVP-level play for the Sydney Kings, signed a multi year deal with Washington following a second consecutive NBL championship.
Hugo Besson, not considered as much of an NBA prospect during his season with the Breakers alongside countryman Dieng, found himself drafted at the back end of 2022 (58th to Milwaukee) following a strong season as an import in New Zealand.
Even further back, Jae’Sean Tate, an undersized four even by the NBL’s standards, parlayed his strong form in the 2019-20 season for the Kings into a deal with the Houston Rockets, following a career at Ohio State that saw him go undrafted and traverse the basketball world via Belgium and the NBL before hitting the NBA scene.
It’s true of coaches too, with Will Weaver accepting a job as a Rockets assistant following a 2019-20 season where he led the Kings to the NBL Finals before ultimately pulling out of the championship series with Perth amidst the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, while a similar path looks to be on the cards for Chase Buford.
What the NBL Next Stars program has ultimately taught us, though, is that talent and potential isn’t enough anymore, and a lack of production in a league like the NBL can also harm your stock.
I think that’s the case for both Rupert and King.
Look at Rupert. Coming into the last NBL season, he was widely touted as a top 20 NBA prospect in the class of 2023. A defensive menace with tantalising athleticism and length to cause havoc on that end of the floor, his impediment to rising up the boards was ultimately going to be his offensive production and mainly, his shooting.
The shooting never quite materialised though, culminating in an NBL Finals series where he saw his minutes reduced as the Kings flat out refused to guard him.
Rupert was drafted 43rd after entering the NBL as a top 20 prospect. What happened? Part of that is surely the offensive limitations exhibited during his lone season with the Breakers. Defensively, he remained elite, showcasing his switchability and versatility, as well as his athleticism on the perimeter.
Rupert’s mechanics aren’t broken by any means, but his release on his shot is a little slow and spring-loaded. He needs clean looks to get it off, and there’s only so much upside in a defensive specialist who needs acres to shoot.
Fortunately, he’ll probably be wide open as teams ignore him on the scouting reports until he proves he can hit shots at any reasonable clip.
Still though, Rupert is, in my mind, a steal at 43 for the Blazers, forming a strong draft class in Portland with third overall pick Scoot Henderson (a teammate of Mojave King at G-League Ignite) and 23rd overall pick Kris Murray (twin brother of Sacramento forward Keegan).
Rupert fell, yes, but it wasn’t totally unexpected to me. I did still think he’d go in the late first round, early second at worst, because of concerns about his offense, but the fall maybe isn’t as catastrophic as some may think. Also, while scrolling Twitter I came across this useful tidbit as to why Rupert maybe went a bit lower than expected.
If it’s true that Portland were so high on Rupert they made him a multi-year promise, then that’s only a good thing for his development and future.
In fact, before I saw that tweet, I would’ve placed the odds of Rayan Rupert returning to the Breakers for the second year of his Next Star deal at non-zero (Next Star contracts are usually two years by default with an NBA out after one). Now, considering the apparent promises, it appears Rupert will likely be a fully-rostered Trailblazer.
Mojave King’s character arc is a little more defined, given we have three years of professional data to go off. King, you may recall, was part of the same Next Star intake as Josh Giddey, in 2020-21, with the pair often compared as the next two great hopes of Australian basketball.
While Giddey flourished, King found minutes hard to come by at times in Cairns during his first season as a Next Star. As such, he decided to leave for Adelaide in the hopes of landing a more consistent role. That didn’t happen either.
If anything, he went backwards.
King averaged just over six points a game for the Cairns Taipans, shooting under 39% from the field, and 33% from three in 16 minutes a game. The minutes might not have been what King anticipated, especially given his classmate’s volume, but what transpired in Adelaide would’ve surely had him thinking Cairns wasn’t so bad.
His scoring dipped to 3.7 per game, on similar shooting percentages, but his minutes got slashed down to barely 10 per game.
The one thing in King’s favour is his three point shot looked workable during his two years in the NBL, breaking even at just over 33% over his two seasons, and his athletic profile allows him to attack closeouts. A better offensive player than Rupert, for instance, teams will be forced to at least close out short on King, allowing him time to get clean looks off.
And if they close out too hard, he has the athleticism to put the ball on the floor and attack in straight lines.
For what it’s worth, King’s production improved in his lone season with the G-League Ignite, upping his scoring to just under 10 points per game while shooting over 40% from the field for the first time in his pro career. His three point percentage did fall to 31%, but he showed improved rebounding chops and some small flashes of playmaking off the bounce.
Importantly, though, King played minutes. Lots of them. 27 minutes per game over 44 contests. Whether you think the G-League level of competition is comparable to the NBL or not, sometimes it’s important for guys to just get run to work out deficiencies in their game.
I’m not sure what the next step is for King. He’ll play Summer League for the Pacers, after which the likelier options look to be a two way deal, allowing him to split time between the Pacers and the G-League, or a stash somewhere in Europe or the NBL, much like other Next Star alumni in Justinian Jessup and Didi Louzada.
I’d wager Rupert as the likelier of the two to be able to contribute in the NBA this season, but the reality is both are still a way off meaningful NBA action.
As for the future of the Next Stars program, NBL24 brings with it a new crop of NBA hopefuls and a further strengthening of the NBL to NBA pipeline.
Bobi Klintman is one for the length enthusiasts out there. The Swede spent last season at Wake Forest and was a projected second round pick in this NBA Draft before deciding to come to the NBL with the hopes of improving his stock with Cairns.
Illawarra guard AJ Johnson might be the blue chip recruit of this year’s class. A projected first rounder in 2024, Johnson decommitted from powerhouse program the University of Texas to join the Hawks.
Much like Klintman, Mantas Rubstavicius was also a chance of being selected in the second round this year. The Lithuanian is a bit older at 21, having already played professionally for five seasons, but joins the New Zealand Breakers to improve his stocks.
The most intriguing Next Star prospect might be French forward Alexandre Sarr. Born in 2005 (feel old yet?), Sarr has played for the Real Madrid cadet teams before spending the last two seasons as part of the Overtime Elite program, the same program that produced lottery picks Amen and Ausar Thompson. Sarr has good basketball pedigree, with his father playing professionally in france, while older brother Olivier is currently contracted to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Finally there’s the returning Ariel Hukporti. The German big man is entering his third year as a Next Star with Melbourne United after tearing his Achilles during the NBL Blitz last year, causing him to miss the season.
The NBL pipeline continues to go from strength to strength, I cannot wait to see how these next crop of Next Stars go in their journey.
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