To celebrate the 40th year of the New Zealand National Basketball League (which begins April 24th), a panel was formed to rank the 40 best players in League history. The panel consisted of former Canterbury Rams and Tall Blacks coach Keith Mair ONZM, long-time servant of the Nelson Giants and former NBL board member Steve Fitchett, former Tall Blacks and New Plymouth Bears coach Steve McKean MNZM, Wellington Saints owner and overseer of the most successful franchise in League history Nick Mills, and former NBL player and New Zealand’s foremost basketball scribe Marc Hinton. The panel was chaired by Sky Sport commentator and NBL Media Manager Huw Beynon.
Criteria for the 40in40 was based primarily on a player’s performance in the league, and secondarily on their contribution to the league during their time as a player.
Already named: 40 Reuben Te Rangi, 39 Eric Devendorf, 38 Tony Brown, 37 Leon Henry, 36 Tony Rampton, 35 Tony Webster, 34 Kevin Braswell, 33 Tony Bennett, 32 Paul Henare, 31 Angelo Hill, 30 John Rademakers, 29 Benny Anthony, 28 Willie Burton, 27 Darryl Johnson, 26 Josh Pace, 25 Terrence Lewis, 24 Nenad Vučinić, 23 Ralph Lattimore, 22 Casey Frank, 21 Nick Horvath.
20 Tai Wesley
The Guam international first arrived in New Zealand in 2014 for the latter half of the Southland Sharks’ NBL season. His Fijian heritage and association with Guam meant he qualified as a local, and he made an immediate impact: averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds over his eight games.
The Sharks brought him back in 2015, and the high-IQ, silky post player known as the “Grown Man” led them to the 2015 title, picking up Finals MVP, while being named Most Outstanding Forward and in the All-Star 5. He moved north to the Wellington Saints in 2016, where he won a further two championships in two years, along with the 2016 Finals MVP award, an All-Star 5 nod and another Most Outstanding Forward award in 2017.
Three full seasons in the NBL, three championships. Wesley dominated all he came up against in New Zealand. He retired in 2020, and now works in real estate in Utah.
19 Mark Dickel
At the time the youngest player ever to appear in the NBL, Mark Dickel was 16 when he first laced ‘em up for his hometown Otago Nuggets. A teenage phenom, and relentless fusion of energy and intensity, he won rookie of the year that year (1993) and his name was known around the country.
He became the poster boy of Otago basketball before heading off to college in the States (leading the NCAA in assists his final year at UNLV). A successful career in Europe would await, with regular off-season stints in the NBL. Known as ‘Sparky’, for his electric play and unpredictable personality, Dickel footed it with every point guard he came up against, whether local or import.
He garnered two assist champion awards during his time, but his greatest legacy will be setting the standard for Kiwi point guards going forward. Dickel is now the head coach of the Philippines national men’s team.
18 Kenny Stone
How good was Kenny Stone? Well, early on during his first gig in New Zealand with the Nelson Giants back in 1989 management had decided they needed a more dominant import and were set to send the Seattle hooper home. But the Giants players knew a quality team-mate when they saw one and threatened a walkout if their American forward was dispatched. Common-sense won the day, and Stone, a sharpshooting, high-IQ big man, remained in New Zealand. For the record, the Giants made it all the way to the final the following year, where they were pipped by the Canterbury Rams in a close one. And Stone is still here, and still contributing to Kiwi hoops as a now seventh-year coach of the North Shore’s Rangitoto College.
Stone was a disciplined, unselfish, long-limbed forward who could score, rebound, run the lanes, play defence and, most importantly, win games while staying within the team framework. He played 238 games for Nelson, Canterbury and Auckland, scoring 4646 points (20.4 average, 52.7% FG), and won five NBL titles (all with Auckland from ’95-’97 and 1999-200) and earned a brief Tall Black selection in 2002. He was also a three-time league All-Star 5 pick (1990, ’95 and ’95) and outstanding forward in’ 95. He went on to carve an equally outstanding career as a coach, guiding the Stars to titles in ’04 and ’05 before the franchise went defunct.
17 Shea Ili
Perhaps the best defensive guard to ever play in the league, Shea Ili’s NBL resumé speaks for itself. A champion at age 19 while deputising for Lindsay Tait at the Auckland Pirates, Ili has gone on to carve a noteworthy career of his own. A title with the Sharks in 2015 was followed by two more on the bounce in Wellington. In 2016 he was named the League’s outstanding NZ guard, while 2017 saw him take home the Finals MVP award and get named to the All-Star 5.
Quick, agile, pass-first yet unafraid to launch that rainbow shot, Ili’s offensive attributes are often overshadowed by his world-class defence. But in 2018 they were very much on display when he was named League MVP as well as outstanding guard, as he received his third All-Star 5 selection.
Having been inexplicably let go by the Breakers in 2019, Ili now plays for Melbourne United in the Australian NBL, but we hope to see the 28-year-old back in the league and building on that already stacked resumé again soon.
16 Peter Pokai
The big man with the soft shooting touch was one of the dominant Kiwi players of his era, carving an outstanding career in the NBL, as well as with the Tall Blacks on the international stage (bookending his time in the black singlet with appearances at the 1986 world champs and 2000 Olympics). Pokai’s excellent footwork and deft shot, combined with his wide girth, made him a tough matchup throughout a career that saw him log time with the Wellington Saints, Hutt Valley Lakers and Nelson Giants.
Pokai won two titles in three years with the Lakers under Jeff Green, being named the league’s outstanding Kiwi forward/centre in the first of those years and in the ’93 final he hit the winning jump shot to take the Hutt Valley side past the Canterbury Rams by a deuce. Now lives in Australia.
15 Mika Vukona
One of the hardest players to explain on paper, Mika Vukona was just as tricky for opponents in his 20-year career. A ball magnet who sponged up rebounds, it was rare to find anyone working harder than this icon of Nelson, and New Zealand, basketball.
Debuting for the Giants as a teenager in 2000, Vukona spent time learning under heralded team-mates such as Ralph Lattimore, Nenad Vučinić, and Phill Jones, before breaking out in the 2002 grand final where he went toe to toe with Pero Cameron in a heart-breaking loss for the Giants. All up Vukona spent 16 years at the Giants, twice being named to the All-Star 5, and lifting a title with them in 2007. A team-first hustle machine, his strength, endurance, heart, and endearing nature made him one of the most loved and respected players in New Zealand basketball history.
On top of his work in the New Zealand NBL, Vukona won five Australian NBL titles, and played 152 tests for the Tall Blacks, before retiring in 2021.
14 Jamie Dixon
A 1.93m shooting guard, Dixon spent just two seasons in the NBL, in 1989 and ‘90 as an import with Hawke’s Bay. But what a pair of campaigns they were as the slick, skilful, sweet-shooting force of nature from California blazed a trail through the league in spectacular fashion. In fact, those that witnessed his exploits over those years still talk about his scoring feats to this day.
Dixon led the league in scoring both years and was named outstanding guard and to the All-Star 5 both seasons for good measure as he averaged 42.67 points in ’89 and 39.19 his second campaign. Remarkably, in ’89 he also led the league in assists. He would almost certainly have returned for more, too, but his playing career came to a sudden end in 1990 while in the Netherlands when he suffered a ruptured pancreas. Never mind. Turns out the man could coach just as well, going on to carve a successful career with the clipboard. In fact many Kiwis hoops followers might know him more as the man who recruited Steven Adams to play his “one and done” college year at Pittsburgh.
He also coached the USA to the world under-19 title in Auckland in 2009 and is currently head coach at his alma mater of Texas Christian University.
13 Torrey Craig
Much like the man one place below him on this list, Torrey Craig set the NBL alight in his only two seasons on New Zealand soil. The American came to the Wellington Saints by way of the Cairns Taipans in 2015 and burst into the league in a blaze of scoring glory. A 41-point performance early in the season put the NBL on notice that Craig was likely here for a good time, not a long time. A knee injury in round 11 that kept him out until the semi-finals wasn’t enough to stop him being named MVP, averaging 20.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists a game.
While the Saints lost the final in 2015, Craig made sure that didn’t happen in 2016. He averaged over 20 points a game for the second year running, this time going injury-free throughout and leading the Saints to their ninth title. He was named to the All-Star 5 for the second consecutive year.
Just over one year after lifting that trophy aloft in Wellington he was an NBA player, and he still is. Craig is currently with the Phoenix Suns.
12 Corey Webster
A three-time champion who was named league MVP in two of those title-winning seasons, Corey Webster is one of the most potent offensive threats the NBL has ever seen. After spending his early years with the Harbour Heat, Webster made Wellington his NBL home, bringing them success almost every time he touched the floor. Ever assured of his own phenomenal talent, even if the man guarding him knew what he was going to do, he couldn’t stop him. Step-back jumpers, hesitation drives, drawing fouls, or circus finishes, Corey Webster’s game has it all.
He had two of the best NBL seasons in recent memory, winning MVP, outstanding guard and an All-Star 5 spot in 2014 and 2017 while claiming championships with the Saints. In ’17 he averaged 26 points a game to add scoring champion to his list of achievements, earning him a place on this list with father Tony.
Recently away from the league as higher paying overseas commitments have understandably been prioritised.
11 Byron Vaetoe
Eyebrows will be raised that this gifted New Zealand shooting guard (232 NBL games, 4409 points, 19.0ppg) never made the top 10 of this list, which says more about the quality of the players selected ahead of him than it does his outstanding body of work as an uber-dominant 1.97m powerhouse who might have been the most talented Kiwi of his generation.
With a forward’s size and a guard’s skills, Vaetoe could hurt you inside and out, and did so on a regular basis throughout a 13-year NBL career with New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Auckland and North Harbour. He was named the league’s outstanding New Zealand guard four times (1988, ’89, ’91 and ’93), was Kiwi MVP in ’91 while with the New Plymouth Bulls and an All-Star 5 member in ’89 while on deck with Auckland. Vaetoe, as smooth as silk with the ball in his big mitts, was born in New Zealand but spent much of his upbringing in the US where he developed his passion for basketball.
Was a captain of the Tall Blacks, too, in an international career spanning eight years and 74 games. Still working in the game, developing basketball talent in the Bay of Plenty region.
Numbers 10-6 in the Sal’s NBL 40in40 will be released on Wednesday 14th April.
The Sal’s NBL tips off on April 24. Find the schedule here