"We were looking for something, we spoke for 10, 15 minutes and from there I was just locked in."

23 Jan
By Dan Woods for

The tendrils of the NBA have been snaking themselves throughout the NBL.

Whether it be through the recruitment of genuine NBA-talents like Gary Clark and Anthony Lamb, the continued success of the NBLxNBA tours, the successful implementation of the Next Stars program, or the continued extensive ownership in NBL clubs from former NBA stars, the NBL is quickly asserting itself as the closest thing to NBA basketball across the globe.

Former Phoenix Sun, Dallas Maverick and NBA champion Shawn Marion has been involved with the New Zealand Breakers since the sale of the club in 2018. He and the consortium headed by fellow former professional player Matt Walsh have helped return the club to a level of competitiveness that is reminiscent of the years just prior to New Zealand’s golden era of the 2010s.

Marion is currently in New Zealand to run his valued eye over the current Breakers side, and took centre stage as a member of the crowd in the Breakers’ dominant 31-point win over South East Melbourne in Round 16.  

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">We have a former NBA superstar in the building ?<br><br>Four-time NBA All-Star, NBA champion &amp; <a href="">@NZBreakers</a> part-owner Shawn Marion is at Spark Arena tonight for New Zealand’s clash with South East Melbourne ? <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL (@NBL) <a href="">January 20, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

The Breakers flew higher than they had in his six years of part ownership when they reached last season’s Championship Series, and Marion believes his partnership with the club is one big, happy marriage.

“It was a timing thing, actually. It was a timing thing for both sides,” Marion told NBL Media about his initial investment in the club. “At the time the team was being sold, and Matt and Dan (Katz) headed the group we’re a part of – it was just like magic, honestly.

“We were looking for something, we spoke for 10, 15 minutes and from there I was just locked in.

“I had actually been looking to invest in some other teams and some other sports, and I had been looking for quite some time.

“It was awesome, because we had mutual friends and ran in the same circles, and it was just like a wedding.

“We married together, and it’s been a great marriage.

“I’m a fan so I try to do things the fans do. It really resonates with me and it’s just easy when you’re a fan and you love something. When you want everybody to do well and you want everything to go right you just support it.”

Those same circles hark back to Walsh’s time as a professional basketball player. Although his NBA career doesn't compare to Marion’s, Walsh played twice for the Miami Heat just two seasons prior to the four-time All Star's arrival in the city from Phoenix.

Given the extensive NBA and professional experience at the head of the snake for this newest era of Breakers basketball, it’s little surprise that few teams have bought into the Next Stars program as intensely as New Zealand.

Mantas Rubstavicius is the latest in a line of talents that include drafted talents Rayan Rupert, Ousmane Dieng and RJ Hampton.

Dieng is the current jewel in the crown of the Breakers’ development train, having been selected in the lottery. He is currently playing a crucial role for a young Oklahoma City side that is second in the Western Conference at the time of writing.

Rupert recently scored a career-high 11 points against the team who has Marion’s jersey hanging in its rafters – the Phoenix – and is establishing himself as a raw but relied upon option for the Trail Blazers.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Career-high 11 points for former <a href="">@NZBreakers</a> Next Star Rayan Rupert off the bench today against the Suns ?<br><br>Rupert was drafted with the 43rd pick by the <a href="">@trailblazers</a> after a strong season in the NBL with the Breakers. <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL Next Stars (@NBLNextStars) <a href="">January 15, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

Hampton is currently on a two-way contract with one of Marion's former sides in Miami, and has made over 160 NBA appearances since being drafted in 2020.

While Marion took the traditional collegiate route in the 1990s – first with Vincennes, then UNLV – prior to entering the NBA, he believes the NBL is establishing itself as a worldwide, genuine pathway to the NBA.

“It’s very comparable. This is why you’re seeing guys getting drafted from the NBL to the NBA, and you’re seeing a lot of NBA guys coming here to the NBL if they don’t get signed by an NBA team,” Marion said.

“I think it’s awesome. Any time you can have a program or a process embedded to help elevate a kid to the next level, why wouldn’t you be a part of it?

“It’s actually really very awesome, and it gives kids different opportunities and different situations to better themselves and experience different cultures around the world, I think it’s truly amazing.”

After injuries early in the season restricted Rubstavicius’ ability to get on the court, the Lithuanian has established himself as a key offensive weapon for the Breakers in their pursuit of an appearance in the Finals.

In fact, when he’s scored at least 15 points in a game this season, the Breakers are unbeaten.

ESPN currently has Rubstavicius placed at pick 56 in its mock draft, and the 21-year-old is firming as a potential late second round selection.

Marion says he believes Rubstavicius is playing like a veteran contributor for the Breakers, but doesn't read too much into projections and predictions.

“You know what, they always have projections and a lot of the time those projections you get are a bit BS,” Marion said. “With that being said, he looks very good and he’s playing very poised, he has a nice pace to him and he shoots the ball very well.

“I saw him do some stuff off the dribble that made me go ‘OK, OK I’m liking that’. He’s definitely got some room for improvement, but he didn’t look like a rookie out there.

“He looked like a third or fourth-year player ... he definitely didn’t look like a rookie.”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Mantas is key ?<br><br>The Lithuanian Next Star has scored 15 points or more in each of the <a href="">@NZBreakers</a>&#39; last five wins ? <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL Next Stars (@NBLNextStars) <a href="">January 22, 2024</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

Before any discussions of a repeat appearance in the Championship Series, or any potential drafting of Rubstavicius, the Breakers need to push themselves back into the competition’s top six to earn a Play-In berth.

At the end of Round 16 the Breakers sit in seventh. Prior to the win against the Phoenix, head coach Mody Maor said his side needed to win six of their remaining eight games. That’s one win down, five to go.

New Zealand and fellow Finals hopefuls Illawarra have both played just 21 games so far this season – which is tied for the fewest in the NBL. Despite their current position outside the top six, the Breakers’ destiny is still in their own hands.

For Marion, the equation is simple – just repeat the performance against the Phoenix time and time again.

“If we play like we did on Saturday we can win in the post-season, seriously,” he said.

“If we play with the tenacity and energy we did on Saturday we should be able to run the table.”

The Breakers are next in action on Friday night against their NBL23 Playoff opponents, Tasmania.

The game will be broadcast live on ESPN via Kayo and Sky Sport in New Zealand from 5:30pm AEDT.

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