Tall Black Vukona relishes World Cup challenge
The prospect of playing small ball against the best hoops teams on the planet does not faze Tall Blacks skipper Mika Vukona.
Nor should it, for if anyone has a grip on playing undersized, it's the man who has made an art-form out of schooling bigger power forwards throughout his pro basketball career.
At one stage Vukona (1.98m) and his New Zealand men's team looked as if they were going to be blessed with tall timber at the upcoming World Cup in Spain (August 30-September 14), with a pair of seven-foot centres, and some pretty serious height options elsewhere.
But it would appear the hoop gods are frowning on the Tall Blacks. First the Oklahoma City Thunder decided to make their standout 2.13m rookie Steven Adams unavailable; then established 2.15m starting centre Alex Pledger suffered a torn foot tendon in last week's series against Korea that leaves him facing an uphill battle to make the start line in Spain.
Suddenly the 2.10m Rob Loe, a stretch four-man at the international level, and 2.08m naturalised player Nick Horvath are the tallest options, with the 2.03m Casey Frank and Isaac Fotu, and 2.01m Tai Wynyard, 16, the only other players over the 2-metre mark.
"It's a big blow really, but what can you do?" said Vukona of the likely defection of Pledger for the World Cup. "We always seem to come up with something in the Tall Blacks, and we've just got to deal with it.
"It's nothing new really. You've just got to go out and play with what you've got. I'm confident in the guys, that we can go play that small ball."
After a 2-1 series victory over Korea to open preparations for Spain, Vukona, 32, was feeling positive about a group that had the classy Kirk Penney back in the mix for the first time in three years.
"You just know what you're going to get with Kirk - an elite athlete who's going to knock down shots whenever you want. His professionalism is what the young guys see. He comes in day in, day out and does the right things."
The Tall Blacks will take a squad of 14 to Korea, China, Lithuania and Serbia to prepare for Spain, then will narrow that down to 12 for the global tournament.
Horvath and Frank are competing for the sole naturalised player spot, while coach Nenad Vucinic will give Pledger every chance to make a quicker recovery than the four to six weeks slated.
"I'm excited," said Vukona of a group that also includes 19-year-old Nebraska rookie Tai Webster and 20-year-old University of Hawaii standout Fotu. "We've only been together a week and a-half, and there are promising signs already.
"We've got young guys willing to come out and give it their all. Everybody knows what's at stake, everybody is professional and enthusiastic about it, and everybody wants to do the right thing because everybody wants to play in the world champs."