Kirk Penney in demand as education comes first
The more things change, the more they stay the same. For Kirk Penney, there's a refreshing familiarity to heading off to battle the world's best with his Tall Blacks at a time when his hoops routine has been otherwise turned on its head.
For the first time in well over a decade, Penney doesn't have a professional gig lined up when he finishes this international campaign which will culminate at the World Cup in Spain from August 30-September 14. He admits that uncertainty makes him a little nervous, and a little excited at the same time.
It's not that Penney is not wanted. Far from it. One of the international game's most consistent performers, he had a sweetheart deal to go back to Turkey thrust under his nose just days before flying out for Korea with the Tall Blacks last night.
But as much as the dollars made sense, "I just couldn't sign it", he said, just a little ruefully.
Penney has decided to go back to the University of Wisconsin and finish off his degree, which he and wife Audra will do once the Tall Blacks' Cup campaign wraps up. So that leaves him effectively jobless after over a decade plying his trade in the US, Europe and back in New Zealand.
"It just really felt like the right decision," he said. "It's a good time do it. This World Cup campaign is something I've been looking forward to for a long time. When it's over I'll go back [to Madison], get that degree for the most part punched out, and as of right now the plan is to then play in December.
"That's the middle of the season for most basketball leagues in the world, and hopefully there's a team out there that wants to pick me up."
Could it be the Breakers? The Auckland ANBL club would dearly love to get their prodigal sharpshooter back some time before his career concludes.
"Everyone is an option," he said. "I have no idea what kind of opportunities there will be. It's quite an unsettling feeling because this is my 12th year playing professionally and you always have a team lined up. I'm living by faith a bit more and hoping something will work out."
In the meantime he enters pretty familiar territory with a massive load on his shoulders as he leads the Tall Blacks on their World Cup mission.
Nothing new there for Penney who's pretty much always been the main offensive weapon for a New Zealand men's team that perpetually punches above its weight on the international stage. The 33-year-old, into his 15th year with the national team, is a big, big part of that.
Penney loves the young talent coming through, and is enthused by the Tall Blacks' prospects, even though they head into the campaign without a true centre after the defections of Steven Adams (unavailable) and Alex Pledger (foot injury).
"We don't have a true centre, but do we ever have a back-to-the basket game for a big guy?" he said. "A lot of our things are flairs and curls and running and it's actually quite good our bigs are mobile. Nenad has designed a system probably for that very reason."
Penney feels like playing small ball can work to the Tall Blacks' advantage.
"We've always had system teams aren't used to guarding. It's different to European ball and different to American ball. You have to work hard defensively the whole game to chase us around, and teams will struggle guarding us again.
"Defensively we're just going to have to have the intensity we showed in game three against Korea."
The Tall Blacks have landed in a stellar pool in Spain, alongside short-priced favourites the USA, Turkey, the Ukraine, Finland and the Dominican Republic. They'll need two wins minimum to make the knockout round of 16.
"I think we're good enough to do that. But it's an interesting pool. Outside of the US, all those teams are going to be difficult to beat -- but they're all beatable. You could finish high in your pool, or you could finish low.
"It will come down to a lot of close games ultimately deciding how we do, and making those couple of big shots will be everything for us."
Big shots just happen to be Penney's forte, but he says the veterans can't do it all in this campaign. "We need to get the young guys up to speed really fast because we need them a lot."
Sunday Star Times