Tall Blacks in desperate need of healthy centre

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 09/08/2014
Alex Pledger
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BIG MAN: Tall Blacks centre Alex Pledger is out of action for up to six weeks with an ankle injury.

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The Tall Blacks are praying for the miracle but planning for the cold hard reality around their crocked seven-footer as the World Cup draws closer.

When Alex Pledger went down with a serious foot injury in the home series against South Korea, it left Nenad Vuinic and his Tall Blacks without a true centre as they embarked on a 13-game buildup tour ahead of the global tournament in Spain.

The hope was that Pledger would heal quickly, and could perhaps get himself ready to make a late dash ahead of the tournament opener on August 30 in Bilbao.

But that now appears a distant prospect, with Vucinic admitting yesterday in China, where they were shooting for a second straight four-nation tournament victory, that they weren't anticipating having the 2.15m Pledger on board for Spain.

"We have been in constant contact with the physio and with Alex, and they've prolonged his moon boot recovery. But in a way we know it's not going to happen," Vucinic said.

"We're not giving up yet, and we can wait another week to see if there's any improvement. For us it's business as usual, and right now we're preparing as if he's not going to be there."

There was at least some positive news among the tall timber, with the 2.08m Nick Horvath coming through his first action since straining his back in the series opener against Korea in New Zealand.

Horvath, a handy interior player, is battling Casey Frank for the sole naturalised position allowed for Spain, and a solid eight-point outing as the Tall Blacks thrashed Brian Goorjian's Dongguan Leopards 79-54 was a much-needed boost.

"He looks physically OK now with all the rehab he's been doing, but really we're waiting for the European games to know where we are in that respect," Vucinic said.

That's the crux of the matter for these Tall Blacks as they've won three out of five against Korea, and rattled off four straight victories in China before last night's clash against Cameroon.

The level of competition is about to go up significantly, with upcoming games against Slovenia, Greece, Lithuania and Serbia (twice) in Europe sure to test their mettle.

But Vucinic likes what he's seen so far from his team and feels like he's developing a depth and confidence that can once again give them an underdog's shot against some of the heavyweights of global hoops. To that he just needs to add cohesion.

The Tall Blacks were also disappointed that Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant had withdrawn from the USA team they would meet in pool play in Bilbao.

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"Kevin is one of the best players in the world and it would have been great to play against him, but I'm sure there will be enough firepower in that US team," Vucinic said.

Twenty-year-old power forward Isaac Fotu, who plays his hoops at the University of Hawaii, was gutted not to get a shot at going head to head against Durant.

"You always want to play against the best. We've all see him on TV - he's a big superstar. It is disappointing not to get to play against him, but they're still going to bring in another superstar to fill his spot."   

The Tall Blacks wrap up the Chinese leg of their tour with a clash against Ivory Coast tonight, before heading to Lithuania where it suddenly gets serious. So far, it's so good for this intriguing mix of veterans and youngsters, but there's still a long, long way to go in a short time.

- Stuff

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