Nelson Giants to shoot first, ask later
If there's one word that's overused in sports, it's "greatest".
Especially when "greatest" is followed by "ever".
But, at the risk of overlooking and undermining almost 30 years of New Zealand national basketball league history, there's a good chance Eric Devendorf is the greatest player ever to land on these shores.
The Wellington Saints guard is in New Zealand because he had a troubled college career at Syracuse and he needed to rebuild his off-court reputation before teams in the major professional leagues would take a serious look at him.
Waikato brought Devendorf to New Zealand, then cut him loose at the first hint of trouble, despite opening his account with 49 points against the Fico Finance Nelson Giants in round one.
He wasn't unemployed for long, Wellington's Saints releasing Darryl Hudson to sign Devendorf within a day of Waikato making their choice.
He hasn't let Saints down. They are on a six-game win streak, which coincides completely with his arrival, and he's averaging 28 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals a game.
Giants guard Mike Fitchett, who tried to rein in Devendorf during the Pistons game and who will see plenty of him again in Wellington tomorrow, isn't shy about rating the American shooter among the very best.
"He is an unbelievable shooter. He's making 60 per cent of his three-point shots and they aren't open looks," Fitchett said.
"He's scoring coming off screens with defenders all over him.
"If you overplay him, he can get to the basket and punish you that way, but he could be the greatest shooter ever to turn up in our league."
Tomorrow's game pits second-placed Nelson against third-placed Wellington. Both teams have identical records but Nelson hold the upper hand by virtue of beating the Saints here in March. A win either way tomorrow will go some way to sewing up a home semifinal.
Waikato are two games clear of the chasers but still need to play both the Giants and Saints away from home.
"If we win the rest of our games, we'll be in a good place. Waikato is still catchable and we're right there with Saints, trying to bridge the gap.
"Two wins this weekend would be huge, right now."
The Giants have one of the most unusual road trips in the Bartercard NBL with the Saints game in Wellington tomorrow leading on to a match against the Cougars in Christchurch on Saturday. Nelson's players aren't getting ahead of themselves.
"There's always a bit extra in a game against Christchurch but we will start thinking about that after 9pm on Friday," Fitchett said.
"We have our hands full with Saints first."
The Devendorf factor is just one challenge for the Giants. They have Tall Blacks past and present in Nick Horvath, Casey Frank, Lindsay Tait and Leon Henry, while American forward Erron Maxey does nothing brilliantly but everything well.
"In the past, they've had too many players and struggled to keep everyone involved and happy. This year, they are still strong but they have a nice rotation going and you can't just concentrate on one or two guys or cheat off one to help with another," Fitchett said.
Not that Nelson should be too worried about their defence. While Wellington like to put up big numbers, the Giants are developing into an aggressive and active defensive unit. In recent games, Hawke's Bay scored 57 and Taranaki had 61.
Point guard Fitchett even chipped in with a blocked shot on Taranaki's Tyrone Davey.
"We had a really good training the other night," Fitchett said.
"Toops [coach Chris Tupu] put the second unit in against the starters and told them not to run any set plays so we didn't know what was coming and had to react defensively.
"We know we'll have to limit Saints to one shot on every possession, stop their transition and not turn the ball over.
"And it would help if I can keep Devendorf under 49 this time, too."
The Nelson Mail