To celebrate the 40th year of the New Zealand National Basketball League (which begins April 24th), a panel was formed to rank the 40 best players in League history. The panel consisted of former Canterbury Rams and Tall Blacks coach Keith Mair ONZM, long-time servant of the Nelson Giants and former NBL board member Steve Fitchett, former Tall Blacks and New Plymouth Bears coach Steve McKean MNZM, Wellington Saints owner and overseer of the most successful franchise in League history Nick Mills, and former NBL player and New Zealand’s foremost basketball scribe Marc Hinton. The panel was chaired by Sky Sport commentator and NBL Media Manager Huw Beynon.
Criteria for the 40in40 was based primarily on a player’s performance in the league, and secondarily on their contribution to the league during their time as a player.
40 Reuben Te Rangi
Reuben Te Rangi burst into the League with the Harbour Heat in 2012, winning Rookie of the Year honours. He headed to the deep south a year later and won his first championship with the Southland Sharks. He returned to his native Auckland in 2015 and to the Grand Final in 2016, this time with the Super City Rangers. Back to the Sharks he went in 2017 and, you guessed it, back to the Grand Final. Two more Grand Finals would make it four in a row with back to back titles (Sharks ’18, Saints ’19) making him a three time champion.
Te Rangi’s strong drives, high IQ, leadership, and defensive abilities mean he’s regularly been the prized free agent of the last decade. At only 26, expect him further up this list by the time the 50in50 comes around.
39 Eric Devendorf
The explosive combo guard came to the League in 2010 with a reputation as a fiery individual and an outstanding scorer on the back of a storied college career with Syracuse. He did not disappoint after eventually finding his way to the Saints, via the Waikato Pistons (who released him early in the season, citing their need for a “true” point guard). He led the league in scoring (25.6ppg) and was named to the All-Star 5 as the Saints claimed another championship on the coat-tails of their backcourt maestro.
Devendorf went on to a brief stint with the Melbourne Tigers in the Australian NBL, then Turkey, Ukraine, Israel and Greece, before finding his way back to New Zealand to appear for Jeff Green’s Super City Rangers in 2014 and ’16. In the last of those he was the League’s scoring champion again with 25.8ppg.
38 Tony Brown
A true superstar of the league in the 1990s, Brown was a smooth, high-scoring combo guard who set an incredible record for scoring in a League game when he dropped 72 on Taranaki in 1991. The man could flat-out score the basketball, was quick off the dribble, strong on the take and had a pullup jumper that was devastating.
He led the Hutt Valley Lakers to the title in 1991 and was an All-Star 5 member in ’91, ’92 (again with the Lakers) and ’94 (with the Palmerston North Jets). He also proved he was more than just a big-time scorer by leading the NBL in assists in 1995 (back with the Lakers). He capped a fine NBL career by being named outstanding guard/NZ guard and to the All-Star 5 in 2000 with the Waikato Warriors.
37 Leon Henry
Of the 10 championships up for grabs between 2010 and 2019, Leon Henry won 6 of them. Synonymous with talent-laden Wellington Saints teams where he won 5 of his titles, Henry also won Final Four MVP and a championship with the Sharks in 2013. 2017 was arguably his best year. A League record 10 3-pointers in a game v the Rams, and a Saints record 21 rebounds were the highlights as the Saints romped unbeaten to Henry’s 5th title. In the latter years of his career he grew into a leadership role, regularly captaining the Saints. Still never afraid to take, and make, the big shots, he claimed title number 6 in 2019, the same year he played his 200th game in the League.
A ferocious competitor who was never afraid to get physical, his silky shooting stroke and consistent production and success more than merits him a place on this list.
36 Tony Rampton
After an impressive debut season in 1999, which saw him take home the League’s Youth Player of the Year award, 7ft centre Tony Rampton had one of the best seasons in the League any Kiwi has ever had. His 2000 with the Nelson Giants was truly remarkable and propelled him to the Sydney Olympics with the Tall Blacks, and eventually the Australian NBL with the Cairns Taipans. He won NZ MVP, Most Outstanding Forward (NZ and overall), Rebounding Champion and was named to the All Star 5 as the Giants were beaten in the big dance by the Auckland Rebels.
The Taranaki native was a truly athletic big man, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in the League. Effective all around the key, he gobbled up rebounds like they were going extinct.
Rampton played over 100 times for the Tall Blacks and now teaches in China.
35 Tony Webster
The father of current Tall Blacks and Breakers standouts Corey and Tai Webster was some player himself back in the day. Tough as teak, with a slippery game that mixed strong post-ups, sneaky mid-rangers and robust drives to the hoop, he was a do-it-all type who played a large role in making North Shore the sturdy competitors they were through the mid-to-late ‘80s.
Webster led the league in assists and was an All-Star 5 member in 1986, was outstanding guard and an All-Star 5 pick the following year and in ’88, when the team from the north side of the bridge made it all the way to the grand final (where they lost 81-78 to the Saints), the New Yorker and one-time University of Hawaii standout was scoring champion with 36.53ppg. T-Web graced a golden era for the NBL with a game as effective as any of his illustrious peers.
Can be found courtside as an assistant coach with the Franklin Bulls in the upcoming Sal’s NBL season.
34 Kevin Braswell
Brought to New Zealand by the Breakers in 2010, ‘KB’ fast made himself a fan favourite in the New Zealand NBL too. He led the Southland Sharks to their first ever title in 2013 and repeated the feat two years later. One of the most potent scorers in recent League years, Braswell was always one for the big occasion and the big shot. In his 50th game with the Sharks, he dropped 45 points on the Airs.
His number 12 jersey hangs from the rafters at Stadium Southland where his brash, confident, yet loveable personality, and style of play, etched him into Sharks-lore.
He went on to win a further two championships as a coach with the Saints.
33 Tony Bennett
The lethal lefty arrived in New Zealand with a stellar reputation on the back of three seasons in the NBA with the Charlotte Hornets as the backup to Tyrone ‘Mugsy’ Bogues. Arguably the most credentialed player to have made his way to the League, Bennett did not disappoint and made the North Harbour Vikings one of the must-watch teams for the 1996 and ’97 seasons where he would mix scoring, creativity and flat-out toughness in equal measures.
Played just two dominant seasons, but they still talk about that period on the Shore where fans were mesmerised by his stellar play. Was named outstanding guard and to the All-Star 5 both campaigns. Stayed with Harbour in ’98-99 to launch what would become an outstanding coaching career and is now in charge at the University of Virginia whom he guided to the NCAA title, with Kiwi Jack Salt at centre, in 2019.
Kiwi fans will always be grateful for the role Bennett played as a mentor to Kirk Penney in his rise to becoming a Tall Blacks great.
32 Paul Henare
One of the greatest servants of New Zealand basketball, ‘Pauli’ Henare is known more around Aotearoa for his achievements in the Breakers and Tall Blacks jerseys. Not in Hawke’s Bay though. Despite winning two of his three championships with the Auckland Stars (1999, 2000), Henare’s crowning legacy in the League is leading his native Hawke’s Bay to their first ever title in 2006.
A five time assist champion, Henare exuded leadership on the basketball court from the moment he stepped into the League as a teenager. A pass first, defensive minded point guard with a sky high IQ, he had some enthralling rivalries with other names on this list. Pauli was, and still is, loved everywhere he goes, nowhere more so than the Bay where his number 32 jersey is retired by the Hawks.
He has gone on to win three titles as a coach (Sharks ’13 & ‘15, Saints ’19)
31 Angelo Hill
One of the OGs of the NBL, this classy big man, who stayed on in New Zealand to make his home in New Plymouth, was not one to light up the stats sheet, but was always a heavily influential performer for whomever he played for.
A championship winner with the Saints and the Rams in the mid 80’s, Hill brought energy to his team, the game, and whatever building it was being played in. His go-to bank shot from just below the foul line had the scoreboard ticking over, but he was always on cue with a hair raising dunk or a team lifting three when needed, often followed by some arm flapping aimed at the crowd on his way back up court.
A real do-it-all 4 man (think an 80’s version of Dillon Boucher), Hill formed a formidable Rams front court with Jon Hill, before moving on to New Plymouth.
He currently teaches at Opunake High School.
Numbers 30-21 in the Sal’s NBL 40in40 will be released on Wednesday 31st March.
The Sal’s NBL tips off on April 24. Find the schedule here