With free agency for the 2024 Sal’s NBL season officially open, Sky Sport’s Justin Nelson looks at the signatures that could make some news over the coming weeks and months.
Free Agency for the 2024 Sal’s NBL season is open and its all systems go as 11 teams start assembling their rosters. Teams are now permitted to officially sign players and lodge the paperwork with the League, but you would be foolish to think conversations between coaches, team general managers, players and player agents haven’t already been taking place for some time.
Teams must roster a minimum of 12 players so across the 11 teams, with the introduction of the Whai based in Tauranga, at least 132 players will be signed in the months leading to the season tip off. Teams are again restricted to three international players, which last season led to no less than 15 players with NBA G League experience playing in New Zealand. While the battle for player signatures is tense, the League’s salary system helps to ensure the talent is spread across all teams helping to maintain the competitive balance that has been so exciting for fans across the country.
Let’s take a look at some of the stories that could unfold during free agency.
Hyrum Harris: Make no mistake, ‘Double H’ is the player every team wants in season 2024. Harris’ stocks continue to rise through his outstanding current season with the Perth Wildcats, and while the link between his ANBL club and the Otago Nuggets looms large, it won’t prevent every Sal’s NBL team putting in a call with Hyrum’s agent. The Hawks will of course have the front running, it’s been a good home for him over recent years and he has a strong passion for the Hawks. With demand will come a good pay-packet and I wouldn’t be surprised if Harris is the highest paid Kiwi in the Sal’s NBL next season.
Rob Loe: The 2023 MVP will be in demand but fear not Tuatara fans because I can’t see Loe going anywhere (see further below). Teams will try and coerce the big man to move, he is an almost-certain ticket to the finals, but his bags will remain empty in the closet, and he’ll be playing for the Lizards.
Dom Kelman-Poto: Anyone who has seen the current physical condition of DKP will completely understand where I’m coming from. The best ‘down low’ Kiwi in the league played a much smaller role with the Bulls in 2023 (15.2 minutes and 8.5 points per game, compared to 27.2 minutes and 15.6 points per game with the Sharks in 2022). Now armed with peak physical stature and what will be a full ANBL season training and playing with the Breakers, I expect teams will be lining up for his services. Front of the line will be the Sharks, his home away from home, and I know the orange army would love to see him return to the deep south. Can the Bulls hold onto him?
Jeremy Kendle: There’s no denying Kendle’s 2023 season was off the charts – 24.6 points, 8.9 assists and 3.2 triples at 44% per game is testament to that – but it’s his leadership qualities and ability to pick a game up by the scruff of the neck that makes Kendle a must-have player on every roster. He’s a game winner. He did it in a cameo for Auckland in 2021, and he did it again this year for the Sharks. Kendle wins games. The Sharks would surely want him back, but the Kendle family has strong links to the Nelson region and that will lead to Giants coach Mike Fitchett picking up the phone for a chat. Kendle would be a good fit for the Saints as well if Adnam doesn’t return, while impending changes at the Hawks could lead to Jarrod Kenny making some enquiries around Kendle.
The Websters: You need only look at the impact both Corey (Rams) and Tai (Nuggets) had in late season cameos this year to appreciate how hot their signatures will be for 2024. Question is, where are they best placed? Respectfully, Corey is closer to his final years as a pro player and maybe he can help a franchise build something special, draw some big crowds and carve out a real leadership role, maybe at Jets or Airs, or with the newcomers at the Whai. On the other hand, Tai, is still a couple of years away from turning 30 and might be suited to another short-term opportunity. I can see the Saints picking up the phone, the Nuggets will also be in the race, while the Bulls might pull for the ‘local’ connection.
Finn Delany: Will 2024 be the year Finn Delany returns to the Sal’s NBL? All 11 teams would love to have Delany spend a winter in New Zealand, and the timing might be right. While getting him to commit to New Zealand will be difficult with what is sure to be a bevy of offers from European teams, if the star forward does decide to spend some time at home in-between ANBL seasons with the Breakers, you can be assured the Giants will be the front-runners with the Delany family having strong ties to the region.
Ethan Rusbatch: I expect Rusbatch to take flight from the Hawke’s Bay Hawks and find himself in new colours next season. The experienced guard played well for the Sharks in the recent 3x3 Cup, making the All-Star Four at the event. No doubt Rusbtach will be hot property and I can see the likes of the Sharks, Airs, Jets and Whai making enquiries, while his hometown Rams will at least find out what his asking price is. Whichever way the negotiations do play out, you can expect to see Rusbatch in a new uniform in 2024.
Derone Raukawa: Another Hawk set to take flight is Raukawa and the frontrunner for the crafty guard’s signature should be the new kids on the block out of his hometown Tauranga, the Whai. Raukawa’s 2023 season in Hawke’s Bay was a tumultuous one where a rumoured mid-season bust-up with the coach made news. The Whai will need a game-winner and Raukawa is a proven performer on the big stage. His recent mastery at the 3x3 Cup reminded all teams that he still has a lot to give and as a result his phone will be ringing with options aplenty.
Jayden Bezzant: Just how settled at the Bulls is Bezzant? That will be a question a few teams will be asking the combo-guard after a season where his opportunities waned. In 2023 Bezzant averaged 19.9 minutes per game for the Bulls, a big drop from the 29.6 minutes he played per game in 2022. His field-goal attempts dropped from 14.2 (2022) to 6.8 (2023) marking a rapid decline for the noted shooter. These will be numbers every other team has noted and it will surely result in a couple of interested parties making a call. Could the Hawks be interested given the impending gaps that will need filling? While the Giants and Jets could also do with a Kiwi shooter capable of averaging over 15 points per game.
Dru-Leo Leusongi-Ape: For a whole range of reasons, Dru-Leo’s time in Southland just hasn’t delivered on expectations. When healthy, the exciting athlete has shown his prodigious talent and been a go-to for the Sharks, but equally he has had moments where he has gone into a shell or missed stretches through injury. But few would argue, me included, that he is a player who could become a star of the competition. The Sharks would love to see him take the next step as a player in orange. Opposition teams will sense an opportunity here, such is how free agency works, and Dru-Leo will be of interest to many. The Jets are one team that should definitely pick up the phone, he would be a nice fit in their rebuild, and the Giants would also benefit, while I can see both the Hawks and Whai taking an interest. Maybe even a trip up the highway to the Nuggets?
Jack Andrew: Is it time for ‘Big Jack’ to spread his wings and step out from behind Sam Timmins’ shadow? Tied to the Perth Wildcats, who’s owners also own the Otago Nuggets, there will be a reluctance to let Jack go and play elsewhere, but if the Nuggets sign Timmins again (which they should), then it might be in Perth’s interest to let Jack go and get more minutes elsewhere to speed up his development. If Jack’s signature was up for grabs, question would be which team will be keen to go with a Kiwi centre and give him a real run as a starter?
Marnie Dougall-Mita: Following a standout showing at the recent 3x3 Cup, the Wellington Saints sharpshooter and physical guard will have a list of teams keen for his signature. Question is, how will the Saints respond? Dougall-Mita is a Saints player through and through, but he’s ready for more opportunity and if the Saints can’t deliver more minutes, then a few opposing coaches will be offering to fill the void. Dougall-Mita averaged just over 10 minutes per game last season, and about 12 minutes per game in 2022. He’s ready for more, he knows it and other teams will look to use that to their advantage.
Kaia Isaac: The Rams guard is a hot target for teams this free agency and the Rams will need to decide what role they have in mind for the creative playmaker who possesses a deadly shot from range. Isaac was another star at the 3x3 Cup where he led the Rams to victory and snared the event’s MVP award. When opportunities arose during the Rams’ 2023 championship season he delivered, his best outing a 19-point performance against the Airs. Ironically, don’t be surprised if the Airs are a team keen to have a chat with him after spending a season on the Breakers wider roster.
Liam Judd: Season 2023 and a role with the Jets was just what Judd needed, and the Jets should be congratulated on some astute recruiting, but will they be able to hold onto their young forward? Expect the Bulls and Tuatara to try and lure Judd back to Auckland, while the Whai might try to entice him across to the coast.
Pafe Momoisea: After averaging 22.2 minutes per game for the Jets in 2022, Momoisea got stuck behind some good imports in 2023 and as result his average minutes dropped to 15.9 per game. It wouldn’t be surprising if a couple of teams come knocking, possibly the Whai following their recent partnership together at the 3x3 Cup.
Tobias Cameron: The Airs enjoyed a good debut season (10 games) from the youngster, who averaged 19.2 minutes and 7.9 points per game. These numbers will not have gone unnoticed across the league and Cameron is likely to be asked about his services for season 2024. A season with Guy Molloy at the Sharks would go a long way in his development, while new Airs coach Sam McKinnon will be keen to hold him.
Dontae Russo-Nance: After taking the pro route and signing for the Perth Wildcats, Russo-Nance will be a key target for Sal’s NBL teams and a full season back on home soil will do wonders for the young star’s development. As much as his former team, the Auckland Tuatara, would love to snare his signature, you can’t help but think the relationship between the Wildcats and Nuggets will see Russo-Nance head for Dunedin if he was to return to NZ.
Will McDowell-White: Given the growing relationship between the NZ Breakers and Franklin Bulls, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a big fish like WMW land in Pukekohe. If the Bulls can secure his signature, we are looking at a serious talent and one that would immediately catapult the Bulls into contention.
Shea Ili: The dynamic Tall Blacks guard has called Australia home for a few years now, but he has strong ties in Aotearoa and offers to play in the Sal’s NBL are always on the table for him. Expect the Saints to pick up the phone, while Rob Loe may have put in a good word for the Tuatara during his current gig with Melbourne United.
Javonte Douglas: Let’s give an import a mention. Douglas last played in the Sal’s NBL in 2022 and from all reports the Airs tried (unsuccessfully) to secure his signature for 2023. Douglas averaged 19.7 points, 6.3 assists and 11.5 rebounds per game in ’22 and helped take the Airs on a deep run. If he’s not on the minds of all coaches, he should be. A quality player, he loves being in NZ and he absolutely delivers the goods.
Rob Loe: The league’s 2023 MVP will be in Tuatara colours and once again he will lead their charge to the finals. The league’s most dominant big man would be welcomed with open arms at any team, and the likes of the Wellington Saints would always be up for a cheeky call, but Loe is the best ‘sure thing’ during free agency. Relax Tuatara fans, your MVP will be returning.
Sam Dempster: Not really going out on a limb here, the Giants captain will be back leading the Nelsonians through another Sal’s NBL campaign. The safest signature in free agency.
Alonzo Burton: ‘Zo’ is part of the furniture these days down in Invercargill and it’s unlikely he will be considering a move anywhere else. Lock him in for the Sharks.
Walter Brown: The young gun is a Ram through and through. As his game develops rapidly, the young Tall Black will continue to blossom as a starter for Judd Flavell.
Jackson Ball: A surprise name on this list, but such is the hype around the youngster out of Hawke’s Bay you can expect some opposition teams will be thinking about the possibility of scooping him away from the Hawks. That won’t happen. The teenager made the All Star Four at the recent 3x3 Cup and cemented himself as a rising star. The Hawks will have his services securely locked up (as an Amateur). The kid is a star in the making.