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Tall Blacks on move in ANBL free agency

Tohi Smith-Milner, Rob Loe and Izayah Le'afa
Tohi Smith-Milner (left), Rob Loe (centre) and Izayah Le'afa have new permanent homes in the ANBL. PHOTO: ANBL

Several current or former Tall Blacks have picked up new contracts in the opening week of Australian National Basketball League (ANBL) free agency.

Former NZ Breakers big man Rob Loe has back-tracked on his ANBL retirement, rejoining beaten grand finalists Melboune United for 2024-25, while Izayah Le'afa and Tohi Smith-Milner have found new homes.

Loe, 32, retired from the ANBL after the 2022-23 season with the Breakers, but joined United as an injury replacement player on a short-term basis last season, playing eight games and averaging 5.5 points and 4.5 rebounds.

"In the time that he spent with us to start the season, we thought he was elite in so many areas,” said United head coach Dean Vickerman.

“His IQ, his defensive ability to play within our structure and our system, and the ability to be a motion-maker and a decision-maker, with his shooting ability."

Loe, currently playing in the National Basketball League (NBL) with the Auckland Tuatara, joins Tall Blacks Shea Ili and Flynn Cameron at United, who lost the five-game ANBL Finals to the Tasmania JackJumpers in March.

Izayah Le'afa NZ Breakers basketball
Izayah Le'afa moved to the Sydney Kings after two years with the NZ Breakers. PHOTO: NZ BREAKERS

Former Breakers guard Le'afa will suit up for the Sydney Kings next season, inking a two-year deal, with a mutual option for year two, while Smith-Milner will join Tall Blacks teammate Tyrell Harrison at the Brisbane Bullets, on a two-year deal, with a club option for year two.

Le'afa, 27, spent the last two seasons with the Breakers, averaging 7.5 points and 1.2 steals in 30 games in 2023-24, after two years with the South East Melbourne Phoenix to start his ANBL career.

"I hope to bring all the little things to the team that help to win, like toughness, energy and team-first mentality," Le'afa said.

"Being in a new environment like Sydney, I feel can help grow my IQ for the game, leadership, being more of a knock-down shooter and continuing to elevate my defensive end of the floor - in essence becoming the best player I can possibly be."

Smith-Milner, 28, will play for his fourth club in his ninth ANBL season. He averaged 3.6 points and 1.8 rebounds in 14 games with the Adelaide 36ers last year, following two seasons with the Phoenix and five with United.

"His ability to space and stretch the floor with his shooting, IQ and versatility makes him a key piece to our roster build," said Bullets head coach Justin Schueller.

Before the free agency period opened on April 15, several New Zealand players were signed or re-signed.

The Breakers brought out the second year of 6-foot-10 power forward Sam Mennenga's contract with the Cairns Taipans, bringing the Westlake Boys High product back to play for his hometown club.

In his rookie season, Mennenga, 22, made 27 appearances, averaging 17 minutes, 6.9 points and 3.9 rebounds, while shooting 47 percent from the field.

His standout performance was 22 points and 11 rebounds against United, while he also impressed in his pro debut against the Breakers at Spark Arena last September, finishing with 17 points and four rebounds.

“Sam is a very typical modern big who can also play at centre”, said Breakers head coach Mody Maor. “He can play inside and out.  He’s a good shooter; he’s also a very physical post-player.  He can put the ball on the floor and can also spot up and make decisions."

The Taipans locked away one of their key pieces for NBL25 by re-signing Kiwi Sam Waardenburg, 25, to a one-year deal.

The inaugural ANBL Next Generation Award winner endured an injury-interrupted 2023-24 in which he averaged 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 23 games, following a breakout rookie season.

The 6-foot-10 swingman flashed his immense ability and potential across a handful of games, including a 22-point performance in Cairns’ Round 5 win over Sydney, and a career-high 14 rebounds in a Round 2 win over South East Melbourne.

"It was especially important for me to retain Sam for next season. To have a stretch big make big plays like a point guard, allows us to add and explore unique opportunities on the floor," said Taipans head coach Adam Forde.

Tyrell Harrison Brisbane Bullets basketball
Tyrell Harrison will play his eighth season with the Brisbane Bullets. PHOTO: ANBL

After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, Harrison established himself as the Bullets starting big and was rewarded when Brisbane picked up his option on April 10 for another season, his eighth with the team.

The 24-year-old 7-foot-1 centre averaged 9.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in 27 appearances, the best numbers of his career, making him one of the league's best local big men.

"Tyrell showed last season why we believe in him moving forward, and we are excited for his continued growth," said Schueller.

Remaining on contract with the Breakers are Tall Blacks forward Finn Delany, and development players Alex McNaught, Carlin Davison and Max Darling. Delany, currently with Zaragoza in Spain, averaged 8.8 points and 3.5 rebounds in 19 games last season in Auckland.

Canterbury Rams 6-foot-4 forward Walter Brown is also still contracted with the champion JackJumpers for a third season on the Emerald Isle. The 20-year-old made just four appearances in 2023-24.

Former Tall Blacks and Breakers guards, brothers Corey and Tai Webster, also learned their playing futures with the Perth Wildcats earlier this month.

The Wildcats picked up the club option for Tai Webster, 28, extending his stay in Western Australia another season, but declined the option for Corey Webster, 35, making him a free agent.

Tai Webster averaged 8.9 points, 2.8 boards and 2.7 assists a game, while shooting 46 percent from the field in 28 games in his first full season Out West, while Corey Webster lost favour, averaging 6.1 points and shooting 42 percent in 20 appearances.

Perth still have Kiwis Hyrum Harris and Dontae Russo-Nance contracted for next season, while Otago Nuggets big man Jack Andrew is also off-contract with the 10-time ANBL champions.

Also joining Corey Webster and Andrew in the free agency mix are Kiwis Reuben Te Rangi and Anzac Rissetto (Phoenix), Sam Timmins (Kings) and Tom Vodanovich (JackJumpers).


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