Training has long since ended at the Breakers’ North Shore facility and the players rushed in on a sunny Auckland afternoon. All but one. The baby of the team is always there to shoot, work on his movements, do the rehearsals under the watchful eye of his trainer.
The thud, thump, thump of Spalding on hardwood is interspersed with the soft rustle of basketball sailing through the hoop – nothing but net. He is an 18 year old Frenchman phenomenon Rayan Rupert does what he does every day. First in last out. Leave nothing to chance. He has long been projected to play in the NBA, but retains this thirst to prove himself.
“We got lucky with this one,” says new Breakers head coach Mody Maor with a heartwarming smile. “He’s a kid who only cares about winning, and nothing else. Not his role, not his shots, not his touches…he just wants to win and plays his heart out defending on every possession. Our group l loves it and he loves being here. It started well.”
It certainly is. Rupert is with the Breakers, who kick off their Australian NBL season in Melbourne on Sunday (4 p.m. NZT), as part of Australia’s NBL Next Stars program. So far, two out of two are bringing teenagers into the NBA, with RJ Hampton going as 24 to the Denver Nuggets in 2020; and Frenchman Ousmane Dieng landed at No. 11 earlier this year at the Oklahoma City Thunder after ending a problematic Breakers campaign with a string of standout performances.
* NZ Breakers lose Tom Abercrombie, final three pre-season games before NBL whistleblower
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* NZ Breakers to continue French connection: Rayan Rupert handed Next Star role
Now it’s Rupert’s turn at the finishing school also known as the National Basketball League. It is here that Antipodean hoopers and American professional journeymen earn a comfortable, but relatively modest living; and where emerging NBA prospects go to learn their craft. It works very well on both levels.
Rupert arrives in New Zealand with quite the reputation. ESPN’s famed NBA host Adrian Wojnarowski called him “one of the most promising young wingers in the world” and right now they’ve pegged him to go around 22 in the draft. next year. But that could change markedly as the young phenoms play their required seasons after high school.
The youngster takes a break from his routine to chat with Things and explain why one of the world’s best teenage prospects has traveled the world to leap out of her comfort zone, as well as her tongue.
“The Breakers and the NBL were the best choice because it’s a physical league with very good players and the Next Stars program is very good for me to grow as a player and as a person,” he said. “So for me, it was the best choice.”
Throughout the interview, Rupert does his best to answer in English. He is doing remarkably well for a teenager on his first trip away from his homeland. On a few occasions, he speaks in French with Breakers skills development coach Bastien Cadot (a Frenchman who has been working with the youngster for three years) for clarification.
Cadot, who is multilingual, has a wider role at the club, but it’s clear he’s there to help Rupert progress, on and off the pitch. He worked on it for almost an hour before we spoke, and they come back to it at the end of our interview. You suspect he has many, many more of these sessions on his agenda.
Rupert is an extraordinary young man in many ways. For starters, it stands 2.00 meters (6ft 7in) but has a wingspan of 2.21m (7’3). That’s why scouts praise his defensive prowess as the most advanced part of his game. With arms like Inspector Gadget, he has huge natural advantages when it comes to disrupting the opposition ball.
But his attacking game is catching up quickly. At the recent pre-season Blitz tournament in Darwin, the French teenager made a very promising 10 of 16 3-point attempts in three games and averaged 15.0 points. His shot, with its high trigger point, and smooth mechanics, has already improved in two months in New Zealand.
Maor says it’s obvious that Rupert “works like no other” and has been amazed at his young protege’s early improvement. But experience has taught him that it’s a “complicated” process and that consistency doesn’t always come with 18-year-olds, regardless of their natural gifts.
“Our goal is to win games and at the same time develop young talent…we are improving as an organization in everything we do to support the process and shorten their learning curve,” explains the coach. “I believe in Rayan, and even on the nights when things don’t go his way, he will always give us everything he has.”
In Rupert’s case, this is all a natural evolution. He has been playing basketball since he was 2 years old, having basically grown up in a hoops environment as the son of French national team player and highly respected professional Thierry Rupert.
His father died (of a heart emergency) when he was only 8 years old, but the trip was on. His older sister Iliana just won a WNBA championship with the Las Vegas Aces. There is no doubt that her little brother, who has just completed four years at the famous INSEP Academy (high school of hoops among others), will join her very soon in the male equivalent.
You wonder about the attention given to him (there were seven NBA scouts in Darwin, basically there to watch him) and the constant evaluation via scoreboard predictions.
“I just try to stay focused on my work, my body, every day, and I try not to think about what people are saying about me,” he shrugs. “For that I have my family (his mum Elham is with him for the next month) and my personal trainer who helps me stay focused on what’s most important.
“It’s a very big change for a young player, but I think it’s good. I can grow with very good players in my team, and play against very good players. It’s a good challenge.
He says he tries not to think too much about the draft which will basically decide his fate,
because he has to focus on the Breakers, helping them win games and the work he still has to do.
Rupert is clearly motivated. He wants to improve everything about his game and perfect his physique while in New Zealand. His end goal is not just to join the Association, but “to have an impact on the league”.
Nor did he go into this experiment totally blind. Dieng is a close friend (they spent three years together at INSEP) and although the now OKC rookie was never able to play a game in New Zealand (due to Covid) he was able to recommend the experience.
“I spoke with him yesterday,” Rupert said. “He’s about to start training camp and is very excited for his first NBA season. He tells me it’s a physical league but it’s good for young players, and for him it was a very good experience. He just says to play and enjoy it.
The pre-season confirmed that. “The game is very fast. I like this. There is a lot of transition, very good players and a lot of space to create for my teammates and myself.
There are also extra minutes offered in his position with the news that Tom Abercrombie will miss part of the season. “I’m very sad for Tom… but I’m always ready,” he said. “I think we have a good squad and we can play really good basketball.” .
One thing is clear: no one will work harder to play their role than this long-limbed, focused teen with his eyes on the jackpot.
Breakers Next Stars
RJ Hampton 2019-20
Age: 21 years old. Height: 1.98m.
Average: 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists.
Drafted: 24 by MIlwaukee Bucks, then traded to Denver Nuggets (2020).
Now: Playing for the Orlando Magic, with 7.6 pts, 3.0 reb, 2.5 ast in ’21-22.
Ousmane Dieng 2021-22
Age: 19 years old. Height: 2.08m.
Average: 8.9 pts, 3.2 reb, 1.1 ast.
Drafted: 11 by New York Knicks, then traded to OKC Thunder (2022).
Now: About to start training camp ahead of his rookie season with the Thunder.
Rayan Rupert 2022-23
Age: 18 years old. Height: 2.00m.
Average: 13.7 pts, 3.4 reb, 2.4 ast, 2.1 stl (for INSEP Academy, 3rd French division).
Now: About to start ANBL’s first season.