The Breakers, Steven Adams and the NZ basketball revolution

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Hampton forgoing college to play overseas (1:44)

RJ Hampton announces on Get Up! his decision to play basketball for the New Zealand Breakers because it will prepare him for the NBA faster. (1:44)

Rugby has long been king in New Zealand.

The three-time world champion All Blacks, who will again start favourite for this year's Rugby World Cup in Japan, are a global sporting brand and the pride of a nation which hangs on every game played.

Many Kiwi kids aspire to pull on the famous black jersey, or at least play professionally in Super Rugby and other competitions around the world, knowing fame and fortune can present itself for those who reach the elite level.

The tide, however, is turning.

The School Sport New Zealand Census, which has been conducted annually since 2000, revealed earlier this year that basketball had gone past rugby and was only trailing netball as the country's No.1 participation sport for secondary school students. Furthermore, basketball was one of only two sports inside the top 10 that had not only grown in participation [3 percent] in the last year, but also had experienced an extraordinary 26 percent growth in player numbers between 2014 and 2018.

It's a surge in popularity Dillon Boucher, general manager of National Basketball League [NBL] franchise the New Zealand Breakers, has seen first-hand. The Breakers created global headlines after recruiting top draft prospect RJ Hampton, but their success lies much closer to home.

The Auckland-based team have both a primary school-aged program, Junior Breakers, and an elite teenage Academy squad that are at capacity, offering kids of all skill levels the chance to play the game.

Boucher attributes the astonishing growth to a number of factors, but says there are two chief drivers behind New Zealand's surging participation rates.

"I think basketball is becoming more accessible - you're able to just pick up a ball and go to the playground and get instant gratification of shooting the ball and seeing whether it goes through the hoop," Boucher told ESPN. "That's something you can't get on your own with a rugby ball; you can maybe kick it over the posts.

"But I think the big change has been around the head, around concussion, around injuries; things like that.

"Basketball's a non-contact sport, there is some physicality to it, but probably not having your major injuries ... I think parents are preferring to their kids to play a sport like basketball."

Auckland's 1A rugby competition is a perfect example of the professionalism that rugby is having to deal with at the secondary school level in New Zealand, and which may be contributing to its falling participation rates.

Threats of a boycott of St Kentigern College were earlier this year averted after the school agreed to rest its "recruited" players for the first six weeks of the competition. Auckland's top schools, and others across New Zealand, have long offered scholarships to talented rugby players, but such was the proliferation of St Kentigern's activity that the other 11 schools in the 1A competition simply declared enough was enough.

Boucher says he's had conversations with parents around rugby's increasingly professional approach at the secondary school level, but also that representing a school's First V [basketball] was drawing on par with the honour of representing a school's First XV [rugby].

"Parents are saying that to me all the time that they don't want their kids playing rugby for various reasons, and a lot of it is around the contact and the size of the kids that are playing sport now," Boucher said. "Kids are getting more powerful, are getting bigger, so therefore the impacts are higher. And again, we're seeing kids that have come from other sports that have transitioned to basketball because of the skill level, and probably the physicality and chance of injury are a lot less.

"Back in the day and still in high schools, a lot of high schools in New Zealand, the First XV is the primary thing if you're a good rugby player and you're playing for the First XV. And so we're seeing kids choose basketball now over your traditional sports like rugby, and schools are being known as basketball schools now, particularly on [Auckland's] North Shore now, there are a lot of schools where basketball is the primary sport they play."

Running for over 10 years, the Breakers' Elite Academy is helping to mould the franchise's next crop of NBL hopefuls, Tall Blacks [New Zealand's national team], and those who have dreams of College basketball in the U.S. and, hopefully, even the NBA.

Breakers head coach Kevin Braswell, who also works in the Academy, says the program has gone from strength to strength over the past few years and has a couple of hugely exciting prospects capable of following in the footsteps of the New Zealand's NBA superstar, Steven Adams.

"It's been a program that we started running years and years ago; most of the guys who play at the elite level, a lot of them came through the Academy," Braswell told ESPN. "So it's been an Academy that's run for a lot of years and we're just trying to make sure that we reach out to New Zealand, there have been a lot of kids from the south island that have moved up and joined the program as well; it's basically just trying to make sure the kids get the proper skills they want to have going on to the collegiate levels and the professional levels.

"Sam Mennenga and Taine Murray, both of those kids, when I saw them five years ago, I was like 'these are little skinny kids running around here' but they have both worked so hard to get where they are today ... they both have great talent. But there are a lot of other kids that I could probably name in the Academy right now, there's so many different aspects and so many different levels in the Academy.

"Everyone sees the big guys because of Steve [Adams] putting New Zealand out there but we have a lot of guards that get overlooked sometimes, so it'd be great if some of these College coaches could actually come down here and start watching."

For the record, there were 16 New Zealand men on Division 1 programs this year, headed by Jack Salt, who was captain of the national champion Virginia Cavaliers. While Salt saw just four minutes of action in the Championship game win over Texas Tech Red Raiders, he had averaged 16 minutes across the season and has been a key leader within the Virginia locker-room.

Others to feature in the NCAA Tournament were Saint Mary's Dan Fotu and Quinn Clinton, Washington's Sam Timmins, Oklahoma's Matt Freeman and Abilene Christian's Tobias Cameron.

New Zealand's women, meanwhile, outshone their male counterparts with 24 players on Division 1 lists.

They are numbers Braswell expects to grow over the coming years, but also ones he'd like to see swell among the lower level schools, too.

"It's funny, because you've got [TCU head coach] Jamie Dixon who played out here [in New Zealand] and you see him out here from time to time recruiting, he was recruiting Dan Fotu who went to Saint Mary's last year and Quinn [Clinton] who went to Saint Mary's as well," Braswell said.

"But there is definitely some untapped talent here in New Zealand - for the most part I just think it's the coaches that actually know; the other coaches that are actually getting to see some of these kids and are pulling them into Division 1 programs. But like I said, hopefully we can get some more coaches coming down here; especially some, it's not always the high-level D1s, some of the mid-majors, low-majors and definitely some of the high-level D2 majors as well."

The arrival of Hampton to New Zealand's North Shore will only serve to increase the interest and the eyeballs on the NBL and the Breakers in particular, as NBA teams cast their eye south. And if greater interest results in a new surge in the sport, Boucher knows there will need to be an increase in government funding. The Junior Breakers and Elite Academy programs are at capacity while there are simply not enough courts for those kids who are only after a simple pick-up game.

"We're probably close to 20 courts short in Auckland alone, just being able to have stadiums to play in because ... we're bulging at the seams with numbers, but there's just nowhere for the kids to play," Boucher said. "And you'll see in the background here, the amount of kids that are playing, we're sold-out of all of our programs, we wish we had more courts, more facilities to be able to have these kids playing a game that they're loving.

"So yeah, the funding is not there; it's all pretty much funded by parents, it's all self-funded, and that's a shame. And that's probably where we are losing kids, sports like rugby are fully funded if you're at the elite level whereas basketball is still a user-pay system.

"We plead our case, we plead that basketball is the fastest growing sport in this country and you're getting the products of the likes of Steven Adams and guys like Jack Salt, who are at College, and our Tall Black guys and Breakers who are out there and doing it on the world stage and competing really well for something that's been self-funded their whole life.

"I think the time will come and the government will realise that basketball is slowly taking over this country and, over time, you'll see the funding model change because right now it's designed around needling it a little to World Championships and Commonwealth Games. And there's been times when we've been close to medalling with no funding, so I think with a little bit of support and a little bit of funding from the government, you'll see the sport continue to grow."

As for New Zealand's bonafide NBA superstar, the verdict is clear: Steven Adams is a sporting icon.

While he is yet to pull on the Tall Blacks jersey to date, a 10-year absence that is reportedly a result of the same funding challenges Boucher says remain today, there is hope Adams may yet make himself available for the FIBA World Cup in China in a couple of months' time.

But even if that doesn't eventuate, Adams has clearly already inspired New Zealand's youth and continues to invest in its development.

"I think Steven Adams embodies what it is to be a New Zealander, he carries himself well, he's tough, uncompromising; he does all the things that we want to be known as in this country," Boucher says. "I think he's great role model for the game, he comes back and he gives back to the kids back in New Zealand and he's doing everything he can to grow the game in this country as well.

"He's been massive for this country; if you talk about some of the well-known New Zealanders in this country, he's got to be up there. He's certainly the highest paid sportsman in New Zealand, that's for sure, and people take notice of that; people know that he's just a kid from the streets in Rotorua and via Wellington and now he's on the world stage doing it.

"He's come and trained here [at Breakers centre] with some of his OKC teammates; but again I was fortunate enough to have my son be part of his camp this year in Palmerston North this year and was able to kit the kids out with shoes and gear, and able to have them playing in a game that was live streamed back to the U.S. to College scouts and things like that. So he's tried to create a pathway for these kids to make it easier for them to get to College, and then if they do well in College then onto the NBA."