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Practice has long concluded at the Breakers’ North Shore facility and the players have shuffled off into a sunny Auckland afternoon. All but one. The baby of the squad is still out there putting up shots, working on his moves, doing the repetitions under his trainer’s watchful eye.

The thud, thud, thud of Spalding on hardwood is interspersed with the sweet swish of basketball sailing through hoop – nothing but net. This is 18-year-old French phénomène Rayan Rupert doing what he does on a daily basis. First in. Last out. Leaving nothing to chance. He’s long been projected to play in the NBA, but retains that hunger to still prove himself.

“We got lucky with this one,” declares new Breakers head coach Mody Maor, with a comforting smile. “This is a kid who cares only about winning, and nothing about anything else. Not his role, not his shots, not his touches … he just wants to win, and plays his heart out on defence on every possession. Our group loves him, and he likes being here. It’s started in a good way.”

NBA hopeful Rayan Rupert has made a promising start to his Breakers career with a strong pre-season showing.

Graham Denholm/Getty Images

NBA hopeful Rayan Rupert has made a promising start to his Breakers career with a strong pre-season showing.

It certainly has. Rupert is with the Breakers, who tip off their Australian NBL season in Melbourne on Sunday (4pm NZT), as part of the Australian NBL’s Next Stars programme. So far they’re two from two at getting teenagers into the NBA, with RJ Hampton going at 24 to the Denver Nuggets in 2020; and France’s Ousmane Dieng landing at No 11 earlier this year at the Oklahoma City Thunder after finishing a problematic Breakers campaign with a series of standout performances.

READ MORE:
* NZ Breakers lose Tom Abercrombie, final three pre-season games ahead of NBL tipoff
* Rayan Rupert shines as NZ Breakers drop pre-season Blitz opener against Brisbane
* 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’s where Antipodean hoopers and journeyman American pros earn a comfortable, yet relatively modest, living; and where emerging NBA prospects go to learn their trade. It works very well on both levels.

Rupert arrives in New Zealand with quite the reputation. ESPN’s noted NBA news-breaker Adrian Wojnarowski tagged him “one of the most promising young wing players in the world” and right now they have him pegged to go around 22 in next year’s Draft. But that could change markedly as the young phenoms play out their mandatory post-high school seasons.

The youngster takes a break from his routine to chat with Stuff and explain why one of the best teenage prospects in the world has traversed the globe to take a large stride out of his comfort zone, as well as his language one.

Rayan Rupert likes his Breakers team and the standard of an NBL he expects to test him at every turn.

Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Rayan Rupert likes his Breakers team and the standard of an NBL he expects to test him at every turn.

“The Breakers and the NBL was the best choice because it’s a physical league with very good players and the Next Stars programme is very good for me to grow up as a player and as a person,” he says. “So for me it was the best choice.”

Throughout the interview Rupert does his best to answer in English. He copes remarkably well for a teen on his first stint away from his native country. A couple of times he converses in French with Breakers skill development coach Bastien Cadot (a Frenchman who has worked with the youngster for the last three years) for clarification.

Cadot, who is multilingual, has a wider role with the club, but it’s clear he’s here to assist with Rupert’s progress, on and off the court. He’s been working him out for nearly an hour before we speak, and they go back to it when our interview finishes. You suspect he has many, many more of these sessions on his agenda.

Rupert is an extraordinary young man in many ways. For starters he stands at 2.00 metres (6ft 7in) but has a 2.21m (7’3) wingspan. It’s why scouts laud his defensive prowess as the most advanced part of his game. With arms like Inspector Gadget he has tremendous natural advantages when it comes to disrupting opposition ball.

But his offensive game is catching up fast. At the recent Blitz pre-season tournament in Darwin, the French teen made a highly promising 10 of 16 3-point attempts through three games and averaged 15.0 points. His stroke, with its high release point, and fluent mechanics, has already improved in two months in New Zealand.

Maor says it’s evident Rupert “works like no other” and he’s been staggered with his young charge’s early improvement. But experience has taught him this is a “complicated” process and that consistency does not always go hand in hand with 18-year-olds, no matter their natural gifts.

Rayan Rupert: ‘I try to stay focused on my work every day, and try not to think about what people are saying about me.’

Graham Denholm

Rayan Rupert: ‘I try to stay focused on my work every day, and try not to think about what people are saying about me.’

“Our goal is to win games and at the same time develop young talent … we’re getting better as an organisation in everything we do to support the process and shorten their learning curve,” says the coach. “I believe in Rayan, and even on nights when things won’t go his way, he’ll still give us everything he’s got.”

In Rupert’s case, this is all a natural evolution. He has been playing basketball since the age of 2, essentially growing up in a hoops environment as the son of French national team player and highly respected pro Thierry Rupert.

His father died (from a heart-related emergency) when he was just 8, but the journey was in motion. His older sister Iliana just won a WNBA championship with the Las Vegas Aces. Nobody has any doubts kid brother, who has just finished four years at France’s renowned INSEP Academy (a high school for hoopers, among other things), will join her in the men’s equivalent very soon.

You wonder about the attention that’s on him (there were seven NBA scouts in Darwin, essentially there to watch him) and the constant assessment via draft board predictions.

Rayan Rupert shows his athleticism in a game for INSEP Paris against Real Madrid under-18s in Belgrade.

David Grau/Getty Images

Rayan Rupert shows his athleticism in a game for INSEP Paris against Real Madrid under-18s in Belgrade.

“I just try to stay focused on my work, my body, every day, and try not to think about what people are saying about me,” he shrugs. “For this I have my family (his mother 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 up with very good players on my team, and playing against very good players. It’s a good challenge.”

He says he tries not to think too much about the Draft that will essentially decide his fate,

because his focus needs to be on the Breakers, on helping them win games, and on the work he must still do.

Rupert is clearly driven. He wants to improve everything about his game, as well as hone his physique, while in New Zealand. His end goal is to not just make it to the Association, but “to have an impact on the league”.

He did not jump into this experience totally blind either. Dieng is a close friend (they spent three years together at INSEP) and though the now OKC rookie never actually got to play a game in New Zealand (because of Covid), he was able to recommend the experience.

Next Star Rayan Rupert is ready to test himself against the physicality of a top men’s pro league.

Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Next Star Rayan Rupert is ready to test himself against the physicality of a top men’s pro league.

“I spoke with him yesterday,” says Rupert. “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 says just to play and enjoy it.”

The pre-season has backed that up. “The game is very fast. I like that. There’s a lot of transition, some very good players, and a lot of space to create for my team-mates and myself.”

There are also extra minutes on offer at his position with the news Tom Abercrombie will miss a chunk of the season. “I’m very sad for Tom … but I’m always ready,” he says. “I think we have a good group and we can play very good basketball.” .

One thing is clear: no one will be working harder to play their part than this long-limbed, steely focused teenager who has his eye very much on the big prize.

Breakers Next Stars

RJ Hampton 2019-20

Age: 21. Height: 1.98m.

Averaged: 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, coming off 7.6pts, 3.0reb, 2.5ast in ‘21-22.

Ousmane Dieng 2021-22

Age: 19. Height: 2.08m.

Averaged: 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. Height: 2.00m.

Averaged: 13.7 pts, 3.4 reb, 2.4 ast, 2.1 stl (for INSEP Academy, French 3rd division).

Now: About to start first ANBL season.

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