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What’s the new NBL Next Stars crop look like and has the program been a success?


NBL Next Stars

Headlined by projected 2024 lottery pick AJ Johnson at the Illawarra Hawks, the NBL Next Stars hitting the floor for the upcoming season are arguably the best yet — draft prospects literally everywhere you look.

We previously looked at the players Aussies paid close attention to at the 2023 NBA Draft and now we’re going to run through the new crop of NBL Next Stars. And we’ll kick it off with a recap of the concept, for those playing catch up.

Here’s your ultimate guide to the NBL Next Stars concept and who’s flying the flag in the upcoming NBL season.

2023 NBA Draft, Rayan Rupert, Mojave King, NBL Next Stars
Rayan Rupert and Mojave King headlined last season’s NBL Next Stars crop.

Who are the 2023-24 NBL Next Stars?

  • AJ Johnson (Illawarra Hawks)
  • Frenchman Alexandre Sarr (Perth Wildcats)
  • Aussie Alex Toohey (Sydney Kings)
  • Mantas Rubstavicius (New Zealand Breakers)
  • Bobi Klintman (Cairns Taipans)
  • Ariel Hukporti (Melbourne United)
  • Rocco Zikarsky (Brisbane Bullets)

The 2023-24 NBL Next Stars group is set to be the best yet. So let’s assess how successful this concept has so far been and review its major success stories.

What is the NBL Next Stars program?

In its simplest form, the NBL Next Stars program supports draft-eligible players to spend a season playing professionally before taking the next step and declaring for the NBA Draft.

The concept began in 2017, when Terrance Ferguson opted to skip college and sign with the Adelaide 36ers straight out of high school. After one season in the NBL, Ferguson was selected by Oklahoma City with pick 21 in the draft. From there, the Next Stars program was launched to enable the NBL to provide the same pathway to the next crop of players coming through the ranks. 

Rayan Rupert and Mojave King joined elite Next Stars company when they were selected in the 2023 NBA Draft, following the footsteps of LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey.

nbl next stars, giddey, lamelo ball
LaMelo Ball (left) & Josh Giddey (right) | NBL Next Stars feature

Rayan Rupert is the New Zealand Breakers’ newest Next Star to successfully graduate to the NBA. The 19-year-old Frenchman was selected 43rd overall by the Portland Trail Blazers, joining 3rd pick Scoot Henderson and 23rd pick Kris Murray. 

Aussie Mojave King wasn’t far behind Rupert, picked 47th overall by the LA Lakers (though the selection was immediately traded to the Indiana Pacers). Reports suggest the 21-year-old is likely to be stashed for the upcoming season, meaning he’ll play abroad before potentially linking up with the Pacers for the 2024-2025 season.

Summer League highlights of Portland talent Rayan Rupert | NBL Next Stars

Which Next Stars have become NBA players?

LaMelo Ball, Illawarra Hawks

Lamelo Ball is the most notable when it comes to Next Stars. The youngest of the Ball family, Lamelo was a massive draw card when he signed for the Illawarra Hawks in 2019, attracting the biggest crowd in the league’s history (17,514) when the Kings hosted the Hawks at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney. Ball was picked 3rd by the Charlotte Hornets in the 2020 Draft, winning Rookie of the Year in 2021. He’s becoming a star on and off the court, averaging 23 points, 6.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists (41.1% FG) in his third season, while also having his own clothing brand and signature shoe with Puma.

Josh Giddey, Adelaide 36ers

Ok, so when we say Lamelo Ball is the most notable Next Star, we’d be remiss not to mention Josh Giddey, who has arguably been just as impactful since progressing to the NBA. The 20-year-old Aussie spent one season with the Adelaide 36ers before being selected 6th in the 2021 draft by Oklahoma City. In his two seasons with the Thunder, the Melbournian has re-written some long standing and pretty impressive records. Giddey is the youngest NBA player to post a triple-double, and he overtook Magic Johnson to have the second most triple-doubles before turning 21. Luka Doncic is the only other guy ahead of him. Not to mention his 500 points, 200 rebounds and 200 assists within his first 45 NBA games. The only other players to do that are LeBron James, Doncic and Ball.

josh giddey, nbl next stars
Josh Giddey with the Oklahoma City Thunder | NBL Next Stars program

RJ Hampton, New Zealand Breakers

The Dallas native joined the New Zealand Breakers at the beginning of the 2019/2020 season, but his acquisition was somewhat overshadowed by Lamelo Ball signing with the Hawks. Hampton was expected to be a top ten lottery pick in the 2020 draft, but inconsistency throughout his time down under saw his projection fall. Hampton was drafted 24th overall by Milwaukee, who immediately traded his rights to the Nuggets. He’s since had a stint with Orlando, and most recently the Detroit Pistons before being waived. 

Ousman Dieng, New Zealand Breakers

The Breakers have been a hub for Next Stars, and that continued with two young Frenchman in 2021/2022. One of those was 6’9 wing Ousmane Dieng. The projected lottery pick lived up to his potential, averaging 9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists (40% FG). His size and skillset saw Dieng selected 11th by the New York Knicks, who immediately traded the pick to OKC. In his first season in the NBA, Dieng played 39 games averaging five points, including a career-high 22 points against the Grizzlies.

NBL Next Stars, ousman dieng
Ousman Dieng, New Zealand Breakers | NBL Next Stars

Brian Bowen II, Sydney Kings

Brian Bowen II was the NBL’s first official Next Star. After recruiting issues and a corruption scandal involving the University of Louisville, Bowen II withdrew from the 2018 draft and opted to join the Sydney Kings as part of the new program. Despite being eligible, the 6’6 American was overlooked in the 2019 draft, instead signing with the Indiana Pacers and their G-League affiliate on a two-way contract. 

Didi Louzada, Sydney Kings

The Brazil native was drafted number 35 overall by the Atlanta Hawks in 2019, with the rights later traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. Louzada was stashed by the Pels, resulting in him signing with the Sydney Kings as a Next Star. Prior to the end of the 2021 NBL season, Luzada got the call up from the Pelicans and joined the side for the remainder of the season. The 23-year-old is currently signed to the Cleveland Cavaliers G-League affiliate, the Cleveland Charge.

NBL Next Stars program, didi louzada
Didi Louzada | NBL Next Stars program

Makur Maker, Sydney Kings

After a season ending groin injury at Howard University in 2020, Maker signed with the Sydney Kings in 2021. The team overcame a 17 year trophy drought to win the NBL Championship, with Maker averaging 7.7 points and 5.3 rebounds. He went undrafted in 2022 before signing a 10-day contract with the Washington Wizards. The 6’10 centre is currently playing for their G-League side the Capital City Go-Go.

NBL Next Stars yet to play NBA

Justinian Jessup, Illawarra Hawks

The Boise State graduate joined the Next Stars program in 2020, signing with the Illawarra Hawks before being drafted 51st overall by the Golden State Warriors later that year. The Warriors sent Jessup back to the Hawks, where he spent two seasons, averaging 13.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. The 6’7 shooting guard joined Spanish side Zaragoza following his stint down under.

NBL Next Stars program, Justinian Jessup
Justinian Jessup | NBL Next Stars program

Hugo Besson, New Zealand Breakers

Hugo Besson teamed up with Dieng at the Breakers, showcasing his ability as a knockdown shooter who can also get to the bucket. The 6’4 guard averaged 14 points, 2.5 rebounds and 4 assists. Besson was selected 58th overall by the Pacers in the 2022 NBA Draft, who immediately traded his rights to the Bucks. He’s currently rostered with Met 92 in the French Pro A.

Terry Armstrong, South East Melbourne Phoenix

Despite expectations that Armstrong would excel alongside fellow Next Stars Lamelo Ball and RJ Hampton, the Michigan native was largely absent from the Phoenix roster. Armstrong played less than three minutes per game under then head coach Simon Mitchell.

NBL Next Stars program, Terry Armstrong
Terry Armstrong | NBL Next Stars program

Tom Digbeu, Brisbane Bullets

The dual national French-Spaniard was part of Barcelona’s basketball academy before becoming the Bullets’ first Next Star signing in 2021. He averaged 4.6 points in his limited 12 minutes on the court. Digbeu, whose Dad Alain was drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Hawks, then spent a season in the G-League with the Detroit Pistons’ affiliate, Motor City Cruise. He currently plays professionally in France. 

Nikita Mikhailovskii, Tasmania JackJumpers

Miikhailovskii’s stint in the NBL was relatively short lived. The 6’7 shooting guard played just two games for the JackJumpers before returning to Russia. He’s currently signed to CSKA Moscow.

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