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Injuries have Tall Blacks reeling

Published: 6:57AM Tuesday June 12, 2012 Source: Fairfax

Tall Blacks coach Nenad Vucinic must be wondering what he's done to upset the basketball gods.

He's just ended a nightmare season at Italian second-division club Forli, where injuries and budget constraints saw a decimated lineup sink to the wooden-spoon position.

Now he's back in New Zealand to take the reins of a Tall Blacks side that will go into the final Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela next month without its three world-class players in Kirk Penney, Thomas Abercrombie and Steve Adams.

Penney (calf) and Abercrombie (ankle) have both withdrawn because of injury, and Adams is at summer school to complete academic requirements before starting at the University of Pittsburgh.

Penney and Abercrombie are the Tall Blacks' two leading scorers and perimeter threats, while the 2.10m Adams is ranked among the top half-dozen players entering the US college game this year, with the NBA said to be his next stop.

Vucinic admits the defections are devastating, but has pledged to come up with a group who will do the singlet proud as they shoot for an unlikely Olympic spot.

But even Vucinic's triallists, who will assemble in Auckland tomorrow for three days of scrimmages, have been hit by injury. Hawke's Bay's Morgan Natanaira (ruptured ACL) and Jeremy Kench (knee) are both out of the running also , leaving him with possibly just 13 players going for 12 spots.

That number could rise if former NZ Breaker import Kevin Braswell, now based with the Southland Sharks, and Manawatu's Marcel Jones get their applications for New Zealand citizenship through in time. They would be competing with Saints big man Casey Frank for the one naturalised player spot.

Vucinic said the cases of Jones and Braswell looked like they would go right to the wire.

"We're expecting some news, hopefully tomorrow, about both."

Vucinic said Jones would only attend the trial if his citizenship came through, while Braswell is in Auckland and will probably take part anyway. He said the loss of the star trio was a setback they simply had to deal with.

"It is what it is," he said. "We've learnt to deal with things like that and it's an opportunity for other guys to come in. Although we need good players like Tom and Kirk, the Tall Blacks have always been about culture and playing hard and never giving up. That won't change."

Vucinic said he had been across Adams' situation after discussions with Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.

"Right now, the most important thing for him is to settle in and get the schoolwork done so he can start at university in the right way. He's got a lot of things coming at him, a lot of talk about the NBA, and how good he is.

"We know that Steve wants to play for the Tall Blacks and though this is not the right moment, we're hoping very soon he'll be available to our programme."

All the defections mean a likely spot for 32-year-old Auckland guard Hayden Allen, who has yet to pull on the national singlet. Seventeen-year-old Pirates team-mate Tai Webster - younger brother of banned former Breaker Corey - could also sneak in if he trials well.

Vucinic said a lot of the onus would go on the experienced trio of Mika Vukona, Lindsay Tait and Alex Pledger to lead this inexperienced group.

After trials finish on Friday, the Tall Blacks will remain in Auckland until June 20. They'll travel to Canberra for two games against an Emerging Australia side, and then to Brazil to compete in a tournament involving the hosts, Greece and Nigeria. The Olympic event is in Caracas from July 2-8, with 12 teams going for three spots in London.

Tall Blacks triallists: Hayden Allen, Josh Bloxham, Everard Bartlett, Isaac Fotu, Casey Frank, Leon Henry, Jarrod Kenny, Robert Loe, Alex Pledger, Lindsay Tait, Jeremiah Trueman, Mika Vukona, Tai Webster, Kevin Braswell*, Marcel Jones*.

*Subject to NZ citizenship

Development players: Alonzo Burton, Michael Karena.