Three years ago, if you told the 17-year-old Yanni Wetzell that he would be joining a Division One (D1) NCAA Basketball college, he would have struggled to believe it.
After spending much of his youth focussing on tennis, Wetzell decided in his final year at Westlake Boys’ High School to give basketball a crack - a sport that his school is so well known for. Wetzell and his team made it all the way to the 2014 national final of the Basketball New Zealand Secondary Schools National Championships, only to go down to Otago Boys’ High School. Wetzell says his final year at Westlake provided a great base for his rapidly-improving basketball future.
“It was great to be part of one of the best basketball programs in New Zealand.
“Making that national final was something that I never really found with tennis, so that was probably a highlight of my high school days.”
On Thursday the 6-foot-10 forward confirmed his transfer from Division Two St Mary’s University, Texas to D1 Vanderbilt University, joining more than 40 other Kiwis committed to D1 basketball, and continuing his time in scholarship basketball with over 120 Kiwis who belong to US Scholarship basketball programmes.
That said, due to NCAA transfer rules, Wetzell will have to redshirt (train only) in his opening year at Vanderbilt. Sitting on the pine will be somewhat an unusual feeling for Wetzell who averaged over 28 minutes per game in his two seasons at St Mary’s - minutes which he relished.
“St Mary’s was huge for me. It was a level where I could play a lot. Court experience was the most important thing in my eyes, in terms of improving, so being able to be on the court for 30 minutes a night - that’s really where I developed. I just had to work my tail off to get where I am. It’s all about hard work and consistency.”
And hard work it was. In Wetzell’s two seasons at St Mary’s, preseason training would consist of weights or conditioning training every morning of the week before a two-hour on-court training five-to-six times a week. That’s excluding Wetzell’s hour-long individual shoot-around he’d do before most trainings and on his free time in the weekends.
Earning the Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year award after averaging 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in just this second year competitive basketball, Wetzell improved in almost every category come the end of his 30-game sophomore year.
Wetzell finished the 2016-17 season with per game averages of 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.6 blocks, recently earning him the attention of eight D1 colleges, including Baylor University and the University of Texas.
Being spoilt for his choice of offers, Wetzell had to narrow down the options, which he chose to do largely by assessing the academia and basketball personnel of each school. Eventually Wetzell slimmed his options to three possible destinations: Purdue University, Santa Clara University and Vanderbilt. After deliberation, Wetzell committed to Vanderbilt thanks to a range of factors.
“Academically they’re a top-20 school in the nation. I can get my MBA (Master of Business Administration) in the three years that I’m there.
“On the basketball side, they’re in the SEC (South Eastern Conference), so one of the most competitive conferences in the nation, as well as all the exposure.
“Vanderbilt seems to win in different ways with higher basketball IQ and good skill level. I got really good vibes from the coaching staff and all the people that I met on my visit. It felt like a place that I could really live in. It just felt right.”
Ineligible to get on the court for Vanderbilt this upcoming 2017-18 season, the Aucklander admits it will be a very much self-centred season as he readies himself for the unprecedented challenge of D1 competition.
“It’s going to be a selfish year for me. I’m going to be able to work on my game. When they’re on the road I’ve just got to get in the gym and in the weight room and do my own stuff.
“I’ve got to grow a lot as a player in this off-year to be able to compete at that level. I’ve got to get better in every aspect of basketball.”
That’s not to say Wetzell hasn’t been made to exceed his regular competition in the past, though. In 2016, at the age of just 20, Wetzell was named in the Pero Cameron-coached New Zealand ‘Select’ team where he learned from seasoned professionals such as Benny Anthony and Sam Dempster.
That experience with the NZ Select team was something that Wetzell cherished and benefitted hugely from.
“Playing with the likes of BJ and a couple of the other guys that had been on the Tall Blacks team was an awesome experience. Putting on that black singlet for the first time was a huge thing for me. I’ve always wanted to play for my country so it was exciting.”
And taking the next step to don a Tall Blacks jersey? In Wetzell’s words, that will be coming “as soon as I can.”
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