San Diego State Aztecs star Yanni Wetzell will begin his professional career at the South East Melbourne Phoenix.
The New Zealand big man has signed a two-year deal (player option on second year) with the Phoenix following a dominant American college season as starting centre for San Diego State.
Wetzell’s Aztecs were set to enter the ‘March Madness’ playoffs period as one of the top ranked teams in college hoops with a 30-2 record before COVID-19 ended their campaign.
The 24-year-old was one of the hottest young free agents on the NBL market, receiving interest from a number of clubs before deciding on the Phoenix.
Prior to his stellar season at the Aztecs, where he averaged 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds and was twice named Mountain West Conference Player of the Week, Wetzell represented Vanderbilt and St. Mary’s.
He says playing in the NBL is a dream come true.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play either back home in New Zealand or for one of the Australian teams in the NBL, so it’s very exciting that I’ve got the opportunity to play down under,” Wetzell said.
“I’m ready to come and make an impact.”
At 208cm (6’10) and boasting impressive athleticism, Wetzell will immediately boost the Phoenix’s rim protection and rebounding capabilities.
The Kiwi also poses an offensive threat from all spots on the floor, with the ability to shoot the three and slam home eye-catching dunks making him a nightmare for opposing defences.
A gun tennis player as a junior, Wetzell didn’t start playing basketball seriously until the age of 17 when now-Phoenix assistant coach Judd Flavell introduced him to the New Zealand Breakers program, which happens to be five minutes down the road from Wetzell’s Auckland home.
His late start in basketball means he still boasts high potential to take his game to another level.
“Yanni’s a great athlete; 6’10, runs the floor like the wind and has so much upside,” Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell said.
“I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and he seems like a wonderful guy. Judd Flavell’s had a bit to do with him as a junior and he speaks extremely highly of him.”
Wetzell joins fellow rising centre Dane Pineau to form a lethal one-two punch at the centre position for the Phoenix.
Phoenix CEO Tommy Greer is buoyed by Wetzell’s decision to commit to the Phoenix over other NBL clubs and thinks he’ll make an instant impact in the league.
“For Yanni to commit to us for NBL21 and hopefully beyond is a huge tick for our young organisation and a really exciting prospect for us on the court,” Greer said.
“Landing star prospects straight out of college is a difficult proposition, especially with big men, so to secure a guy with the skillset and decorated CV of Yanni is fantastic.
The young star moved back to his family home in Auckland a few months after the cancellation of the American college basketball season and will join the Phoenix’s pre-season training in Melbourne as soon as border restrictions ease.
The NBL should expect to see the same determination that made ‘Wetzell the Pretzel’ a fan favourite at San Diego State when NBL21 tips off in December.
“I just play hard on the court and live by that Kiwi grit, that Kiwi mentality; diving on loose balls and putting your body before anything else,” Wetzell said.
“That’s the motto I live by and how I established myself as a basketball player when I first started. It’s one thing I like to stand by and something I pride myself on.”