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Kenny Smith to Recruit for Aussie Basketball, Own Stake in NBL Club

Kenny Smith is heading Down Under. The former NBA point guard and current TNT Sports broadcaster has been appointed head of a North America division of the National Basketball League’s “Next Stars” program, which is intended to help the professional development of NBA Draft-eligible talent in the Australian basketball league.

Smith will also be an investor in a future NBL expansion team that will be focused on Next Stars talent.

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“I’ve always advocated for kids going to college to play basketball, but there is a new generation that exists today,” Smith said in a phone interview. “I think you become a pro faster when you have a chance to play in an environment like the NBL.”

The NBL currently has 10 teams, nine in Australia and one in New Zealand. A host of former NBA players have invested in NBL franchises. In early 2018, Matt Walsh started the trend when he bought the New Zealand Breakers. His ownership group included Shawn Marion and added Victor Oladipo two years later.

Zach Randolph, Al Harrington, Josh Childress and Dante Exum were part of the cap table for the expansion South East Melbourne Phoenix. Kevin Martin and former NBA agent Jason Levien, who also owns D.C. United, bought a controlling stake in the Brisbane Bullets in 2019. In 2022, they sold a 20% stake in the Bullets at a $30 million valuation. Recent limited partner transactions have valued clubs at $40 million and higher. Last month, Tesla chairwoman Robyn Denholm became the control owner of the Sydney Kings following her initial minority investment in 2022.

The NBL is looking to add multiple expansion teams over the next two to three years. The vision is for one of them to be made up of mostly Next Stars players; Smith and likely other NBA players would be part of the ownership group.

The single-entity NBL is owned by Australian developer Larry Kestelman through his LK Group, but nearly half the teams are led by Americans.

“The NBL has had incredible growth in broadcast and attendance,” Walsh said in an interview. “But I think the best days are still in front of us from a league perspective, as interest in the region continues grow in the sport.”

There are currently 11 former NBL players in the NBA. Alumni of the Next Stars program, which launched in 2018, include first-round draft picks LaMelo Ball, Josh Giddey, RJ Hampton and Ousmane Dieng. The current group of Next Stars features France’s Alexandre Sarr, who plays for the Perth Wildcats and has been tapped as the No. 1 overall pick in some NBA mock drafts.

The launch of Overtime Elite and the NBA G League’s Team Ignite in recent years, as well as the introduction of NIL money in college, raised questions about the future of the Next Stars program. But Ignite just shut down, and basketball people, including Smith, point to the advantage of competing against top-tier, veteran competition where winning matters for the development of young players. Sarr has shot up draft boards, generating more momentum for the NBL as a pathway to the NBA.

Next Stars is a global program, but Smith will focus on the U.S. to actively recruit, develop and mentor new players for it.

“We are extremely proud of our Next Stars program and what it has achieved, but this is just the beginning,” Kestelman said in a statement. “We are quickly becoming the most legitimate, and best pathway to the NBA.”

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