The SIT Zero Fees Southland Sharks added another young talent to its National Basketball League roster with former Junior Tall Black and Wellington College prodigy Sione “Johnny” Helu signing for the 2021 Sal’s NBL.
The 21-year-old guard is the partner of one of Southland’s favourite sporting exports, netballer Aliyah Dunn and his ties to the deep south go deeper than his Silver Fern-wearing girlfriend.
“I feel super-blessed to be able to get an opportunity down here. When I first met Aliyah, I said to her that with her being from Invercargill all I wanted to do was play for the Sharks. The first year I played basketball the Sharks were in Wellington playing the Saints and I got to watch Shea Ili and Kevin Braswell play and I thought they were the best point guards I had ever seen. Ever since then I wanted to play for the Sharks so I am super grateful that I can pull that uniform on,” Helu said.
He was a late starter to the sport, getting his first taste of basketball at 14 years of age. Coming from a rugby playing family with uncles who played the game professionally he was a promising first five eighth/fullback at junior level before he committed to basketball as his sport of choice.
“I went to a social basketball game and ended up doing alright and the next year (Year 10) I played for the junior team at Wellington College and just fell in love with the game. It was a big decision to leave rugby but as soon as I touched a basketball it had me and I couldn’t say no,” Helu said.
It turned out to be a good decision. Helu went toe-to-toe with his heroes Ili and Braswell as a training partner for the Wellington Saints in 2016-17, before earning a scholarship to West Florida College in the United States in 2018, an experience he says was massive in developing his basketball skills and mentality.
“It was a real eye-opener seeing how hungry everyone is over there. For a lot of my team mates it was their only way out of some tough situations. That had a huge effect on me and I don’t take any opportunity lightly now,” he said.
Helu returned to New Zealand the day before the country went into lockdown last March and is keeping the option to return to the US open after transferring to be part of Yuba Community College’s renowned basketball programme in California but first, he wants to learn as much as he can from Sharks’ Head Coach Rob Beveridge.
“I was just blown away by what Coach Bevo’s done over his career and with the conversations I’ve had with him I can tell it’s going to be a great year on and off the court. I can’t wait to be a sponge and learn as much as I can from him,” Helu said.
Likewise, Beveridge is looking forward to working alongside Helu and sees plenty of upside in his young guard.
“Johnny is an exciting young prospect. He is a tough scoring guard who has the ability to get to the rim and knock down the open shot. I was very impressed with Johnny’s competitive nature and look forward to developing him as a player,” Beveridge said.
All of which leaves only one question. Who is the better shooter, Helu or partner Dunn?
“She would say it was her, but I’m pretty confident in my own shot. Aliyah’s pretty competitive and she doesn’t like losing to me … so we don’t really play anymore,” Helu laughed.
The SIT Zero Fees Southland Sharks open the Sal’s NBL season on the road in Nelson on Monday 26 April with its first home game at ILT Stadium Southland against the Taranaki Mountainairs on Thursday 29 April at 7:30pm.