NBL 2021: Ariel Hukporti is the new star of Melbourne United, his teammate Josh Giddey
New Melbourne United man Ariel Hukporti has opened up about his connection to Josh Giddey, a one-time ride to the NBL and his plan to avoid the creepy Aussie creepers.
Ariel Hukporti is a young man with an old head on his shoulders.
At just 19, the new Melbourne United giants will begin his fourth season as a professional, after stints in Germany and Lithuania have given him a veteran perspective on the basketball business.
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All bets are off now, however, as he focuses on a career in the NBA – via the burgeoning breeding ground that the NBL has become.
He told Michael Randall about life, the hoops, and his plan to avoid Australia’s famous snakes and spiders.
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The Giddey connection
Hukporti has known Australian basketball for some time now.
Last year he was a teammate with Australian NBA rookie Josh Giddey at Camp Basketball Without Borders – an event hosted by the NBA and FIBA from which he returned from the MVP crown.
“Giddey is a good guy, he plays well, you see the highlights, he almost gets triple doubles,” Hukporti said.
“It’s amazing how he just got on. When I played with him in Basketball Without Borders (he was) a good passer, a great vision, definitely a good person.
“I’m just happy for him, happy for him to come to the NBA.”
Hukporti, like Giddey before him, is part of the league’s Next Stars program, which quickly follows young talent from around the world, with the goal of turning them into NBA players.
Charlotte Hornets star LaMelo Ball is the program’s most prominent graduate, but joining Hukporti as Next Stars this season brings a range of prospects from around the world, including Australians Makur Maker (Sydney) and Mojave King (Adelaide). ), the French Ousmane Dieng (New Zealand) and Tom Digbeu (Brisbane), and the Russian Nikita Mikhailovskii (Tasmania).
Hukporti has the perfect mentor to lean on in his quest to reach the big league – rising Oklahoma City star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is, coincidentally, Giddey’s back-running mate at the Thunder.
The pair share the same management agency and ‘SGA’ is just one WhatsApp message away.
Hukporti also has someone a little closer to home – NBA Champion Matthew Dellavedova – who knows a thing or two about the tough road to the big league.
“Basket or nothing”
Although he has seen more than most teenagers and is mature beyond his years, Hukporti is still filled with the wonder of youth.
He lives according to the “basketball or nothing” credo.
“I put everything on one card,” he says.
“Nobody wants a normal job, do they? Everyone wants to make money.
“Everyone wants a family and to be able to feed them one day.
“My dream is to be an NBA player and I just want to follow along and make my dream come true, that’s what ‘basketball or nothing’ means.”
He could have made it to the 2021 draft but, through his own self-assessment, decided he wasn’t quite ready and would spend another year honing his skills.
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“I think I need a little more time, just to get a grip on myself,” he said.
“(I) just want more experience before I get into the league, (to) learn more and be better prepared,” he said.
He says it’s not about if, but when, he makes the jump to the NBA, with most key scorecards projecting him as a second-round pick. A strong performance in the NBL would put him on those boards, just like Giddey did when he won the NBL Rookie of the Year award last season.
He sees parallels in his game with that of Phoenix Suns big man DeAndre Ayton.
“He’s also athletic, like me,” he said.
“I feel like I look like him.
“He does it better than I do now, but I see myself following him on the court, his style of play, his role in the NBA.”
Born in Germany to Togolese parents, Hukporti’s positivity dates back to his upbringing, primarily his mother Marcele, who taught young Ariel to fight for his dreams.
“My mom always pushed me no matter what I did, she always said ‘do it’,” he said.
“She would always support me no matter what.
“I did a lot of sports when I was young – I played football, table tennis, tennis, I played everything.
“She’s always on my side. She always said ‘do your best’ – ‘if you want to do it, do it. If you don’t want a regular job then you had better fight for it ”.
Fight for it, he did, switching from soccer to basketball when it became apparent that his height – now 213cm with a wingspan of almost 220cm – and athleticism would be major assets on the hardwood.
Now he has the chance to show United what he can do.
“Like a family”: a special basketball experience
Professional basketball can be ruthless – especially in Europe – and relationships often difficult to forge.
Hukporti says he’s experiencing something different in Melbourne.
“I’ve played in Europe and the United States, so being here is different,” he said.
“I’m used to being away from my family, but the team helped me forget about being so far away. Nobody really helped me (in the other teams) like they did at United.
“They (teammates) invite you over to their place, they do things with you, get their hair cut and all that.
“They are more united, they are discreet like a small family for me.”
He has become close to Nigerian import Caleb Agada and strikers Mason Peatling and Jack White – who will be like a new signing for United upon his return from a broken Achilles.
But it was veteran David Barlow who left an indelible mark on the young cannon.
Separated by 19, Hukporti was only one year old when Barlow made his NBL debut.
Hukporti is amazed at the durability of the veteran.
“Barlow helped me a lot on and off the pitch too, because I saw him stretch after practice, do his thing – he’s 38 and he’s still competing with us,” a- he said of the tall, ageless man, whose tedious The Yoga and Stretch Diet helps him overcome time spent with his father.
“It’s pretty impressive for me to be this age and to be able to do these things. You don’t see a lot of people like that. It’s like LeBron James is still playing at that age or Vince Carter.
“He plays aggressive, he competes with us, he goes up and down, hits. He’s as strong as hell.
Hukporti plans to team up with long, skinny Jo Lual-Acuil at United’s center.
“The best trainer I have ever had”
Hukporti isn’t the first player to fall in love with new United manager Dean Vickerman.
The three-time NBL champion mentor signed throughout the 2023-24 season.
Hukporti doesn’t mince words when asked about Vickerman.
“Dean is the best coach I have ever had, I’m not going to lie,” he said.
“That’s how he builds the relationship with the players, it’s just amazing because I’ve never had a relationship with a coach like that.
“He always pushes me, he always tells me if I’m doing something wrong or if I’m doing something right and he always gives me advice when I have a question or when we watch a movie together.
“He always asks me what I do to improve myself every day, I say” I go to the gym after training “.
“I’ve never had a trainer like that.
“I feel like he really cares about him and cares about our success. He just wants the best for the players. It’s amazing because I’ve never seen it abroad.
Vickerman is also a big fan of his young international charge.
“Ariel is a 19 year old Next Star who we ask a lot – it’s going to be interesting how good he can be in this league,” Vickerman said of the 213cm giant.
“We’ve seen him dominate in training at times and he and Jo (Lual-) Acuil are a pretty formidable frontline.
“Ariel is tall and powerful, he has great mobility around the perimeter that allows him to get people out of the dribble at seven feet. Its length and reach are exceptional.
“We would love to see Ariel develop her fitness level. He can be anything, we love the level of talent, we love the cheekiness and liveliness that he brings, he is fun to have around the group.
“That’s where all the snakes are, eh?” “
Hukporti has a place for himself in Melbourne but, having arrived just six weeks ago, has yet to see any part of the city, thanks, of course, to the blockades.
Rap staples Jay-Z, J. Cole, and a regular regimen of games were his staples during the lockdown.
Now, as Victoria opens up, he can’t wait to explore his new surroundings and soak up more of Australian culture.
He’s had dinner with teammates Jack White and Mason Peatling, but hasn’t tried Parma yet – it’s now on his list.
And he definitely intends to avoid our famous creepy-crawlies.
“Before I came to Australia I was looking for stuff like spiders and all that on Google,” he said.
“It’s dangerous hell here.
“Tarantulas fight, see like snakes going up the toilet, I’m like daaaaaamn. Hell no.
“No, I don’t do that. It’s just scary.