How Mody Maor has transformed the New Zealand Breakers

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It's 3:45pm and New Zealand Breakers head coach Mody Maor demands the ESPN crew leave practice, adamant his scheduled time for media access had not yet arrived.

"I said 4pm and I'm a man of my word," Maor deadpans.

After walking away to begin the next drill, he turns around, "I'm joking," he says with a smile.

It's just one interaction of many that mix charm and intensity, though after spending an afternoon observing Mody Maor and the New Zealand team, it's abundantly clear he has the squad's full attention.

"Energetic, passionate, motivating," Breakers forward Tom Vodanovic responds when asked to describe the first-year head coach.

"He comes in the building and you all feel like you're working to the same common goal but he's also there to help you get to your own personal goals. He's hard, we've had a gruelling preseason, I think we've earned the spot we're at."

The Breakers enter the FIBA break second in the standings with a 6-3 record, developing a hard-nosed defensive style that sees them ranked first in the league on that end, giving up just 101.8 points per 100 possessions. Despite rattling off what most would consider an impressive start, Maor seems perplexed by the praise.

"Do you want my honest answer?" he asks.

"For me it hasn't clicked yet. We're good, but we need to be better. We're far from maximising our potential. I'm very happy with our progress, I'm very happy with the first steps, I'm happy that we look like a team. There is a unit forming, but from a defensive standpoint I think there is still a lot more."

The defensive identity of the Breakers roster is by design, with Maor and the front office seeking team-first personalities in a job where individual success can often be at the forefront for players looking to further their career and secure their future.

"The first thing you look at is who you're building your team with. We wanted to bring people that want to be part of something. The first step is getting everyone connected to the same goal, to having one common goal," Maor explains.

"Once you have those goals, it's everybody understanding why you do things and how that connects to the goal. I think we've done that really well and the guys have bought into those ideas and those concepts, I think that's what you see."

Multiple rival clubs quietly praised the import trio of Barry Brown Jr., Dererk Pardon and Jarell Brantley to ESPN in the preseason, believing they could rival the best international group in the league.

"You don't know somebody until you've coached them, you don't know somebody until you've been together. It's like when you go on a date, you try and figure out as quick as you can what they value and who they are, what makes them tick.

"You try to get a good feel for who they are as humans. Who they are as basketball players usually shows on film so it's trying to do as much work as you can before and pray that you got it right because it doesn't always work."

The first-year head coach won't seek to claim any credit, though his players are more than happy to heap praise on his ability to extract the best out of individual talents.

Breakers guard Will McDowell-White has publicly praised Maor's developmental prowess as a coach, with ESPN understanding the the guard had multiple lucrative offers to sign with rival NBL clubs over the offseason. Instead, he chose to remain in New Zealand for a third season, pointing to Maor as one of the big reasons for staying with the club.

"He's just passionate. He loves the game and everything about it," McDowell-White explains. "I don't think I've spoken to him about anything but basketball. He just invests so much time in us and believes in us one hundred percent. He boils everything down to every minor detail you can think of and those small areas make the biggest difference in games."

Maor had previously been with the Breakers organisation for three seasons as an assistant under Dan Shamir. In that time, the club has helped foster the development of three eventual NBA draftees, with RJ Hampton (Denver Nuggets), Ousmane Dieng (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Hugo Besson (Milwaukee Bucks) hearing their names called.

While winning a championship is the ultimate goal, Maor pauses before explaining his passion for the developmental side of basketball.

"I love coaching, I love this profession in a million different ways. The most meaningful part is the people, you get to impact people's lives. People who love basketball have dreams, it's the way they support their families so you can impact people for better, help them achieve their goals and fulfil their dreams. I'm blessed to be with people who are very easy to love, these are great people."

"The emotional wave of being a head coach is something I've needed to adjust to. It's very different from being an assistant coach. I still want to get better with how I handle winning and how I handle losing. Both are not easy; my process is usually to get focused back on work. Watch the film, understand what was good, understand what was bad, cut off the fat and go to work. So far that's been working for me, so the more I can stay on task and stay on hand the better and I can leave the distractions to the side, or at least I try to."

A top-of-the-table match up against the defending champion Sydney Kings was the perfect test of that emotional control, with the Breakers ultimately falling short, 81-77.

"The NBL is so good. Every team you play against is so competitive and so talented," Maor said prior to the matchup. "We one hundred percent want to look and see how we measure up in order to get better for the next one, but I think every game is hard."

Postgame, he was equally as measured.

"I don't have concerns. Concerns are when you think something is wrong," Maor explained.

"What we saw today was the normal progress for a young team. You don't always win and when you go and play against the defending champions, sometimes they play better than you. I never expected this to be linear, that's now how progress looks. It's a good lesson for us, it's something we learn from."

It's still too early to make any bold determinations about the Breakers contending credentials for this season, but they have an identity and most certainly a building reputation as a group that will battle for the entire forty minutes, which was part of the blueprint for the club's long awaited return home after two seasons on the road.

"It's something me and Mody have spoken about a lot over the last couple of years. A big part of coming back to New Zealand was putting real emphasis on the culture here and what we're all about and the kind of people we want to have here," Breakers veteran Tom Abercrombie explained.

"We want to be a team that New Zealanders' respect. We're a country where fans respect that toughness and grittiness, it's what Kiwis are known for. The Breakers and Tall Blacks have been known for it and we tried to recruit players that fit that mould. We've got a job to do in terms of re-introducing ourselves to the public and putting forward a team that they can fall in love with again. We've been away for a long time and it's almost like we're building the place up from scratch again."

They fell short against the Kings, but in a funny way it felt like a performance that ticked a lot of the boxes that represent a Mody Maor led afternoon at the office.

"We know what this team is, I know who we are, I know the kind of people we have in the locker room and I know how they respond," Maor said.

For the record, Maor was bang on. The interviews started right on 4pm.