Former Sac State basketball player goes pro overseas

Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa returns home to play in New Zealand’s National Basketball League

Former+Sac+State+guard+Izayah+Mauriohooho-Le%27afa+passes+the+ball+inside+against+Eastern+Washington+at+the+Nest+on+Saturday%2C+Feb.+1%2C+2020.+Mauriohooho-Le%27afa+led+the+Auckland+Huskies+in+scoring+averaging+20+points+this+year+in+the+NBL.+Photo+by+Luis+Platero.++++++++++++++

Tara Gnewikow

Former Sac State guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa passes the ball inside against Eastern Washington at the Nest on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. Mauriohooho-Le’afa led the Auckland Huskies in scoring averaging 20 points this year in the NBL. Photo by Luis Platero.

Jordan Latimore

When former Sacramento State men’s basketball guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa came to Sac State in the summer of 2016 from his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand, he said he always hoped for an opportunity to play in front of his family again.

“Leaving my family and friends, that was the hardest adjustment I had to make,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said.

Mauriohooho-Le’afa finally got his chance.

After his senior season on the Sac State men’s basketball team was cut short in spring due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Mauriohooho-Le’afa said he entered his name in the 2020 NBL draft, vying for an opportunity to launch his professional career in his home country of New Zealand. 

He was drafted in the first round on June 11 by the Auckland Huskies, a newly-formed National Basketball League franchise that relocated from Australia. 

“I always knew I wanted to do this [play professionally], even as a kid,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said. “I didn’t even know 100% if I even wanted to come to college, but my experience at Sac State, with that competition, definitely drove me to be a better player.”

For Mauriohooho-Le’afa, his basketball career started in 2001 in Wellington, where basketball as a whole began to be recognized as an athletic phenomenon.

Mauriohooho-Le’afa played four seasons with the Wellington Saints, a professional team in the NBL, starting in 2013. Current NBA Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams is a notable former player of the team, and is revered by those in New Zealand for enhancing the basketball culture in the country.

RELATED: Sac State senior guard recalls journey from NBL to NCAA

“I think basketball is becoming the biggest sport in Australia now,” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said. “Ever since Adams made it to the league [NBA], everyone started playing it for real and realized it’s possible to make it.”

Mauriohooho-Le’afa’s love for New Zealand and his aspirations to play professionally were notions that those around him at Sac State not only noticed, but said they supported to fullest extent as well.

“It is huge for him to go back and play at home,” said Bryce Fowler, former teammate and roommate of Mauriohooho-Le’afa. “I always knew that was his goal and I always knew that he would accomplish it because of the drive and passion he has to get better.”

Brandon Davis, former teammate of Mauriohooho-Le’afa, said Mauriohooho-Le’afa’s ability on the court is why Davis believed that Mauriohooho-Le’afa was capable of reaching this professional level and could potentially go levels beyond in the future.

“With the way he approaches the game, always out to win — I for sure think he can go bigger and better than New Zealand,” Davis said. “I’m sure he’ll eventually be playing in Australia in the NBL, playing in front of big crowds and making good money, that’s the kind of player he is and the atmosphere he can perform in.”

Former guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa scans the floor against Southern Utah at the Nest on Thursday, Feb. 13 Photo by Luis Platero.

Prior to drafting Mauriohooho-Le’afa, Matt Lacey, general manager for the Auckland Huskies, said the team already had an early read on Mauriohooho-Le’afa. 

“We were well aware of Izayah as a graduating senior early on,” Lacey said. “Our head coach Kevin Braswell knows Izayah very well from the time he spent with him at the Wellington Saints, his profile is as strong as one of the youngest players selected in recent years.”

While scouting of Mauriohooho-Le’afa, Lacey said he and the Huskies formed a high admiration for his abilities on the court.

“Izayah has an impressive playmaking ability,” Lacey said. “He plays both ends of the floor and competes with intensity, often guarding the premier guard on the opposing team.”

Like the rest of the world, Mauriohooho-Le’afa and the NBL league had to deal with COVID-19. The New Zealand approach to the pandemic was similar to other countries, but it was left with a different outcome then most.

Unlike the typical NBL season that runs from April to July, the 2020 season started in June and ran until August. On top of the schedule shift, Mauriohooho-Le’afa said players were initially quarantined when the season began and tested regularly, similar to what we saw in the NBA bubble in Orlando.

However, due to the minimal number of cases in New Zealand, the games played in the NBL took place in different gyms and allowed some fans according to Mauriohooho-Le’afa. 

“I was glad that we could have some [fans],” Mauriohooho-Le’afa said. “We had a strict lockdown for a while and could only leave for groceries, but life eventually got back to normal during the season.”

In his first pro season with the Huskies, Mauriohooho-Le’afa led the team in scoring with 20.7 points per game along with 5.4 assists.

After the conclusion of the 2020 NBL season, Mauriohooho-Le’afa said he earned a contract with the South East Melbourne Phoenix, a team in the NBL in Australia, and hopes to play this fall.