The first thing you notice about UH-Hilo’s Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones is what you don’t see. The 6-foot-6 freshman forward from New Zealand wears no emotions when he’s on the basketball court.
Hit a big shot? Get burned on a backdoor cut? Nothing there from Tait-Jones, who is already moving on to the next play. It’s far different from his off-court personality.
“I try to keep a straight face,” he said. “Normally, I’m a happy guy, smiling all the time. In the game, I need to play, just move on, good or bad. I never let the emotions get the better of me. I’m pretty good at poker as well.”
He’s better at building team chemistry. He’s bonded well with junior point guard Darren Williams, his roommate and PlayStation rival.
“Darren snores a lot, but I beat him all the time on Madden and NBA2K,” said Tait-Jones, who wants no part supporting the Minnesota Timberwolves, Williams’ team. “He wants to support losing teams. I like players. Kevin Durant is my guy.”
New Zealand’s national sport is rugby, so Tait-Jones played rugby to build his toughness, football (soccer in the U.S.) to improve his footwork, and was a late bloomer to hoops, starting in the ninth grade.
His dad, Aaron Tait-Jones, made two defining decisions. He wanted his son to concentrate on one sport and hooked him up with coach Kenny McFadden, who played pro ball in New Zealand and played for Hall of Famer George Raveling at Washington State.
Basketball skills and IQ got passed down from one generation to another. Tait-Jones’ game is quite versatile for someone who would make a nice tight end in football. He loves the transition game, has smooth moves around the rim and knows how to position himself for rebounds.
“It’s because of Kenny I am who I am today. He took me under his wing, and I learned everything from him,” Tait-Jones said. “He’s kind of a legend in New Zealand. He’s coached Steven Adams.”
Tait-Jones roots for Adams and the New Orleans Pelicans, who hold a 33-28 lifetime record against the ’Wolves. That’s something Tait-Jones can remind Williams when the two teams battle.
Tait-Jones has forged a good bond with Sasa Vuksanovic, UHH’s other big man. Their games play well off each other, and the New Zealander also has found Hilo to his liking, and the Big Island reminds him of home, which is 4,600 miles away.
“I love Hilo. It’s like New Zealand,” he said. “It’s really nice. I like the place and the people and food.
“Sasa is cool. He’s the old man showing me the ropes. We know what each other is good at. We look for each other. He can finish under the rim and with his back to the basket and finish, anything around the rim. I like running in transition, getting rebounds and looking to get easy buckets and shooting, anything really to help the team.”
Tait-Jones acknowledges Williams taught him how to cook. One day, they can make a spam musubi and loco loco to celebrate a victory in the PacWest pod season.
“I’m now considered the Gordon Ramsey of New Zealand,” Tait-Jones joked. “Cooking is one thing Darren is good at. It’s definitely not video games.”
Ethan Jetter, a 6-5 freshman from California, and Greg Walter, a 6-6 senior from California, are expected to get minutes.
“Greg is really active and athletic. He’s a rangy post,” coach Kaniela Aiona said. “Jetter is versatile. He can play inside or outside. It’ll be interesting to see how he does getting college playing time under his belt.”