PEORIA — Rienk Mast and Malevy Leons have been working all summer with their Bradley men’s basketball teammates toward building a 2022-23 season in which they hope they can go the distance in the Missouri Valley Conference.
But this week, the pair of BU big men dusted off their passports and flew 4,300 miles to the Netherlands, an eight-hour flight to accept an invitation to join an international team.
Mast and Leons left Monday for a 12-day stint with the Netherlands national team. They will practice with the Netherlands and play in exhibition games at home against Germany and on the road at Lithuania as they help their countrymen prepare for the FIBA 2023 World Cup.
“I practiced with them last summer too, they knew me,” Mast said. “By following me, they saw Malevy was playing pretty well, too, and also invited him.
“It’s very good to be with the best basketball players from your country, a lot of older guys who’ve been around the pro game so it’s really good to get experience. Just practicing with them helps my game.”
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The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Mast is from Groningen, Netherlands. The 6-9, 210-pound Leons is about 130 miles south of there in his hometown of IJmuiden, Netherlands, a seaport outside Amsterdam.
“You have to learn from them, go in with an open mindset and learn from them,” Leons said. “It’s a chance for me to measure myself, see where my game is at.”
Mast says Netherlands played an exhibition game at home against Germany — ranked No. 8 in FIBA — on Friday. He and Leons were scheduled to play in that game, and in another exhibition game at No. 11 Lithuania on Aug. 19.
The duo returns to Peoria after that, while Netherlands goes on to a play Barcelona in a World Cup qualification game.
The name game
Mast and Leons are excited at the players that will be on their side in Netherlands, and also against them.
The Germany and Lithuania rosters include EuroLeague and former NBA players like Dennis Schröder (Germany), Moritz (Mo) Wagner (Germany), Franz Wagner (Germany), Daniel Theis (Germany), Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) .
“If those guys play, what a cool experience that will be for us,” Mast said. “It will be some high-level competition. For me it’s kind of the goal, playing pro basketball after my college career.”
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And the benefits of a visit at home, too. Leons said his home is a 10-minute drive from the beach. And he plans to enjoy his mom’s cooking.
Mast plans to drive to practice and sleep at home, spending as much time with his family as he can.
“To represent your country is a big deal for us,” Mast said. “You want Netherlands to do well, and if you can have a hand in it in any way it’s great pride and a really big thing.
“When you grow up idolizing the guys who’ve played for this team it’s pretty cool to play for it, too.”
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Braves making gains
The Braves have been working hard under coach Brian Wardle and his coaching staff this summer, preparing for the 2022-23 season in a Valley that is now a 12-team conference. They’ve been getting after it in the weight room.
Mast and Leons said 6-foot-6 wing Zek Montgomery has made the biggest physical gains from last season.
“He’s noticeably stronger, bigger,” Mast said. “I like where Darius Hannah is, too. We’ve had a pretty good summer. I like how strong we are in the weight room. Still a lot to develop on the court but I like where we’re at.”
Leons, who has added 7 pounds of muscle and is much stronger in the weight room, nodded in agreement with Mast.
“They both have taken a big step physically,” he said.
As for the coming season, there’s one other gain the Braves have made that will be important.
“Last year we were a young team, had talent,” Mast said. “But in today’s game you need experience playing at this level, so we kept most of our group together and we have that experience.
‘I expect a lot of good things.’
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men’s basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. He can be reached at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.