‘Mum got sick of us hitting our heads’: Why Australia’s tallest NBA prospect lives in a shipping container
By Roy Ward
Looming large: Rocco Zikarsky.Credit: Glenn Campbell
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When Australian basketballer Rocco Zikarsky says he and his three siblings outgrew the family home, he means it literally.
“We used to have a stairwell and Rocco clocked himself going down one day, he really hit it hard, and I thought it could get quite dangerous,” his mother, Kylie, explains. It was the moment Kylie decided to act, buying a block of land on the Sunshine Coast and putting down shipping containers for all four children, along with one for herself and a communal kitchen.
Australian basketballer Rocco Zikarsky in front of his bedroom.Credit: Kylie Zikarsky
The Zikarsky kids are tall (all 190 centimetres or above), but Rocco in particular needed more room to move, measuring 220 centimetres (which rounds up to seven feet, three inches on the old scale) by the age of 17. That makes the Brisbane Bullets centre the tallest player in the NBL ahead of Perth Next Star Alex Sarr at 216 centimetres.
Who knows, if he keeps growing, Zikarsky could eclipse French NBA phenom Victor Wembanyama, the San Antonio Spur and No.1 draft pick, who is 224 centimetres (seven foot four inches) and the equal tallest player in the US league alongside Boban Marjanovic from the Houston Rockets.
Zikarsky is one of the most exciting young talents in Australian basketball, joining the Bullets on a two-year Next Star deal and eligible for the NBA draft in 2025.
Every team in the NBA is keeping an eye on his development, which continues on Sunday when the Bullets play Melbourne United at John Cain Arena.
Zikarsky explains that living in a shipping container is more comfortable than it sounds. The “pods” have eight-foot ceilings, and each has its own alfresco area.
“We pretty much outgrew the house,” Rocco says. “Mum got sick of us hitting our heads and that stuff. A shipping container sounds bad but it’s fully furnished, it’s a proper, really nice house.”
Kylie adds: “We needed space with everything the kids wanted to do. The containers are built like pods and have a little deck. They are very basic but it’s really nice.
“It’s not for everyone. It’s not camping, it’s not glamping, it’s somewhere in between.”
Zikarsky comes from a family of elite swimmers. Kylie switched to open water and ironwoman events, while Rocco’s father, Bjorn, competed for Germany at the Seoul and Atlanta Olympics, winning bronze in the 4×100 metre freestyle relay at the 1996 Games.
Children Ruben, Lenny, Jade and Rocco were skilled athletes who gravitated to competitive swimming but played other sports, too.
Rocco specialised in the 50 and 100m freestyle, winning a national junior title before taking up a scholarship with the NBA global academy at the Australian Institute of Sport.
“We knew he had to stop swimming. It was his last-ditch effort to get the gold, it was pretty cool,” says Kylie, who served as Rocco’s coach in the pool.
Rocco says his pod feels like home, but he is likely to spend less and less time there as he is not your average teenager when it comes to size, mindset or talent.
His 220-centimetre frame and 226-centimetre wingspan stand out on the court but what he does with those physical tools is more impressive.
“He’s coordination and motor skills are second to none for someone of his size,” Bullets coach Justin Schueller says. “At his age, everything is a progression but the things he’s got naturally are his footwork, speed and his hands. He catches everything, and he’s really able to change shots at the defensive end.
Victor Wembanyama flies in front of Golden State’s Steph Curry.Credit: Getty Images
“Those are the things he has got – now it’s like what else can we add in and keep growing for him.”
With millions of dollars on the line for every NBA draft pick, teams spend years tracking potential selections. Schueller’s phone lit up with NBA scouts after last year’s junior world championships and, he says, “it’s been pretty constant since then”.
The NBA is full of enormous humans. Wembenyama is the latest force of nature and his emergence has teams desperate for their own young, big man, especially someone as competitive as Zikarsky.
Rocco credits his siblings for his competitive drive. “When I took up basketball, my big brother thought he was better than me, so we were playing in the backyard every day,” he recalls.
“He’d foul me. Hit me and even if I won, I would never really win, so I grew up in that house where everything is competitive. Life can get boring sometimes and I feel like that competitive edge that I have from my family is what keeps life exciting.”
Zikarsky knows he is no guarantee to be selected in 2025 but he wants to develop his game to the point where he can step into the NBA and make an impact against the millionaires of the sport.
“People ask if there is pressure from that, but I don’t think it influences me in that way. If anything, it’s just forcing me to get better,” he says.
This is why he chose to follow current NBA stars LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey in playing in the NBL instead of heading to the US college system.
“My mindset going in is that if I make the NBA, I don’t want to have a catch-up year. I want to be ready to go from the jump.”
Zikarsky is also an outside chance of snaring a Paris 2024 berth given Australia’s lack of true centres. His height will get him a look-in, although Boomers coach Brian Goorjian is cautious about throwing him into the sport’s highest level too soon.
Still, Zikarsky is thrown into the grinder each day at Bullets training, and he’s on a tough grading curve battling Aron Baynes’ big frame and fellow centre Tyrell Harrison.
Baynes, the Boomers and NBA veteran, has almost 20 years and a sizeable weight and muscle advantage on the teenager.
“They hit him hard, but they also put their arms around him once training is done,” Schueller said.
Zikarsky is soaking up the lessons.
“It’s been really fun. I don’t think you would find two stronger centres to train against anywhere in the world,” he says.
“It really translates to games. It becomes second nature to bang bodies, and you learn you have to hit someone a lot harder than you think – you really have to fight for it.”
You can almost hear Baynes’ voice in Zikarsky’s stance on getting dunked on at NBL and, hopefully, NBA level.
Baynes was famous for throwing himself at the NBA’s high-flyers despite the chance of being “posterised” or embarrassed.
“When I talked to him about the NBA – he got dunked on a lot,” Zikarsky said.
“But he was telling me that you may get dunked on five times but if you get [block] someone once, that’s going to deter them from trying again.
“That’s what I want to be. When someone rocks into the paint and sees me, I want them to not want to jump with me because they don’t want to get their stuff blocked.”
Anyone thinking of scaling “Mount Rocco” should be warned.
“If people are going to jump, they’re going to have to make it over me. If they are down to try that, then go ahead. I’m going to meet them there.”
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