Tai Webster has dreamed of playing college basketball his whole life.
You see he’s had a family legacy to follow.
Tai’s father Tony and older brother Corey both played college hoops and both were very successful in their own right.
Tony Webster was an All-Conference selection for the University of Hawaii in 1983 before pro basketball brought him all the way to New Zealand, he still ranks fourth all time on Hawaii’s career steals list. Corey Webster played at Lambuth University in Tennessee where he was named TranSouth Conference Freshman of the Year before returning home after one season to turn pro with the New Zealand Breakers, he’s now one of the stars of the Breakers and the New Zealand National team.
The younger Webster aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother. In just a couple of weeks time he will be at the place he’s envisioned himself all along when he hears his name announced over the top of fifteen thousand screaming fans at the University of Nebraska’s brand new arena.
There’s also another family legacy that Tai is following. It’s a slightly different kind of family though. It’s that of his Westlake Boys’ High School basketball family.
Before Tai there have been six players from the North Shore basketball powerhouse who have moved on to college basketball.
One of them had a journey that shares an uncanny resemblance to that of Tai Webster’s path to college basketball.
A shooting guard by the name of Kirk Penney was a superstar in the Big Ten Conference. The same conference that Tai will do battle in week after week.
Penney was the first Kiwi to sign with a Big Ten school when he joined coach Dick Bennett at the University of Wisconsin. He played in the NCAA Final Four as a freshman and finished his career as a two time All-Big Ten honoree and an Honorable Mention All-American.
Since then Penney has played in some of the world’s top leagues, including the NBA and is renowned as one of the best pure shooters in world basketball. I wouldn’t be over-exaggerating if I declared that he is the greatest basketball player New Zealand has produced.
The similarities between Penney and Webster’s careers leading up to entering the Big Ten are quite remarkable.
They both averaged a ridiculous 35 points per game for Westlake. Both were awarded Rookie of the Year in New Zealand’s National Basketball League and both debuted for the New Zealand Tall Blacks at a very young age, Penney was 18 and Webster was 17.
The difference though is in how they got to those achievements.
Most scouting reports would tell you that Penney’s game is based around outstanding fundamentals, an amazing basketball IQ and a near perfect jump shot.
Webster on the other hand is a versatile point guard gifted with elite athleticism which allows him to get to the basket with ease and finish above the rim. He possesses a good outside shot and a deadly pull up jumper from mid range. He’s a great distributor and has an excellent wingspan allowing him to be a very disruptive defender. There’s a little bit of, dare I say it, Kyrie Irving about Tai Webster’s game.
It is the package of elite athleticism and skill along with his supreme confidence that make Webster the most exciting guard ever to come out of New Zealand.
New Zealand has produced some excellent big men in recent times but the production line for international quality guards has been stalled a wee bit since Mark Dickel and Penney came up. Webster showed that he is most definitely international quality when he led New Zealand in scoring at the Olympic Qualifying event in 2012. The interesting thing with that though, was that Webster got his chance to shine with the Tall Blacks due to Kirk Penney being out injured.
His performance at that tournament put Tai firmly on the radar of a number of major universities giving him the chance to go through the recruitment process. He eventually chose the football-mad University of Nebraska, which has a burgeoning hoops program led by highly respected head coach Tim Miles.
Webster has been on campus in Lincoln, Nebraska since July and is loving the city. He’s settling in well in the basketball side of things also.
“The basketball is a lot different out here,” said Webster. “It’s way faster than anything I’ve played in before but I think I’m doing a good job of adjusting to the style and pace over here.”
He believes his time in professional environments with the Breakers and Waikato Pistons have helped with the transition to college basketball.
“A lot of the offenses and defenses we run are a lot like what I’m used to, they just have different names for everything which is probably the hardest part of it all.”
The guard has already started to make an impact in his short time at Nebraska. At the intra-squad Red/White Scrimmage he hit the game winning shot in front of 7,500 fans at the school’s brand new $179 million facility, the Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Webster finished that scrimmage with 9 points, 3 rebound and 3 asissts and one dropped jaw when taking in his new surroundings.
“It was amazing,” said Webster. “The arena is the nicest I’ve ever set foot in and to play in it in front of all of those people was crazy!”
Webster has played an even split of shooting guard and point guard in training so far and it is that versatility that will ensure he sees a lot of time on the court once the season begins next month.
Nebraska has not had a guard with Webster’s ability in many years. Tyronn Lue and Erick Strickland are two of the great point guards to play at Nebraska and both went on to have long careers in the NBA.
Webster is just starting out so it would be unfair to heap additional pressure on him by declaring that he’s an NBA prospect right off the bat. One thing is for certain though, he’ll have the platform to make it a real possibility.
Nebraska play in twenty two nationally televised games this season, including their first game on November 8th against last year’s NCAA Tournament cinderella story Florida Gulf Coast University.
Webster is unsure what his role is on the team is right now as coach Miles has left positions open for players to fight for which has led to some pretty ferocious training sessions. He’s prepared to do whatever it takes to win though.
“I’m just trying to focus on doing whatever I can to help this team get to where it needs to be.” Said Webster.
Before Tai laces up and runs out onto the hardwood of the Pinnacle Bank Arena on November 8, he’ll likely take a moment to pay homage to the family that have walked this trail before him. Both his blood family and his red, white and green Westlake family.
Once he’s on that court though, the rest of the story is up to Tai to write.