It’s no secret that the NBA is a copycat league, so don’t be surprised if teams try to search for “the next Malcolm Brogdon” during the 2017 NBA Draft.
Brogdon was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 36th overall pick in last year’s draft, slipping mainly because he was 23 years old. But he has become a key contributor for the Bucks and even generated Rookie of the Year buzz as he averages 10.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from three-point range.
Rather than selecting a project, the Bucks landed an NBA-ready player who immediately cracked their rotation (averaging 26.5 minutes per game) and even started 26 contests. Milwaukee is currently in the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed and Brogdon has certainly played a part in that, especially considering he stepped up after Khris Middleton tore his hamstring.
Brogdon’s success will certainly help some of the older, more experienced prospects in this upcoming draft class. And one in particular, Tai Webster, is already being mentioned as a potential sleeper in the second round by several NBA teams.
The 6-foot-4 point guard from Nebraska will turn 22 years old just before the 2017 NBA draft, which may be his biggest obstacle throughout this pre-draft process. Teams fall in love with young prospects and drool over potential, even though history is littered with older players whose experience and maturity allowed them to contribute right away and have sustainable success. However, Webster views his age and experience as a positive.
“I think [I have an advantage] from a maturity standpoint,” Webster told HoopsHype. “I have a good sense of what I am and what I’m not as a player. I’m not going to come in and try to do things that teams don’t need me to do. I’ve played a lot of basketball now and have a lot of experience, so I know that every team needs those guys who are willing to do the dirty work. I have no problem being one of those guys. I’m looking forward to the chance to prove to teams that I can be one of those guys.”
Throughout the pre-draft process, Webster must show that he still has room to improve while also making it clear to teams that he can be an immediate contributor with his hard-nosed defense, quickness, size and versatility.
“I’m someone who’s always going to bring it on both ends of the floor, but especially on the defensive end,” Webster said. “I love to defend; I’ve always been that way and it’s kind of been my niche. Throughout college, I got to guard the best players on the other teams and I took it as a challenge and enjoyed it. Offensively, I think I do a good job creating for others, but I can also get my own shot when need be. But, for the most part, I bring that defensive edge and bring a pace to the game.
“I watch a lot of Patty Mills, Tim Frazier and Patrick Beverley – guys who found their niche in the league and made a living off of it. They know they’re not necessarily the go-to guy or anything, but they play a pivotal part for their team. Those are guys that I study and model my game after.”
In addition to Webster’s four years at Nebraska, his résumé also includes previous professional experience and his play with New Zealand’s National Team. Playing as a non-contracted development player to maintain his college eligibility, he suited up in the Australian National Basketball League in 2012 as a 17-year-old (playing a limited role, but his team won the championship). The following year, he played in the New Zealand National Basketball League (playing a limited role, but once again his team won the championship).
He returned to New Zealand’s NBL in 2013 and finally received significant playing time. Suiting up for the Waikato Pistons, he averaged an impressive 18.5 points, 4.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2 steals.
Webster first played for New Zealand’s national team in the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament when he was just 17 years old, yet he managed to average 13.5 points and shoot 52.5 percent from the field. Last year, he represented his country again and helped them advance to the semifinals of the FIBA Olympic Tournament Qualifier. He was the youngest player on the team, but he led the team in scoring (16.3 points per game) and rebounding (9.7 boards per game). His rebounding average ranked third among all players in the tournament, trailing only Philadelphia 76ers forward Dario Šarić (10 RPG) and New York Knicks forward Maurice Ndour (10.4 RPG).
Webster acknowledges that professional stints and national team experience helped him improve tremendously. Not only did he win multiple overseas titles as a teenager and represent his country, he was playing against grown men in the prime of their careers. It was a challenge, but there’s no question it made him a better player and drastically improved his confidence.
“I’ve played a lot of basketball for someone my age,” Webster said. “It helped me a lot, especially when I was younger, just being able to play with the National Team and go against top-notch competition. And not only that, but being able to go against people who were much older than me and being able to test myself against them for years. It was a blessing to be able to do that. Not many people have had that experience at my age. It made it easier when I’d go back to [playing against people my age]. You can just tell the difference, especially mentally, when you’re going against a grown man. Then, you come back to the college level and it just feels like you’re more prepared.”
As a senior with Nebraska, the 6-foot-4 guard averaged 17 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.4 steals. He scored in double-figures in all but one game this past season and he had several dominant performances that turned heads. As Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World Herald noted, he played very well against top competition, averaging 20.3 points, 5.3 assists and 5 rebounds against UCLA, Kansas and Creighton.
In the UCLA match-up, he went head-to-head against top prospect Lonzo Ball. Webster finished the contest with 19 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals while shooting 50 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three-point range. Ball posted just 13 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds before ultimately fouling out.
Despite having one of the most talented teams in the nation, finishing the season ranked No. 3, Kansas head coach Bill Self admitted he had no answer for Webster (who scored 22 points on 45 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent shooting from three against the Jayhawks).
“We couldn’t guard him,” Self told the Omaha World Herald. “He got anywhere he wanted, and our big guys couldn’t block or alter him.”
Many coaches shared Self’s frustration throughout the year, as Webster enjoyed a breakout campaign and made huge strides. His stats improved across the board and he proved he was capable of taking over any game and making an impact both offensively and defensively.
“I think it was mainly opportunity,” Webster said when asked about his success. “Coach [Tim Miles] put the ball in my hands a lot and instilled a lot of trust in me. I’d say my confidence [increasing] helped too. I put a lot of preparation in and worked hard to become the kind of guy who can have the ball in my hands a lot and [produce]. I was fortunate that Coach trusted me to be the guy who takes big shots and makes plays for the team.”
Webster has flashed glimpses of brilliance and, at times, displayed how his skill set could successfully transition to the NBA. Now, he can’t wait to showcase his skill set in front of NBA talent evaluators at the Portsmouth Invitational and pre-draft workouts.
He believes that he can drastically improve his stock with these visits and workouts. A teenager with potential will certainly attract teams. But a 22-year-old with pro experience, an NBA-ready body, impressive strength that allows him abuse smaller guards, a huge chip on his shoulder and a very high basketball IQ is the kind of prospect who can dominate a workout and interview. Contenders and playoff teams looking to win now as opposed to developing a project are typically in the market for players like Webster.
“I think the workouts are just going to be an opportunity to show that dog in me and show how hard I can go,” Webster said. “I think I can also show that I’m a guy who can make an immediate impact, doing whatever the team needs me to do. I have a worker’s mentality and I’m going to show that too.”
It still feels surreal to Webster that he’ll be working out in front of NBA teams, including legends like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird soon, but he couldn’t be more ecstatic for the opportunity.
“Early on in my college career, I didn’t even know if I’d be able to get to this stage, so to be here is a crazy experience,” Webster said. “My excitement is through the roof. I can’t wait to get in front of these teams and see what [this process] is all about.”
Tai has some idea what to expect when it comes to pre-draft workouts and the NBA as a business because he isn’t the first professional basketball player in his family.
His father, Tony, starred at Hawaii (earning 1st Team All-WAC honors) and then played professionally in New Zealand. Tai’s older brother, Corey, is 28 years old and currently plays professionally in Australia. Corey also had stints in New Zealand (where he won multiple championships and earned the NBL’s Most Valuable Player award), Serbia and Greece.
Corey went through the pre-draft process in 2010, but ultimately went undrafted. In 2015, Corey was with the New Orleans Pelicans during training camp and the preseason, but he didn’t make their final roster. Still, he has tried to help his brother and prepare him as much as possible for what to expect at the next level.
Many draft prospects are wide-eyed and unsure what to expect when they begin this journey. Tai’s maturity, life experience and tips from his brother and father give him an advantage entering the pre-draft process.
“It’s been awesome to have people to fall back on who have a bit of experience,” Webster said. “My brother has worked out for a couple NBA teams and he was explaining to me what they’re looking for and things I can do to separate myself from the competition.”
Separating himself from his peers has never been a problem for Webster. He has the right attitude and work ethic, which has helped him thrive at every level and become a favorite of his coaches and general managers.
In fact, the GM of NBL’s New Zealand Breakers, Dillon Boucher, recently made headlines when he told reporters that he’d love to sign Tai if ever given the opportunity. Tai’s brother, Corey, had previously played for the squad. Boucher acknowledged that acquiring the younger Webster is a long shot, though, because he believes Tai belongs in the NBA.
“We would love to have Tai Webster on the team; you’d be crazy if you didn’t have a guy like him on the radar,” Boucher told Fairfax Media. “For Tai right now, the NBA is on his radar and that’s all he’s focused on. We think he’s good enough to play in the NBA with the athleticism and speed he’s got.”
Webster seems like the type of player whom every coach would “love to have on the team” since he’s completely unselfish, free of ego and willing to do whatever is asked of him to help his squad succeed. Every franchise needs those kind of role players and glue guys to succeed.
Not to put too much pressure on Webster, but these were many of the same characteristics used to describe Brogdon this time last year when he left the University of Virginia. It remains to be seen if Webster can be the latest second-round hidden gem who becomes a steal for his respective team, but he certainly says all of the right things and absolutely has the right approach to his potential NBA career.