Unfinished Business

Standout NZ Breakers guard Tai Webster has special motivation for resigning for the 2021-22 Aussie NBL.

MARC HINTON reports.

In demand Kiwi basketball star Tai Webster could have taken bigger money to play almost anywhere else but with his hometown New Zealand Breakers in Auckland. But from the moment
the ill-fated 2021 Australian NBL season wound up, the dynamic point guard couldn’t shake the
feeling he had to run this thing back again.

Webster’s re-signing with the Breakers for the next two seasons, along with the prized signature of first-year Kiwi pro sensation Yanni Wetzell on a three-year deal, have been two of the biggest moves in the Australian NBL’s off-season. Not only did the Auckland-based outfit pick up what owner Matt Walsh describes as the “two best Kiwi free-agents in the world”, but they landed a couple of highly motivated individuals.

The 26-year-old Webster, coming into the prime of his hoops life, averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds in his first season as a full contract player for the Breakers. The club played the first five months on the road, being dragged from pillar to post across Australia as they dodged Covid lockdowns and restrictions. They eventually returned to New Zealand for their final seven games on home soil – but by then the die was cast.

The Breakers, with a string of injuries ramping up the difficulty factor, and key player Rob Loe having to return home early for family reasons, struggled to a 12-24 record, and finished second from bottom in the Aussie league. Despite being universally applauded by their peers for their commitment and perseverance, that was no one’s idea of acceptable from within the Kiwi club.

“There was a lot of hype last season but the circumstances were the circumstances and we didn’t get the job done … so there are numerous counts of unfinished business,” said Webster after his re-signing was confirmed.

“God forbid we have another season over there again but hopefully we can have a full season here in front of the fans, in front of the family. There’s a lot to be excited about. I get to play with my brother (Corey) again, and I get to play with my friends that I’ve been playing with for a long time. There is also something special about playing in the city you grew up in.

“The Breakers really put the pressure on me – they wanted me and gave me a deal that I couldn’t refuse. I couldn’t take a chance waiting for something overseas. I’m grateful.”

Walsh says the re-signing of Webster, a senior Tall Black and bone fide international star, and the luring of the Wetzell, who was outstanding for South East Melbourne Phoenix in his first season as a professional, is another firm step in the Breakers’ embracing their Kiwi identity.

The 2.08-metre Wetzell is rated one of New Zealand’s premier young big men and his first campaign in the Aussie league reflected that as he averaged 11.1 points and 6.0 rebounds over 36 games as starting centre for the Phoenix. With solid size, excellent fundamentals, and high hoops IQ, the 24-year-old will feature in an all-Kiwi three-man rotation at the five alongside Rob Loe and (another off-season addition) Sam Timmins.

“Tai and Yanni were unequivocally the top two Kiwi free-agents in the world,” said Walsh. “They had options all over the world. They could have gone to Europe, or any team in the NBL, but both committing to us is amazing. In this league to win you have to build around your locals … to have the entire core back and add Yanni is amazing.”

For Webster, the chance to team with his old Westlake Boys High schoolmate completed a circle of sorts. “I’ve known Yanni since we were little kids. We played soccer together when we were five, six years old, and his parents used to take us to practice. That’s one of the homies, for real.”

The Breakers with their core of Kiwis Corey and Tai Webster, Wetzell, Finn Delany, Tom Abercrombie, Loe and Timmins, as well as Aussies William McDowell-White, Kyrin Galloway and Rasmus Bach, and teenage French sensation Ousmane Dieng as a Next Star, have the foundation of a quality squad.

There are still up to three import spots available, though Walsh confirmed there’s a chance they hold at least one of those open when the season starts again in mid-October to maintain some flexibility. For the always pumped Tai Webster that can’t come quickly enough.

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