Point guard Tai Webster became the youngest player to represent New Zealand at a major world tournament in their 84-62 loss to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (MKD).
Just 17 years and 35 days, he easily eclipsed Kirk Penney’s 19 years and 299 days at the 2000 Olympics.
Webster – who faced high expectations after his 18-point outburst against Greece in a lead-up match – made three eye-catching drives to the basket for his six points, and dished out some classy passes on the way to two assists.
But he also tried to play too fast and do too much with his passing at times, finishing with seven turnovers in 24 minutes.
“It was a big step up, a lot of bigger players and a lot of smarter players,” he said.
The mistakes didn’t deter his lightning-quick drives and determination to leave Caracas a much better player.
“It’s about trying stuff and seeing what works and what doesn’t work,” he said.
To put his rise into perspective, while most European 17-year-olds experience a number of underage continental championships, in Oceania there is nothing of the kind.
Young players in New Zealand hone their skills in school competitions and four-day U19 and U21 tournaments.
But his well-grounded fundamentals show the benefits of a new youth academy run by New Zealand’s only professional team, the Breakers, where talented youngsters train before school.
During holidays they train full-time with the Breakers, where Webster picks the brain of champion Australian point guard CJ Bruton.
“He helps me out with things I need to work on,” Webster said.
“Being in the corner with bent knees ready to shoot, and what to look for when I’m coming off the on-ball screen.”
It is a basic level of instruction, but that is what is needed as New Zealand tries to convert the upsurge in participation in the past decade to international success.
In terms of Webster, who led New Zealand to gold in the inaugural FIBA 3×3 Youth World Championship, it is a genuine investment in the future.
Consider that at the 2028 Olympics he will be the same age as Kobe Bryant in London. That’s four Olympics and four FIBA Basketball World Cups away.
For now though, Tai just wants to make up for his mediocre debut with a strong showing against Angola to help keep his country’s London Olympic chances alive.
After facing Nigeria before the tournament, Webster knows how athletic African interior defence can be, but that won’t deter him attacking the basket.
“I’ll try,” he said. “I have to see if I can keep getting in there.”