Hungry Jack's NBL
Tai Wesley: Feeling Good
Written for nbl.com.au by Tom Hersz
It is never easy to come back from a long lay off.
No matter the reason; whatever the extent of the cause, simply being away from game action for a prolonged period affects a player’s rhythm.
Such has been the case for Tai Wesley. Since suffering a hamstring injury in the opening minutes of the season opener; an injury that kept him out for 10 games over a nine-week period, Wesley was forced to watch.
He returned earlier this month with a minutes restriction and has since resumed his place in the starting line-up for Simon Mitchell.
However, it wasn’t until Saturday night that Wesley looked like the ‘grown man’ we’ve all been accustomed to seeing in the NBL.
Averaging just 10.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists, while shooting 43.5% from the field in his first five games since returning, Wesley played a season-high 31 minutes in the Phoenix’s 112-102 win over the Illawarra Hawks and looked 100% healthy.
His game legs seem to be back too and it showed as he dominated the Hawks’ frontline on his way to 25 points (10-15 FGs), 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
“I feel pretty good,” Wesley told NBL Media after the game.
“After 31 minutes – I didn’t feel like it was too long, my body felt good and the shot felt good. So, I’m pretty happy with that.”
He should be. Not only did he help his team earn a much needed win; just their second in their past six games, but he earned Bunnings Player of the Game honours for the first time this season.
That much-needed rhythm that takes a while to get back was on full-display and Wesley was quick to acknowledge in his own, humorous way, that it was the best he’s felt since his return.
“By far,” he said.
“I didn’t dribble the ball off my knee tonight, which was a big plus, so I’m taking small strides, you know – small victories.”
All jokes aside, Wesley told media at the post-game press conference that he’d hoped to get back to his productive self much faster, but kind of expected it to take a while.
“It’s been frustrating,” he admitted.
“You want to come back and pick it up right where you left off and I felt like I had a really good preseason. But I knew it’d take a while. My expectations were high and I was a little harder on myself than I should’ve been probably, but tonight felt good. Shot was going in, got some post-ups, so was definitely a step in the right direction tonight.”
For the Phoenix, being without Wesley for so long meant playing Mitch Creek out of position for long stretches. Having the two-time champion back and productive in that four spot means Simon Mitchell finally has the line-up he and Tommy Greer put together in the offseason.
It has also taken some time for Wesley and Creek to find some chemistry. Creek missed all of the Phoenix’s preseason games with Boomers commitments, so they really haven’t spent much time together on court.
The win over the Hawks was a glimpse of things to come as Wesley, Creek and John Roberson all scored 25 or more points and looked to be in sync offensively.
Wesley facilitating from the low-post, the high-post or picking and popping gives this offence another dimension and that was evident in the way the Phoenix located shooters all game. They hit 14-28 threes and the 112 points they scored equalled their second best total of the season.
Mitchell was pleased; he knows from experience how hard it is for a player and his teammates, to find their cohesion and rhythm after a long layoff.
“Whenever you bring someone back from injury, there’s always that transitional period,” Mitchell said post-game.
“I think it’s almost easier to bring someone in than it is to bring someone back. Especially cos Tai was the man preseason and we ran everything through him, and then he and Creeky didn’t spend one day together, except for the first five minutes of game one.
“And then all of a sudden Creeky’s taking that mantle and it’s like now we’ve gotta try to make this all fit again. So it’s been a bit of a jigsaw from that standpoint, but the great thing is that everybody’s on board; everyone wants to win. There are no egos and that’s what makes it a little easier.”
Sitting and watching for nine weeks was not fun for Wesley. He has been extremely durable throughout his NBL career, missing only a handful of games following an appendectomy when with the Breakers back in 2015, so it was foreign to him to have to cheer on from the sidelines.
What it did afford him though, was the opportunity to see the game a little differently. He was able to observe a few things about his new team’s offence and the way they’re typically defended that are helping him now that he’s back.
“Yeah there’s a few things,” said Wesley.
“I think moving off the ball can really, really get you some easy buckets and then when we get a stop on defence, pushing out and being that aggressive offensive team against d-trans is really good. So those things, yeah.”
Of course having unselfish and talented teammates also helps. When you’re playing with offensive stars like Roberson and Creek, along with great shooters in Ben Madgen, Kyle Adnam and Adam Gibson, you know the defence is going to have to adjust.
It also means they have myriad options and when one player gets hot, they’ve been really good at recognising that and finding that guy. Against the Hawks it was Roberson early, Adnam next, then Creek to start the third quarter while Wesley went on a run early in the fourth to push the margin out.
“I think we’re smart enough players to read off it, read the game,” Wesley explained.
“We all realise when somebody’s going, we get them the ball, we run them the plays, and I think there’s some unselfishness there. You don’t have to touch the ball cos it’s coming around; the ball’s coming around and it’s going to be your turn. That’s the beauty of having such a high-powered offence.”
The team still has some work to do. Sitting at 8 wins and 9 losses, they are in the thick of an absolute dogfight for a top four spot. South East Melbourne is currently fifth but can move back in to fourth with a win on New Year’s Eve in Cairns. A loss would see them fall back into a four-way tie with New Zealand, Brisbane and Adelaide.
So for a brand new club that started the season so well, and can clearly score, they know they need to improve defensively if they are going to find some consistency and string some wins together. But Wesley sees another area that they also need a boost in which he is starting to help with.
“Rebounding – defensive rebounding. Those go hand in hand,” he said.
“We’re not the biggest team … so rebounding’s been one of our Achilles heels, with our defence. We’ll play a good defensive set with effort and then give up an o-board, and it just kills us.”
When asked if they have that improvement in them, Wesley was pretty confident.
“I think we do, for sure. We’re getting better. Just being on the floor together every game helps us get better and better I think. Creeky and I haven’t played much together like Simon said. We’re getting to where we’re starting to play really well together on offence and defence.”
Wesley believes in this club and can see how good they can be. It’s one of the reasons he signed a three-year deal with the Phoenix.
But he also wanted to be back in Melbourne. Despite spending three of his five NBL seasons in New Zealand, he is happier living and raising his young family in Melbourne.
With a third child on the way, The Utah native has given serious thought to staying long-term, but may not have the final say.
“So that’s one where I’m working on my wife,” Wesley explained.
“If she’ll let me stay, we’ll stay forever. If I can get a job that can support my family, I would love to. Melbourne feels like home. But I’m working on my wife; she wants to be done after this contract so we’ll see.”
Wesley came to the NBL as a local player by virtue of his Guam passport. Under Oceania rules, he was allowed to play as a non-restricted player, but that had a time limit on it that has since expired.
His current contract with the Phoenix is as a restricted player or import, which is also something that could change. Long rumoured to be considering naturalising and becoming an Australian citizen, Wesley confirmed it’s been in the works.
“Hell yeah,” he exclaimed.
“I’m still working on my paperwork – I’ve been working on it for two years. I would love to get naturalised – that would be great. I’ve got one paper left and then the whole thing is done. I’ve gotta get it done.”
Any change to his status wouldn’t impact him or the team until next season at the earliest, so for now, the focus is on trying to improve and make a push back into that top four.
Now that he’s feeling like himself again on the court, he and the team will continue to work on improving their defensive consistency and ensuring they control the boards.
That starts against the Taipans in Cairns on New Year’s Eve.
There is a lot at stake as any win against a team they’re battling with for a top four spot, is almost like a double game. South East Melbourne got Cairns in Melbourne in Round 11 and Wesley thinks if they can take some things out of the Hawks game on Saturday, it will give them a good chance to end 2019 on a high.
“Cairns is tough,” acknowledged Wesley.
“I really like their team. I like how hard they play and especially in Cairns. We gotta go and be gritty – more gritty than them. And come in with energy. Kind of how we started the third [tonight], that’s how we have to come out. Get a stop and then jam it done their throats, and that’s the only way we’re going to go in there and get a win.”
Now that Tai Wesley is feeling good again, he is tough too. He is one of the toughest covers in the league and that may be just enough to help this Phoenix team rise back into the top four.