Corey Webster wanted this opportunity so much — wanted so desperately a shot to prove that he belongs in the NBA — that he was willing to pay the cost.
Webster, the New Zealand native in camp trying to make the Pelicans roster was so hungry for an NBA shot that when his agent informed the 6-foot-2 guard that the Pels had interest, he didn’t hesitate to make his way — and pay his way — to New Orleans.
“I was willing to do that,” Webster said this week. “I was willing to do anything for the opportunity.”
Now he’s trying to make the most of it.
And New Zealand is watching.
Matt Ryan, the Pelicans’ director of basketball communications, said he’s taken requests from “five or 10” interview requests from New Zealand media outlets, and several are covering Webster’s pursuit of a roster spot from afar.
When New Orleans blog Bourbon Street Shots rated Webster a 50-1 shot to make the Pelicans, the unscientific odds merited a website story from New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times. Bourbon Street Shots writer Michael McNamara devoted 289 words to Webster in a breakdown of Pelicans roster candidates.
The Star Times’ analysis of that analysis was 394 words.
“When something like this happens, the whole country usually gets behind people,” Webster said. “So it’s been great just to get messages from people and all the support from back home and my family and stuff.”
New Zealanders in the NBA are a rarity. Only two active players — Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams and Detroit’s Aron Baynes — were born there, but Baynes grew up in Australia and plays for its national team. Sean Marks played in 230 NBA games between 1998-2011.
Perhaps the nation’s best-known basketballer, Webster said, is Kirk Penney, a college star at Wisconsin who played six games over two seasons for Miami and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Like Penney, Webster’s popularity is-home grown.
Webster has been a star in the Australian National Basketball League, where last season he averaged 15.3 points per game to lead the New Zealand Breakers to the ANBL championship.
He’s also played for New Zealand’s national team at a host of events, including last year’s FIBA World Cup, where his squad lost 98-71 to Anthony Davis and Team USA. Davis had 21 points in that matchup. Webster finished with eight.
Davis next saw Webster this summer playing pickup with the Pelicans — “He was ballin,’ ” Davis said — and was reminded that he’d seen him in international competition.
“He definitely can play,” Davis said. “He can score the ball, great point guard.”
Webster was known mostly for his scoring in New Zealand. He’s making the transition to point guard in the hopes of landing on an NBA roster, and that’s not his only adjustment.
“Obviously the players are a lot more athletic and bigger,” Webster said. “They get up and down the court quicker. That was a big step to take. Other than that, it was not too much difference. It’s all basketball. It’s all the same skill set.”
Webster is confident his skill set translates to the NBA but knows there are no guarantees in New Orleans, which has five players competing for a maximum of two roster spots.
He’s approaching preseason games as a chance to make the Pelicans but also draw the attention of other teams around the league who might be looking for a guard.
Webster “bet on himself,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said, in paying his way to the States to get that shot.
“He’s done a good job for us,” Gentry said. “He’s a nice person. He’s a very nice person and a very competitive guy. Those kind of guys you pull for. You can’t help but pull for them.”
Webster said that his international experience gave him the confidence to chase an NBA roster spot, and the month or so he’s spent with the Pelicans — starting with workouts in New Orleans prior to training camp — has only solidified his belief that he can play at this level.
“Every kid that plays basketball wants to play in the NBA,” Webster said. “Even just getting the opportunity to come all the way here from New Zealand, it’s a dream come true. Obviously I haven’t done anything yet. I’m trying to work my way there and prove myself, but I celebrate the small successes along the way while I’m doing it.”