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Time to be New Zealand’s future again
MELBOURNE (Paulo Kennedy's View from Downunder) - They're both in their mid-20s and they were both considered the future of New Zealand basketball for some time.
For differing reasons, neither has progressed as fast as anticipated and a young man named Steven Adams has emerged as the new face of Kiwi hoops.
Abercrombie burst onto the scene with his spectacular athleticism at the 2010 FIBA World Championship, averaging 12.7 points a game and throwing down a string of impressive dunks that had the world wondering "who is this kid?".
But since that tournament, and his superb knockout round performance against Russia, Abercrombie has averaged just 5.8 points in official tournament play for his country, and has seemingly missed more games with injury than he’s played.
Webster used to go toe-to-toe with Patty Mills through juniors, in fact their match-up was one of the must-see attractions of the Oceania junior carnivals.
But his own discretions put him on the wrong side of the ledger with doping authorities, and at 25 he is yet to cement himself as a starter at club level, let alone taken the international game by storm.
You can bet coach Nenad Vucinic, between experimenting with various line-ups, has taken a little time to smile that his talented duo have led the scoring in their first two games on tour.
Webster, who came to life last international season, is going into this World Cup campaign with a take-no-prisoners attitude.
"You have to go there with that positive attitude, because if you step on the court with any of the guys at that level and think you're not going to do well they are just going to crush you," he said.
Webster has become a master of the ball-screen, and is a threat to score from anywhere on the court once he has a big body to work off, something that has delighted coach Vucinic.
"I've been working on that in our individual workouts," he said during the NBL season.
"Our national team coach is European so he's big on the ball-screen, that's how they play over there, and he's told me that's what I need to work on and I've made a conscious effort to do that and it’s paying off."
In contrast, even though Abercrombie had a breakout year in the NBL - becoming the Breakers' go-to guy down the stretch and breaking into the league’s top 10 scorers - his approach to this campaign is different.
"I know Nenad will have a really good game plan in mind and whatever role he has for me I'll play," he said.
"I certainly think I've improved and that I'm capable of playing a big role so we'll just have to wait and see."
Funnily enough though, the Tall Blacks need both their emerging stars to fight those instincts a little if they're going to crack the knockout rounds for the fourth consecutive World Cup.
Abercrombie's unselfishness - his willingness to keep the ball moving and pick up his scraps out of the offence or from o-boards - is an important part in New Zealand's point of difference.
Their ball and player movement can be exceptional, and the ability of players to pick their spots astutely makes them hard to guard, allowing average shot-makers to still be offensive threats.
But the 27-year-old Abercrombie is the team's third most dangerous one-on-one player, and when he goes inside his shell too often the team is worse off.
His shot-making is much-improved, and at times he must be the guy making the defence collapse so other Tall Blacks can pick their moments, just as a less developed version of himself did in 2010.
Webster is exactly the opposite.
On a team where almost every other player relies on the offence to create their shots, Webster is the circuit breaker who can make something out of nothing.
But perhaps the best thing Webster brings to the table is someone whose penetration can create ball movement and shots when the natural flow of the offence has been shut down.
So while the Tall Blacks need Webster to maintain his aggressive mindset, he must use his one-on-one skills to get teammates involved, not just with direct assists, but early kick-outs that keep the defence guessing so his scoring ability can come to the fore later.
For the first time, the Kiwis will have a full squad of players capable of feeding off those opportunities as young tyros like Tai Webster, Isaac Fotu, Rob Loe and Tai Wynyard make their World Cup debuts alongside their established elders.
"Certainly we have an extra level of depth that we haven't had before and tha'’s very exciting," Abercrombie said.
And in typical fashion, the 1.98m jumping jack firmly believes that Kiwi unselfishness will make the undersized Tall Blacks grow another leg.
"I think it's just an environment where everyone seems to know their roles really well," he said.
"Nenad does a good job of establishing that and giving everyone confidence to just go out and do what they do."
Again in typical fashion, Webster feels it's the natural ability of his precocious teammates that will surprise the world.
"You have to believe in yourself and believe in your skills," he said.
"The work I'm doing each day, I'm doing it as hard as possible and when the time comes hopefully it will pay off."
If those two heads can come together as one, anything is possible for New Zealand come August 30.
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