With all due respect to the city of New York, there is an increasingly valid case to be made that Las Vegas, in the early weeks of July, is the true mecca of basketball. The Vegas edition of the NBA summer league is home to every variant on the scale of basketball skill. You can find blue-chip prospects like Lonzo Ball — who can summon pilgrims from all over the nation — playing alongside mid-second rounders hustling for a rotation spot in the regular season.
And then there are the relative cellar-dwellers — the bottom 10 percent of the top 1 percent of basketball talent in the world — hoping against hope, peering from outside the pane-glass window for a shot at donning the esteemed uniforms. If the NBA is the cream of the crop, its summer league displays a more full range.
That brings us to 28-year-old Corey Webster, who carries on his shoulders not only his hopes of making an NBA roster, but the cause of basketball in his home country, New Zealand. The 6-foot-2 guard hopes that his quest to follow in the footsteps of Kiwi NBAers Steven Adams and Aron Baynes will inspire a new generation of ballers in his homeland.
“You can get your opportunities over here if you play well back home,” Webster said. “Just keep pushing and follow their dreams.”
Webster’s dreams — as well as his brother Tai’s, who is playing for the Golden State Warriors summer league squad — were buoyed by the basketball pedigree of the family’s patriarch, Tony Webster, an All-WAC collegiate athlete who went on to play professionally in New Zealand.
However, the road map for young proteges who don’t find a basketball encyclopedia sitting across the dinner table every evening is more complicated. Webster believes a lack of investment stands in the way of a basketball explosion in his rugby-obsessed nation.
“If more money goes into the game, more kids are going to play,” he said. “They’re going to have more opportunities, more coaches.”
Still, Webster finds himself on the outside looking in, for the second time. For fringe prospects, the margin between success and failure is thin. And in the two years since his short stint on the New Orleans Pelicans’ preseason roster, all the momentum he once possessed has cratered.
Plagued by hip and back injuries, his production plummeted. Last November, on the day of his birthday, he was arrested and charged with assault in a nightclub. The investigation is ongoing, and though Webster denies involvement, it was enough for the NZ Breakers to part ways with him.
“There’s a lot of distractions,” he said of Vegas. “But you gotta stay locked in and do the right thing. I don’t wanna make any mistakes from being out or any of those kinds of things.”
He bounced back in a big way, signing with the Wellington Saints and posting a 26-point average that led the team to a 16-0 record and cemented his second MVP award. But the ghosts of stunted progress are not easily shed.
“I was a little bit shocked at the time, a little bit overwhelmed by it all,” he said of his earlier shot at the NBA. “The second time around, I’m being myself out there. I’m more relaxed.”
While that’s certainly true, playing within himself is unlikely to translate to a golden ticket to the NBA. Through three games, the two-time NBL MVP is averaging just 4.7 points in 16.8 minutes off the bench behind Dennis Smith Jr. and Yogi Ferrell. Any hopes he has of playing in the NBA are contingent on his ability to transition to the point guard spot. If his NBA dreams don’t pan out, the soft-spoken shooter will compete for a spot in the EuroLeague. And the NBL, of course, would welcome its MVP back with open arms. (After signing a two-year deal with the Perth Wildcats in March, Webster was granted a request to be released on Wednesday so he could pursue opportunities overseas).
The NBA summer league, in recent years, is increasingly viewed as the breeding ground for future phenoms. But this event is inextricably tied to the ethos of Las Vegas, where there are more long shots than sure things.
For every Markelle Fultz there are 10 Corey Websters, trying desperately to weave together enough ragtag contracts and slight opportunities to turn their passions into their livelihood, fueled by nothing but consummate love for the game.