New, improved Webster still in search of constant confidence
PORTLAND — Brief, fleeting glimpses have allowed Martell Webster to catch sight of it.
After four and a half years in the NBA and a career’s worth of physical and psychological ups and downs, the Trail Blazers small forward said he can finally view his ceiling.
But Webster was adamant that he is nowhere near to touching it.
“It’s there,” said the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Seattle native. “I can see it.”
After burning through January, Webster is averaging 10.8 points and 4.0 rebounds this season. In the process, he has become Portland’s premier outside shooting threat.
Blazers lead assistant coach Dean Demopoulos said time and patience have allowed Webster, 23, to approach his ceiling.
When Webster was drafted by the Blazers out of Seattle Prep with the sixth overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, predictions about his place in the league were based more off potential than reality.
Now, reality is starting to become real.
“Remember: He skipped a few letters of the alphabet to get here” Demopoulos said. “You skip that college step, and you’ve skipped a part of the process.”
But to Portland coach Nate McMillan, Webster is simply doing what should be done.
McMillan said the key to Webster’s improved offensive consistency stems from one number: five — the amount of years Webster is approaching in the NBA.
No matter how high his ceiling might still be, Webster is still learning how to best maximize his talent while balancing that shaky, unstable quality otherwise known as confidence.
And it is confidence — both in his game and himself — that will ultimately define Webster, who hopes to eventually more than double his current lifespan in a hard, unforgiving league.
“That’s the goal,” Webster said. “That’s every player that comes into this league’s goal: To have longevity and to last as long as they possibly can.
It was 10:35 p.m. last Thursday when a call from Webster came through the line.
Not that late. But considering that Webster and the Blazers were in Houston, killing time before a game against the Rockets, his phone call actually rang in at 12:35 Friday morning, Central Standard Time.
But there was no cause for alarm; no hint of Jail Blazers days gone by. A calm, confident-sounding Webster was simply maintaining his normal schedule.
“I don’t go to bed until 2,” Webster said.
For the next 15 minutes, he ran through the first half of his season using an even, subdued tone.
Little seemed to excite him; nothing appeared to bother him. Borrowing a page from the book of the ultra-calm Andre Miller, Webster sounded more like Steve Blake than Jeff Pendergraph or Travis Outlaw.
But the tone also had a purpose.
After a hot start, Webster struggled offensively through most of November and December. And the fact that he remained in Portland’s starting lineup was more out of necessity — the Blazers’ roster shrank to eight healthy players due to a series of key injuries — than a tribute to his production.
However, new and improved dimensions of Webster’s game — namely defense and durability — carried him through the rough stretch.
Then Webster used January to prove he deserved his time in the light.
He averaged 15.5 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 38.9 percent (42 of 108) behind the 3-point line. And he scored in double figures in all but three of Portland’s 15 games.
Webster then peaked during a Jan. 23 road victory over Detroit, pouring in a career-high 28 points while knocking down 6 of 13 3-point attempts in 48 minutes of action.
Following the game, though, Webster deflected any praise. And his emphasis of team over self was not momentary — it is a trademark of his new identity.
“The proof is in the play,” Webster said. “I’m just going out there and playing. I don’t really need to talk about it.”
Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge stated that part of Webster’s recent success comes from new knowledge. After years of trying to adjust and adapt, Webster has found his calling in a league where a bounty of talent often forces players to find a niche if they hope to survive.
And while Webster said he was not “boasting or bragging,” he referenced Boston’s Ray Allen and former 3-point expert Glen Rice as players who built long, respected careers off their ability to consistently knock down long-range shots.
“Being able to shoot, that makes you somewhat dangerous,” Webster said.
Almost every NBA player goes through periods where they second guess themselves, Blake said.
However, most shoot their way out of slumps, doing so with the understanding that their talent level has already proven them to be among the best in the world at their chosen profession.
Thus, a high level of confidence at the NBA level is often derived from simple things, such as extra workouts or late-night practices.
“You have to be ready for when you only get three shots, you make two of them,” Blake said.
Echoing Portland assistant coach Demopoulos, Blake stated that Webster’s evolution is part of the natural process.
Issues such as the distance that separates the 3-point line from the basket have faded away, while Webster’s ability to understand and accept his role as at best a third option on the Blazers has increased his stature among teammates and coaches.
“He came out of high school a young kid, and now he’s a man,” Blake said. “He’s not only maturing as a person, but as a basketball player.”
That maturity rose to the forefront during January.
As Webster produced his best statistical month as a pro, he also displayed a series of intangibles that
were even more promising.
Leading the charge: an aggressive, lockdown defensive mindset, as well as the ability to blend mid-range jump shots and hard drives to the basket with rapid-fire 3-pointers.
The latter was the most overt symbol of Webster’s evolution.
After years in which his tantalizing blend of natural talent and athleticism oozed potential — but rarely produced a consistent flow — a 15-game stretch in January offered hope that Webster’s next
step had finally arrived.
Webster said his understanding of “time-score situation” made the biggest difference.
Since Webster rarely controls the ball, his primary scoring opportunities emerge when an opponent double teams Blazers such as Brandon Roy and Aldridge.
Before, Webster felt pressure to produce.
But as his basketball intelligence has grown, Webster is now able to recognize when he should either pull up for a jumper, drive to the hoop, or pass the ball back out and allow a new play to emerge.
Furthermore, the decision to do so now comes quick and easy, based more off instinct than thought.
“It takes experience,” Webster said. “Not many players know that right off the bat, especially coming out of high school and being young.”
Despite his progress, though, Webster’s long-term future with the Blazers remains unclear.
His current average points and rebounds would be career highs if the season ended now, and he has started 40 of Portland’s 49 games.
The numbers shine even brighter when it is taken into consideration that Webster missed nearly the entire 2008-09 following surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot.
But for all of the positives that currently surround him, Webster’s position with the Blazers is also underlined by uncertainty.
The sole reason Webster began the season as Portland’s starting small forward was because Nicolas Batum underwent shoulder surgery one day prior to the start of the 2009-10 campaign.
And while Webster has embraced his new role — at times rivaling Roy as the Blazers’ most consistent player — issues such as consistency and confidence still hover, at times blocking the path to his long-sought ceiling.
Batum’s return to the lineup only complicates the situation. The second-year forward took the court for the first time this season last Monday against New Orleans, immediately showing off a dizzying array of new skills.
Since Batum’s return, Webster’s production has fallen off. And he scored just six points during the last two games while shooting 2 of 10 from the floor.
Moreover, Webster’s biggest asset — his ability to sink the 3 — can also be his biggest liability. He was 0 of 5 beyond the arc in a loss to Houston last Friday, and 50 percent of his field-goal attempts during the last two games have been 3s.
The end result: A month’s worth of undisputable progress has run into another roadblock.
A push for Batum to crack the team’s starting lineup has already begun. And while Webster will likely remain at the small forward position either way, his minutes will almost certainly decrease.
But while the questions and uncertainty have become second nature for Webster, his answer is always the same.
And following the best month of his career, there’s a noticeable change in his outlook — one that allows him to say the same old words with a new, improved confidence.
“I just keep working,” Webster said. “That’s all I can do.”