Column: The curious case of Martell Webster
As of 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Trail Blazers guard Martell Webster was still not in a good place.
Physically? Webster was fine. But emotionally? Mentally? No. No way. Webster was nowhere near fine.
The sixth overall pick of the 2005 NBA Draft was trying, though. He searched for words, grasped at reason and attempted to say and feel the right things during a postpractice interview at the team’s workout facility in Tualatin, Ore.
But as Webster deeply sighed and roughly ran his hands through his hair; as he interspersed dialogue with long, dramatic pauses; as he looked at a hardwood floor and glanced away, rarely making eye contact, it was clear that the player who was supposed to be one of the key components to the resurrection and glory of Rip City basketball has temporarily lost his way.
“In my head — no, seriously — in my head, I always think of myself as an NBA starter,” Webster, 23, said.
And that’s the problem. Because Webster is no longer a starter. His old job belongs to Nicolas Batum now. And while Webster is not seeking sympathy or compassion, he is looking for a little guidance. Which makes his situation that much tougher. Because the only one who can truly help Webster find the light is himself.
“It’s going to be a mental challenge,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. “It’s not physical ability. It’s mental.”
Everything is mental for Webster right now. Everything is in his head. And while his eight-game, 16-day struggle to put the past behind him and focus on the future is not shocking, it is somewhat surprising. Mainly because it has lasted this long and run this deep.
Lost in the exciting ascension of Batum has been Webster’s sudden fall. And now that Batum has officially arrived, there is no going back. Webster knows this. Which is the primary reason it has taken him this long to adjust to his new reality.
“(Batum) has been balling … he’s doing a great job,” Webster said. “I always support my players and my teammates; we’ve been doing a good job. But, I don’t know. It’s just — I’m a creature of habit.”
Habits: hard to break. Pride: hard to lose. But the words “Martell Webster,” “Portland Trail Blazers” and “starting small forward” may never be uttered again in the same sentence, barring the unexpected or unforeseen. And the sharpshooter from Seattle who beamed, laughed and said “Marty Party” after tying a career high with 28 points Feb. 16 against the Los Angeles Clippers is now lost in a new, unknown world.
Nowhere was that clearer than Tuesday night at the Rose Garden. After averaging just 3.6 points on 25-percent shooting from Feb. 19-Mar. 7, Webster broke out. He poured in 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting in 15 minutes, finally starting to look his former high-flying self.
But after the game, Webster was flat. He was one of the first Blazers to shower, dress and exit the locker room. While discussing his performance, Webster sounded more depressed than driven. Even his attire — dressed head to toe in black, with a hooded sweatshirt draped over his head — signaled desperation. Then there were the words, which ended with Webster conceding that he was still fortunate and still blessed, despite his new environment.
Less than 12 hours later, Webster joined Jerryd Bayless on Wednesday as the last Blazers on the practice court. While Bayless sent up extra shots and traded jokes with assistant coach Bill Bayno, Webster hoisted up long-range bombs. Most made the net sway. But some clanked, while others fell short after being offered up with a tense, uneasy touch. When one shot didn’t fall, Webster shouted twice, momentarily stopping other conversations as eyes were swiftly directed toward the young man who issued the curses.
Webster can find his way out of this. He’s worked too hard and come too far to fall apart now. Before his demotion, he was playing the best basketball of his career. And his unique athletic blend of power, speed and finesse could be a difference maker for the Blazers, should the team extend its season and reach the first round of the NBA playoffs.
But it all comes down to Webster. It’s his game, his career, his life. And he’s going to have to accept the change before he can begin to move forward.
“It’s something that takes repetition and trust,” Webster said. “All those things play a big part in building a championship team. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
But it needs to happen soon.
Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/blazerbanter
Interview: Check the Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter for full transcriptions of recent interviews with Webster and McMillan.