Is Tai Wynyard set for a resurgence with the Cairns Taipans?
When you read headlines about a player hoping to 'reignite his career', he's often older than just 21 years old. Auckland product Tai Wynyard however, has come a long way since since being touted as 'The Next Big Thing' for New Zealand basketball, back in 2013.
Wynyard gained a lot of attention as a junior. The centre possessed a strong frame (thanks in no small part to his world champion woodchopper parents), some solid bounce, and a crafty post game that made him exceptionally productive with the country's junior national teams.
In 2014, Wynyard led New Zealand, averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds to the FIBA Oceania Final against Australia, whose lineup included now NBL players Harry Froling, Jordan Hunter, Rhys Vague and George Blagojevic, as well as current college players Dejan Vasiljevic, Jack White and Tanner Krebs. New Zealand came away with a close loss by only three points, with Wynyard scoring a team-high 21 points on 9/12 shooting, along with seven rebounds.
It was at this stage that Wynyard truly planted his name on the map. That July, at 16 years of age, he became the youngest Tall Black in New Zealand basketball history, suiting up for the men's team against South Korea, and only narrowly missing out on World Cup selection.
The centre would continue from strength to strength. He signed on as a Breakers development player (DP) in the NBL, and in 2015, announced his commitment to the University of Kentucky to learn under the tutelage of coach John Calipari. He was also chosen to participate in the prestigious Nike Hoops Summit and won MVP at the 2015 FIBA 3x3 U18 World Championships.
Buzz was high for the big man, and with the opportunity to join a college program known for churning out NBA players year after year, the next step was starting to seem in his sights. Coach Calipari spoke glowingly of Wynyard --whose potential reminded him of Steven Adams-- and his NBA prospects.
Multiple setbacks occurred during Wynyard's college career, starting with a redshirted freshman season in 2016. The big man appeared in 15 games in his next season, averaging a mere 3.6 minutes per game, stuck behind a talented front court that included Australian product Isaac Humphries.
Wynyard's potential languished at the bottom of the Wildcats' pecking order. Armed with experience via Calipari's coaching and fierce internal competition from Kentucky's talent-laden roster, he returned in a New Zealand uniform in 2017's U19 World Cup to prove himself. Wynyard led his country in points (14.3) and rebounds (9.3) once again. "I saw Tai over in Eygpt," Calipari commented, raising expectations of an increased role for Wynyard. "Tai's better."
Five months later, early into Kentucky's 2017/18 campaign, Wynyard suffered a season ending back injury. Compounded by this development was a suspension that stemmed from Tai's presence at a party that allegedly involved another student carrying a gun - a non-incident that did not involve Tai himself doing anything wrong.
It was clear that Wynyard was not going to get the chance to prove himself in Kentucky. After announcing his transfer to Santa Clara in May 2018, the 20 year old Wynyard ultimately decided to make the move back home to play in the New Zealand NBL, and play with the Southland Sharks. The decision made sense, given his history with Sharks coach Judd Flavell.
"Juddy was great for me when I was younger," Wynyard told the Southland Times. "When I was first getting into it at 14 or 15, he got me in, made me work and made me better. So, when he hit me up, I jumped at the chance to come down here to get healthy and to get better again."
The roster situation was ideal as well - Wynyard would play on a team stacked with NBL talent including Jarrod Weeks, Mitch McCarron, Todd Blanchfield and Alex Pledger. Though production was minimal for Wynyard, it was clear his prior back injury was still limiting his movement, and his conditioning --an area often critiqued by Calipari-- seemed lacking. The centre was out of shape, and out of practice, barely playing since his impressive 2017 FIBA outing. But Wynyard knew it was going to be a slow process.
"I want to get healthy, get out there and contribute. It's small steps for me having been out for a year now, but I'm loving getting the gears grinding again and getting back into it."
It's been five years since Wynyard's debut with the Breakers, but the big man has finally found himself back in the NBL as a development player for the Cairns Taipans, with news breaking in late September.
Wynyard's NZNBL form was perhaps not worthy of an NBL spot, but his pedigree and potential lingers, especially as injury insurance. The Taipans are relatively deep at the centre position, featuring Cam Oliver as well as local favourite Nate Jawai. Should Jawai succumb to injury however --which is quite often the case-- Wynyard may be called upon for regular season minutes.
In the meantime, Wynyard will benefit from NBL level training, as he continues to get his body right and his game back to the heights of years prior. If everything goes to plan, we could see Wynyard as a solid contributor for Cairns, with potential to develop into a high level NBL player.