One downhill dribble sidestepping to the left for a 15-foot jump shot. That’s Tai Strickland’s sweet spot. But it’s a shot he wouldn’t have knocked down a year ago.
“It’s not really a basketball thing. It’s more of just who I am and I’m proud of how far I’ve come,” Strickland said. “My confidence in myself is really high, which I don’t think I’ve had in a long time.”
Roadblocks in Strickland’s development have taken a toll both physically and mentally. But his early season performances have been emblematic of the playmaker he was originally recruited to be in 2019.
The 6-foot-2 guard underwent shoulder surgery for a torn right labrum and a partially torn rotator cuff in August 2020. He played in just six games and averaged 11.7 minutes last season as he underwent rehab and struggled to find a role in the rotation.
Strickland said he can’t remember one specific instance causing the tear in his shoulder. It built up over the course of his collegiate career, following him from his freshman year at Wisconsin through his redshirt season at Temple as he continued to ignore the worsening pain.
While working out during the quarantine, a family friend who recently had the same surgery suggested Strickland get his shoulder evaluated. He ignored the advice. “I’m still going. I want to play!”
That person then went to his dad, Rod Strickland, suggesting his son get his shoulder looked at. Rod, who played 17 seasons in the NBA from 1988 to 2005, talked his son into it. Sure enough, Strickland needed surgery, a reality that put a dent in his plans.
The shoulder issues kept him from getting the same rise on his jump shot. He originally thought the change came about because he was getting stronger.
“I kind of just adapted to it and I lowered my shot, lowered my shot, lowered my shot,” Tai said. “Then people started noticing. ‘Your shot was up here in high school. Why is it lower?’”
The Tampa, Fla., native couldn’t rise into the same arc. He still had a high IQ and a tight handle on the ball. Defensively, he could still impact the game. What kept him off the floor was his inability to score.
He saw action in Temple’s first three games last year and shot a combined 1 for 13 from the field. His confidence plummeted, he said, to the point where he felt like he couldn’t recover in a timely manner.
“I was so excited to play that I didn’t really take the time to realize that I won’t be the same person immediately,” Strickland said. “I wasn’t mentally prepared to play.”
An outside observer watching Strickland’s journey from redshirting to playing sparingly to now earning legitimate rotation minutes can see the improved numbers and the growing confidence.
Through two games, Tai’s 19 points have surpassed his 14-point total from all of last season.
“He’s healthier and more confident,” coach Aaron McKie said. “Everybody is at their best when they’re more confident and you have a belief in what you can do out there. Because of confidence and him being healthier, he’s helping produce a little bit more for us.”
Over this past offseason, Tai said he was able to take his recovery at a slower pace. He didn’t touch a basketball his first two weeks at home in the spring, then found time to get on a court every day after that and regain his feel for the game.
“I was doing two internships (one in risk management and another in wealth management), class, and then practicing. It took a lot of pressure off of basketball,” Strickland said. “Just getting new experiences and realizing I will be successful regardless of basketball. That might have been the biggest changing point for me.”
In the early portion of the season, Strickland has shown that slow burn is paying dividends. He’s seen 16 minutes in each of Temple’s first two games and is shooting the ball at a 58.3% clip.
If you ask Strickland, he would say his role is to pressure the ball defensively. He wants to turn ballhandlers, make them uncomfortable and force opposing offenses to start higher than they want to when getting into sets — something McKie has emphasized.
“He’s always been that immediate spark who can do whatever. We have the utmost confidence in him and he’s putting guys in the right places,” freshman Damian Dunn said. “We definitely believe in Tai. I wasn’t really surprised by everything he was doing out there.”
Strickland, now equipped with some self-assurance, peace of mind, and that dependable jump shot, could be a real difference maker for Temple’s backcourt.