Son of a star, freshman Tai Strickland is learning to embrace his family legacy

Freshman guard Tai Strickland was expected to redshirt this season, but he's making the most of his limited playing time instead.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Tai Strickland has always been the son of a household name.

His father, Rod Strickland, was a first round draft selection, played 17 seasons in the NBA and ranked seventh all-time in assists when he retired in 2005.

The weight of his father’s legacy in basketball — and the genes that helped him achieve that reputation — is something Wisconsin’s freshman point guard has only recently come to recognize.

“Probably just the last couple of years is when I’ve fully realized just how good he was, and how much of an impact he’s had on me,” Tai Strickland said after a December practice inside the Kohl Center.

The elder Strickland stands six feet three inches tall, and one of the most important attributes Tai inherited from his father is his height. But it didn’t always look like it would turn out that way.

Tai was just five feet six inches during his freshman year of high school at St. Petersburg in Florida before quickly catching up to his father’s stature. Now six feet two inches, he’s longer and quicker, yet still facing the challenges of getting adjusted to the body he’s always wanted but never had until recently.

“I’m still learning just my speed, quickness, I’m getting adapted to that,” he said. “Speeding up my mental processes to go along with athleticism — that’s tough but it’s not something I can’t do.”

The Badgers are banking on that sort of development from Strickland, especially with the season-ending knee injury of backup point guard Trevor Anderson announced on December 7. 

Since the injury, Strickland has played in just four games, with Wisconsin often preferring to have Brad Davison or Brevin Pritzl fill in at point. Still, the quick guard posted career bests just two days after being interviewed for this story, as he dropped 14 points and six assists in a blowout home victory against Savannah State.

“He’s really shifty and hard to stay in front of, and that’s a unique ability that he has,” assistant coach Dean Oliver said after practice. “Now it’s just a matter of learning when to do those things and learning what your role is coming off the bench as a backup point guard, keeping the team under control. Those type of things — knowing the time to score and when to do those things — that’s what all freshman have to learn.”

Thankfully, Strickland has had a better basketball education than most.

He’s learned countless details of the game from his father, who was a crafty scorer in addition to his passing prowess. Oliver said that foundation is evident in the individual moves the younger Strickland possesses in his repertoire.

Outside of his family, the freshman also counts current professional stars Kyrie Irving and John Wall as mentors.

Irving is his father’s godson, while Wall played under Rod while he was a special assistant to John Calipari at Kentucky from 2008 to 2014.

Strickland remembers being embarrassed by his father after one Kentucky practice, as the ex-pro threw the ball off of his son’s head and between his legs before scoring, in front of Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.

Strickland — just eight or nine years old at the time — started crying in front of the NBA’s next generation of stars. But now he’s got Wall and Irving’s numbers.

“Kyrie, he’s one of the best point guards in the NBA, and so is John Wall, and for me to be a phone call away from those guys — that’s big for me, for my confidence and even just to see how they handle things, that’s big for me.”

Strickland might have some All-Stars on speed dial, but that doesn’t make him one of their peers. At least not yet.

The true freshman has averaged just 4.6 minutes per game in nine appearances, mostly being limited to cameo appearances or slightly more extended runs in blowout affairs.

That’s unsurprising for someone who had to fend off redshirt questions before the season. Out of circumstance, Strickland is now the nominal backup point guard for the Badgers, but he’s still learning on the job.

“He’s kinda been thrown out into the fire ... So I tip my hat off to him personally, but he’s just gonna continue to grow as a player and an individual, so I think that down the road we’re gonna use him,” starting point guard D’Mitrik Trice said.

If Strickland still has a ways to go as a player, Wisconsin can at least be confident he’s happy to keep working on common freshman pitfalls like decision making and defensive assignments. 

And if Wisconsin finds it has another challenge to throw at its pedigreed freshman point guard, Tai will be ready.

He’s been ready since he watched his dad play for the Wizards from the stands, since he cried in front of future NBA stars and since he was overlooked by recruiters across the country.

“I have a huge chip on my shoulder,” he said. “And it gets bigger by the day.”

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