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Tai Strickland brings a new threat to St. Pete’s attack

He and brother Terrell moved to play together. Looks like it’s working out.
St. Petersburg's Tai Strickland (2) during the Countryside at St. Petersburg High School boys basketball game on Thursday, February 1, 2018. (LANCE ROTHSTEIN | Special to The Times)
Published Feb. 8, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Tai Strickland can wrap a basketball around his body at warp speed before deciding whether to go to the basket or pass to a teammate.

It is a move that often leaves defenders knock-kneed.

Whizzing past opponents is easy. What the St. Petersburg High senior cannot shake is comparisons to his famous father, former longtime NBA guard Rod Strickland.

"I get it all the time," Tai said. "People see the last name and that I play basketball and immediately they start asking about my dad and if we're related or if that's my father.

"It can seem like a curse because there is supposed to be added expectations. But he has not put any pressure on me."

Tai also has played with well-known players, too. For the past two seasons, he started at Tampa Catholic alongside Kevin Knox, a McDonald's All-American who now has a starring role as a freshman at Kentucky.

"I've been around some big-time guys," Tai said.

But Tai knew that to play with the Crusaders, at least the past two seasons, meant playing in the shadow of Knox.

In another situation, stringing together important night-in and night-out numbers in every statistic that is kept, soaring through the climate-controlled air of various arenas and playing with flat-out abandon would draw the crowd.

But in Tai's situation, the crowd always belonged to someone else. Fact is fact.

That was set to change this season with Knox off to Kentucky.
Tai finally had a chance to shed his anonymity with a leading role on the court.

Instead, he was off to St. Petersburg.

It was the same situation. Once again, Tai would be deferring to another star in Green Devils guard Serrel Smith, a Mississippi signee who is the school's all-time leading scorer.

Tai transferred along with his younger brother, Terrell, a junior guard. The two were on Tampa Catholic's roster last season but Terrell figured to get significantly more playing time at St. Petersburg.

"It's the first time we've been able to start on the same team, even in AAU," Tai said.

Tai also knew that by joining St. Petersburg he would be a second whirling dervish for opponents to consider. Smith on one side of the court, Tai on the other, interchangeable, lethal.

How could any defense fully concentrate in either direction?

"Tai knew that Serrel already was the face of the program," Green Devils coach Chris Blackwell said. "This is what he wanted. He put his ego aside and played his role perfectly."

There are times when Tai shines just as bright as the team's star. He has a knack for producing game-winning shots, such as his buzzer-beating layup to beat Countryside in December.

"We have a good give-and-take on this team," Tai said. "I can put the ball in the hoop and take the load of other guys. And they can take the load off me. We just work well together."

Together, the Stricklands and Smith have racked up points — and wins. The Green Devils were 17-4 entering the week and are the No. 2 seed (behind Countryside) heading into next week's Class 8A, District 8 tournament.

Tai has college offers from Tennessee Tech and Boston College. He has interest from others, too. Virginia and Baylor have inquired. Oklahoma State was in town this week to watch him play.

For now, Tai is more worried about getting the Green Devils to the state semifinals, something they missed out on last season.

"I expected the team to keep winning when I got here," Tai said. "We're not done yet. We want to do it big.

"We want to win it all."