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Not just a great defender: Tahjere McCall on turning the Taipans around

In his own words, Tahjere McCall "sucked" at basketball when he first took up the sport as a teenager. Undersized and well behind on skill development, McCall quickly found a way to get on the court.

Defence.

"I was shorter when I started playing so the only way I could get on the court or have people pick me was to get all the loose balls or rebounds or just play defence super hard," McCall told ESPN.

"That's where it started and then my natural ability came through, I got taller, and I started learning pretty fast. After that, I loved it, it's like a challenge. It's like my whole life, it's a challenge, and it's about overcoming the challenge."

The early challenge for the Cairns Taipans swelled significantly as fellow star import Scott Machado clutched at his foot early in the Round 2 matchup with the Tasmania JackJumpers.

With Machado expected to be sidelined for at least a month, McCall has combined his lead role on the defensive end with added responsibility on offence, assuming the main ball-handling duties for a Snakes outfit that has won two in a row to sit fourth entering Round 4.

Across those wins over the JackJumpers and Adelaide 36ers, McCall is posting averages of 16.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.5 steals, with the stat stuffing performances hardly a surprise to first-year head coach Adam Forde.

"We watched a lot of his G League stuff and spoke to a lot of his coaches, and it was one of those things that everyone was surprised by it but me," Forde said. "Not to sound arrogant, but I wasn't surprised because I know he can do that, and it was a no brainer for Tahj to take the ball handling."

Aside from the growing list of highlight reel plays on both ends, it's the on-court leadership that has turned heads in Cairns thus far, with McCall's cheerful smile just as quickly replaced with ferocious competitiveness that seeks perfection, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

"There are dudes that will be good basketball players, there are great defenders, but Tahj also gets four guys on the court with him to do the things required. He directs them.

"There's only been him and Damian Martin that I've got to witness in my time in the NBL that can do that. I'm not trying to put big tickets on him because I'm conscious that I don't want to burden him with unnecessary pressure, but that's what makes him elite."

McCall is adamant he doesn't care about winning the award for Best Defensive Player that is named after Martin, a six-time winner. That will take care of itself. Instead, he wants to be the driver of standards on and off the court for a Taipans team that entered the season widely expected to finish near the bottom of the table.

"I know that I give my all on the court in practice and in the weight room, so I know when I do say something or when I do something, they know it's coming from someone who is actually doing the work," McCall explains.

"I feel like those guys are my brothers, so when you're down and you're fighting or when you're up, you do it together. I tell them it's 'one band, one sound', it's off the movie Drumline and it just means we all do it together. We lose together, we win together and if someone is doing extra, we do it together."

In just his second season as a head coach after spending NBL21 manning the sidelines for the Sydney Kings, Forde admits he can be an emotional leader at times, with McCall's caring and cheerful demeanour proving to be a perfect fit in a locker room that is striving to find a consistent level of competitiveness from week to week.

"The coolest thing about him is that he helps balance me. I think about halftime when we played Tasmania. I do my bit and then Tahj delivers the same message, but he does it in seven or eight words. Meanwhile, I'm sitting there thinking, 'wow, that's brilliant, why didn't I just think of that?'" Forde says with a laugh.

Occasionally, that message from Forde can be delivered with venom, but it hasn't stopped McCall from forming a tight bond with his head coach during his short time in Far North Queensland.

"Fordey is a passionate guy. My college coach taught me 'You need to listen to what is being said and not how it's said'. There are times where he needs to be like that for us to understand that we aren't living up to our expectations," McCall says.

"As professionals and grownups, he doesn't mean anything by it. He's the sweetest guy, it's probably hard to believe when you watch him on the sidelines, but he is, so there's no hard feelings, I just try to get the team to understand that we can do something special, but we have to respond well."

McCall understands this season might not always produce the desired result, but in a world where professional athletes can be bogged down by negativity, he's determined to remain a positive influence in his new environment.

"I just love making other people happy. There's a lot of selfish people in the world so whenever I'm on a team you can see it. I can yell at teammates, or they can yell at me, it's not hard feelings, it's just wanting the best for each other. I give it my all and they understand that which makes it fun."

"There's so much love with the fans, the people that work at the arena, everywhere you go people genuinely care about you. That's not normal where I come from. It just feels so much bigger than basketball, because everyone has their own struggles so just making sure that you can be a blessing in someone else's life is bigger than anything."

In the meantime, the season rolls on, with the Taipans hoping to build on the momentum gained over the last few weeks -- with matchups against Brisbane, New Zealand, Illawarra and South East Melbourne over the next fortnight -- but if you think McCall is losing any sleep over his looming defensive assignments, you can forget about it.

"That's something that makes me happy, it's fun trying to stop somebody that's not supposed to be stopped. Everybody tries to shy away from it or give into it, but this is what life is, it's about trying to find that challenge and beat it."