LINCOLN — Nebraska officially added a rare prized recruiting possession to its men’s basketball roster Tuesday when the NCAA certified New Zealand guard Tai Webster for immediate eligibility.
“That’s a huge coup for the Cornhuskers,” ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said by phone Tuesday afternoon.
“If Tai Webster were in Chicago or Detroit or Los Angeles, I’m not sure a youngster like this would have considered Nebraska at the top of his list. He’s a kid who would have been a top 50 high school player in the United States, if not even better.”
Webster, who arrived in Lincoln on July 13 and began summer school, declined interview requests Tuesday. He did comment on Twitter: “NCAA eligible ... soooooolid!”
Husker coach Tim Miles confirmed the NCAA ruling with the words “we’re excited to move forward,” then declined to comment further until Wednesday, according to NU sports information.
It wasn’t just other colleges such as Pittsburgh, Virginia and Wake Forest that Nebraska competed with to nab Webster, who turned 18 in May and will have four years of eligibility.
Playing for pay also was an option.
“There’s no question he could have signed a professional contract for pretty good money and chose not to do it, whether in Australia or in Europe,” Fraschilla said. “He’s a well-known commodity.”
Speculation in international basketball circles indicated Webster had been offered as much as $500,000 to $800,000 to play pro ball.
“That sounds a little high,” said Fraschilla, who is ESPN’s top international analyst. “The basketball economy worldwide has shrunk. But it’s fair to say he would have commanded a six-figure salary.”
Nebraska’s list of successful men’s basketball recruits pursued by other big names isn’t very long.
Center Dave Hoppen of Omaha Benson picked NU in 1982 over Kentucky, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Guard Jaron Boone of Salt Lake City — but with family ties in Omaha — chose NU over North Carolina, Kansas and Utah in 1992.
Guard Tyronn Lue of Raytown, Mo., drew heavy interest from Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma before signing in 1995. Center Venson Hamilton considered Syracuse, Maryland and Miami before choosing NU in 1995.
Webster, through the connections of Nebraska assistant and Australia native Chris Harriman, committed to NU last fall. The 6-foot-3 guard’s stock rose dramatically last summer for his play with the New Zealand national team in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela.
Fraschilla hasn’t seen Webster in person, “but I’ve seen him on tape a million times.”
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“He played great last summer against professional players as New Zealand tried to qualify for the Olympics,” Fraschilla said. “He might have been the youngest player in the tournament, and he was outstanding.
“He’s a combo guard. He can score and he’s got toughness.”
Webster visited Lincoln with his parents in early December — watching Nebraska defeat USC — then signed a financial aid agreement. Webster returned to New Zealand to finish high school and play on professional teams without pay until coming to Nebraska two weeks ago.
“He’s a great fit for coach Miles,” Fraschilla said. “It’s one of the reasons I think the program up there is in good hands. Tim is a slow, methodical builder of programs, and this kid is nice piece of the rebuilding puzzle.”
Webster recently finished a 16-game season in the National Basketball League of New Zealand. His team, described in many reports as “undermanned,” finished 2-14.
Webster played both guard spots for the Waikato Pistons, averaging 18.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.8 turnovers. He hit 50.6 percent of his field goals, 28.1 percent of his 3-pointers and 65.6 percent of his free throws.