CHARLESTON, S.C. — Top 50.
That number hangs over Tai Webster's first season of Nebraska basketball like a billowing cloud.
During the hyperventilating that goes on during recruiting, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla offered the following assessment of the true freshman from Auckland, New Zealand:
“If Tai Webster were in Chicago or Detroit or Los Angeles, he's a kid who would have been a top 50 high school player in the United States, if not even better.”
This isn't a knock on Fraschilla, who is a friend and highly respected international talent appraiser. He believes in Webster and the man who recruited him, Husker assistant Chris Harriman.
But that number — “top 50” — jolted the Husker fan base.
Those are the kind of players Nebraska basketball doesn't get. Fans see other top 50 recruits on TV dominating games at Duke and Kansas and Kentucky, and think they'll finally experience that, too.
Then the games begin and Nebraska, after three wins at home, loses its first two games in the Charleston Classic.
The numbers for Webster, so far, aren't close to what fans think of from a top 50 prospect. Field goal shooting: 33 percent. Three-point shooting: 10 percent. Free-throw shooting: 60.6 percent. Also, more turnovers (9) than assists (6) while scoring 9.0 points a game.
For now, those are the wrong numbers by which to measure Webster. Try these instead:
Age: 18. Miles from home: 7,000. Times away from home: 1.
A lot to learn
Webster, during a study hall break at the Huskers team hotel, plops into a chair for an interview. His ever-ready smile is intact, but so is the faraway look a lot of freshmen get about three months into their first semester.
“This has been a lot more than I'm used to,” he said, shaking his head. “I'm not living with my parents anymore. Now, it's all on me. There is a lot more pressure.”
Around schoolwork and prepping for Sunday's 1:30 p.m. seventh-place game against Georgia, Webster accomplished another important task — acquiring a winter coat.
“I'm good now,” he said. “I'm ready for the snow.”
Still, the winter-like weather back in Lincoln will be another of multiple new experiences for Webster.
“Tai has got so much to learn, just acclimating to everything,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “He's coming along, but probably more slowly than he wants to.”
While Webster gets empathy from his coach, he doesn't get star treatment.
Miles lit up Webster in meetings after the 87-74 loss to Alabama-Birmingham in which Blazers' junior point guard Chad Frazier — a bona fide future NBA player — had 32 points and seven assists to Webster's three points and no assists.
NU sophomore Benny Parker may start at the point Sunday against Georgia, but that hardly means Webster is in the doghouse.
“Tai is a really good guard,” Miles said. “What number in recruiting he would be or star ranking he would be, I don't know. But I believe in Tai, and I think he'll do a good job for us.”
Another key number
Webster speaks precise, crystal-clear English, but sometimes he is separated from coaches and teammates by a common language.
During a recent scouting session, Husker assistant Craig Smith warned the guards that an opponent favored several “Princeton offense” cuts. As others nodded, Webster asked: “Who's that?”
American basketball culture needed a New Zealand translation.
Harriman, a native Australian, remembers such information gaps well when he first arrived in the United States.
“Tai is still learning America and learning college basketball,” Harriman said. “It's been a bigger adjustment than even he could imagine. He has handled it well at times. Other times, he's shown he is 18.”
Ah, that number again. One reason people expect a lot from Webster is that he doesn't look 18.
NBA scouts swarmed to the first two days of the Charleston Classic. Independently, I asked two old friends who hadn't seen Webster before for an evaluation. Their boiled-down comments:
“I like him. Good player. Great body. What is he, 20 or 21 years old?”
Harriman nodded knowingly upon hearing the story.
“A lot of kids in his situation have played two years in a pro league and one year of prep school and come into college at 20 or 21,” he said. “But Tai is 18. His inexperience, at times, will show.”
Like many 18-year-olds away at college, Webster calls home or texts with his parents daily. His dad, who played collegiately at Hawaii and then professionally in New Zealand, gets game videos.
“He's always calling and telling me what I should have done,” Webster said, smiling. “Just look to take more scoring opportunities and not be so passive. Be authoritative in the offense.”
Not easy when you are a true freshman from a foreign land trying to take over a leadership position.
“Tai loves the game and wants to get better,” Harriman said. “He doesn't want to feel like he's letting you down or is high-maintenance. So at times, he goes a little bit quiet on us.”
But his teammates are helping, particularly roommate Shavon Shields.
“I feel I've been accepted quite nicely by my teammates,” Webster said. “Shavon and his family have been wonderful. I'm going to his place for Christmas, which will make it easier.”
The number hangs around, though Webster says he's not aware of how he was evaluated. Harriman confirmed that.
“I don't think he pays enough attention to it to have it affect him,” the coach said. “His thing is just getting used to the day-to-day grind of practice, going to school, studying.”
And lifting weights.
“My body is a lot more sore than it used to be,” Webster said. “I'm not used to doing that as often as we do. But it's good. It has helped. I find myself not getting pushed around as much.”
Progress is apparent, but difficult days like Saturday's matchup against UAB's Frazier indicate how long the road is to success.
“That guy Frazier is really good,” Harriman said. “But Tai has to understand that's coming every night, especially when we hit league play.
“We've thrown him in the deep end, but we don't need him to be our savior. We need him to be our point guard. If he does that, things will be fine and he'll be a heck of a player for us for a long time.”