In 2013, Austin Nichols was the 15th-ranked player in his recruiting class by ESPN and looked to be on a steady track to eventually playing in the NBA.
Four years later, after a bumpy ride through college, the once-ranked five-star forward is fighting for his professional basketball career.
Following a high school career that garnered the 2013 Gatorade Player of the Year award in his home state of Tennessee, Nichols turned away college offers from Duke and Virginia to enroll at nearby Memphis.
Nichols was ready to take his talent locally and put Memphis back on the map. During his freshman season as a Tiger, Nichols helped Memphis reach the NCAA tournament under then head coach Josh Pastner. The following year as a sophomore saw Nichols contribute to the level a five-star recruit is expected; 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game, all while shooting 50.5 percent from the field.
Then things began to get tricky for Nichols. He decided to transfer from Memphis, choosing to sit out a year and then play at Virginia. His presence garnered the Cavaliers a top-10 preseason ranking under the assumption that a player of his caliber would produce near All-American numbers. But Nichols’ tenure with Virginia would not last long, as he was dismissed from the team for a “violation of team rules.”
Despite the turmoil, basketball tends to be a sport of second chances. And from May 15-17 Nichols got his opportunity at a second chance, though playing through a bit of sickness.
“It’s definitely different, but it’s definitely a blessing to be back on the court,” Nichols said of getting his chance to work out for NBA teams. “I’m finally getting my body in the right shape. I’m a little under the weather today, but that’s alright, I just kind of pushed through it. My shot’s looking better. Just coming out here, trying to show my talent.”
Show his talent he did. During the scrimmage portion of the combine, Nichols outshot his contemporaries by connecting on seven of his 11 attempts. While a good shooting day was helpful to Nichols’ case, the 6-foot-8 forward was more focused on trying to showcase his grit to potential employers.
“Of course, you try to show your talent,” Nichols said. “But there’s also things that don’t show up on score sheets, 50-50 balls, boxing your man out and whatnot, so I just try and hit just about every part of my game; pick and pop, stretch the floor a little bit, just do whatever my team needs me to do.”
The NBA Draft will take place on June 22, and from the time the Combine ends for Nichols, he’ll look to lineup more workouts with teams to showcase his ability again. Having played in only one organized basketball game since the 2014-15 season, the former five-star recruit feels he is now ready physically for the road ahead.
“I’ve been working out for three, four months now, so, like I said, my body is in the shape where I want it to be,” Nichols said. “I’m ready, I’m definitely ready to go travel and work out for different teams.”
Making it into the NBA is a tough task for any prospect, especially one who hasn’t really played in high-level competition in a few years. For Nichols, his situation to land a gig with an NBA team can be just as much about his mindset off the court as it is on the court. Deciding to transfer from his hometown team and then ultimately being dismissed from his new school before ever really getting to make an impact led some individuals in the basketball community to question if Nichols would ever play basketball again.
So, with the opportunity to get back on the court and fulfill a childhood dream, Nichols is out to prove he belongs, and just enjoy the experience no matter what happens.
“As a little kid I’ve always wanted to, of course, have a chance to be in the NBA like everyone does,” Nichols said. “I just busted to come out here, showed my talents and also be the best teammate I can be, I think that’s important too. Most people just don’t really understand. And just, like I said, have fun while I’m out here, too.”
From a once prominent five-star prospect to missing the invite from the official NBA Combine, an easy route to some NBA playing time may not be as probable as it once would have appeared for Nichols. While his graduating high school classmates like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid are all making names for themselves in the league, their peer will be happy with just knowing that he is giving it his best shot, regardless of the final outcome.
“’I’ve thought about that a lot, and I keep telling myself that all I want is the opportunity,” Nichols said. “I can’t be mad if I get an opportunity and I don’t make it or something. Just go out there, give it my all and that’s all I can ask for, just the opportunity. I’m not going to be mad or anything, but I’m definitely going to try my best for sure.”
NBA Daily: Troy Brown Poised To Bring Versatility To The Next Level
Coming into the NBA Draft with just one season of experience at the collegiate level, Troy Brown feels that his wide range of skills makes him a player who has a lot to offer.
Coming into the NBA Draft with just one season of experience at the collegiate level, Troy Brown feels that his wide range of skills makes him a player who has a lot to offer.
Originally recruited as a point guard by Dana Altman at the University of Oregon, the 19-year-old naturally fell into the wing position as his body matured, but he wasn’t your average one trick pony.
“It wasn’t really an option,” Brown said of the transition at the Draft Combine in Chicago. “It was more so because I grew, just a lot of size and stuff like that and playing with a lot of smaller guards. It hasn’t really been a problem for me.”
In his freshman year with the Ducks, Brown filled the stat sheet. He averaged 11.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in over 31 minutes per game and finished third in the Pac-12 with 55 total steals.
Among his class across the NCAA, Brown was one of four players to put forth those averages in scoring, crashing the boards and dishing out passes. If you can’t tell, there’s more than one strong suit in his game and he feels the same way.
“I would just say being able to rebound at my size,” Brown said of what he best brings to the floor. “I feel like being able to push it and not having to kick it up to a guard. Being able to create fast breaks for my teammates and stuff like that and get guys open really helps a lot.”
Brown measured in close to 6-foot-7 and 208 pounds on the dot with over a 6-foot-10 wingspan, which ideally will make slot him as a three at the professional ranks. He’s a solid defender as well, though he’ll definitely need to put on more weight to match up with the bigger wings in the league.
That being said, he is absolutely capable of playing point forward and already has modeled his game after a mix of different guys in the NBA, including veterans and rookies who impact their teams on a nightly basis.
“I definitely grew up and watched Penny Hardaway a lot,” Brown said. “Ben Simmons is a really big guard—triple-double type of player, that’s how I feel like I am.
“Even the role players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston. Just big guards. Jayson Tatum, even though he played at the wing a little more, just a great mid-range game and post game.”
Most of those talents he mentioned have the all-around game, including a reliable perimeter presence. That’s where the biggest knock on him comes into play.
On over three attempts per game beyond the arc, Brown shot just a hair over 29 percent from three. As the game has become more and more driven on stretching the floor, that won’t cut it in the constantly evolving pro environment.
The numbers aren’t in his favor, but Brown believes his performance wasn’t indicative of his true ability with his jumper.
“I never felt like I couldn’t shoot before and I still don’t feel that way now,” Brown said. “I’m still very confident in my jump shot. Right now it’s just getting adjusted to the new three-point line, the NBA line. Once I get that locked down, I feel like I’ll be really good.”
If you’re familiar with the Oregon basketball tree and the league itself, there were a number of players who made the most of their opportunities this past year.
Jordan Bell is a fast up-and-coming forward for the Golden State Warriors. The Memphis Grizzlies got a gem in Dillon Brooks. Even Tyler Dorsey got a shot at significant minutes late in the season with the Atlanta Hawks.
Brown didn’t play with any of them, but admits he’s had conversations with Brooks about the entire pre-draft process, receiving “words of wisdom” whenever they’ve gotten the chance to talk.
As for his own expectations for year one in the NBA, Brown agreed that those types of roles are a good starting point and hopes to follow that path before bigger things come his way.
“Of course I want to be the best I can,” Brown said when asked about his goals. “I want to be the best player, but coming in as a rookie you have to really stick with yourself and know what teams you’re coming in and playing with and your role on the team.
“I feel like the more you perfect your role, the more minutes you’ll have. By doing that, I feel like I can climb up the board and become a starter.”
In order to do that, he’ll have to improve his consistency from game-to-game.
But make no mistake about it—Brown has the tools, the work ethic and the personality to become a potential first-round steal outside of the lottery.
And with a toolbox as deep as his, there’s no reason to believe Brown won’t achieve his aspirations.
“Ultimately I feel like because of my versatility on the court, I can do a lot of different things,” Brown said.
“It’s just playing with the ball in my hands I feel a lot more comfortable making plays for my teammates and making the right plays and playing the right way.”
NBA Daily: The Restricted Free Agency Crapshoot
With free agency money scarce, restricted free agents may be impacted the most this summer, writes Lange Greene.
The NBA playoffs are heating up as we approach the Finals, but there are other topics in the league simmering beneath the surface. The 2018 NBA Draft is less than a month away and the annual free agency period begins on July 1.
After rampant league wide spending the past two summers, free agency money won’t be as plentiful in 2018. The biggest group impacted will be players entering the land of restricted free agency. Extending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent is always tricky – especially at the beginning of the free agency period. In short, the offering team gives up their cap space while the player’s current team has time to decide whether or not to match the contract. If the current team does so, the offering team not only misses out on the player but also other free agents who are likely to come off the board during the waiting period.
For this reason most league executives are hesitant to dip their toes into the restricted free agency pond, especially if their cap space is limited in nature.
This summer there will be multiple players entering restricted free agency looking for significant pay bumps with an uncertain market for their respective skill set. The biggest question will be whether these guys ultimately find a deal to their liking or gamble on themselves and take the qualifying offer.
Taking the qualifying offer is a risky alternative. But it gives players an opportunity to showcase their skills in a contract year and enter unrestricted free agency the following summer.
Dallas Mavericks center Nerlens Noel is the most recent example. The former lottery pick reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million deal last summer and signed a one-year contract worth $4.2 million. Fast forward, Noel played in just 30 games this season, was suspended for five games for a positive drug test and also tore a ligament in his left thumb. Noel is far from done as he is under 25 years of age, but the one year gamble did not work in his favor and he will enter free agency this summer looking for another prove it type of contract as a consequence.
Today we’ll take a look at some players who may face the same decision as Noel did last summer. With limited cap space, will these players take the one-year qualifying offer or be able to secure a mega deal in free agency? Please note, we are excluding guys almost guaranteed to receive substantial deals this summer (i.e. Zach LaVine, Clint Capela, Jusuf Nurkic, etc.)
Marcus Smart, Guard, Boston Celtics
After signing All-Stars Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in free agency the past two summers, the Celtics aren’t projected to have cap space. But the team can match any offer for Smart. The question is whether president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will proactively retain arguably the team’s toughest defender or allow the market to set itself. Smart is a tough as nails competitor, but the Celtics will have decisions coming up in the next couple of years on Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. Not to mention Horford, who has a player option for the 2020 season, can also elect to enter free agency next summer. What exactly is the market for a sub 40 percent shooter from the field (sub 30 percent from three-point range) and a player who has only played more than 70 regular season games once in four years?
Rodney Hood, Guard-Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers
Hood was likely on his way to an eight figure per year salary, until he arrived in Cleveland. While with the Utah Jazz, Hood established himself as a double-digit scorer with high upside. However in 13 playoff games with the Cavaliers he is averaging 4.9 points on 42 percent shooting and 16 percent from three-point range. Hood has also been in and out of the rotation with an unfavorable plus-minus. Hood has upside but his market value has likely taken a hit entering free agency this summer.
Julius Randle, Forward, Los Angeles Lakers
Randle has increased his scoring and field goal percentage every season since entering the league. He is a traditional power forward and doesn’t shoot the three ball consistently, which limits his value in some circles. Randle is also seemingly the odd man out in Los Angeles if the team is able to secure two max level guys this summer with their cap space. This puts Randle in a holding pattern. But the second half of the regular season was very promisinmg as Randle put up 19.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game after the All-Star break.
Jabari Parker, Forward, Milwaukee Bucks
Parker was once considered the Bucks’ foundational building block. Yes, even more so than Giannis Antetokounmpo. Funny how a span of less than five years can change career trajectories. Parker has played in just 183 out of 328 regular season games since entering the league. 56 percent availability. He has displayed a knack for scoring, when healthy, but his role during the team’s playoff run this season was wildly inconsistent. Parker’s injury history is a red flag for potential suitors and the Bucks may opt to let Parker’s market value play out before issuing a mega deal this summer.
Dante Exum, Guard, Utah Jazz
Exum flashes potential, but he has also missed plenty of time due to injuries. Exum has appeared in just 162 out of a possible 328 regular season games since entering the league. Young guys can only get better when playing and Exum just hasn’t had the court time to warrant a significant pay increase without leveraging the risk associated with his injury history.
NBA Daily: Zhaire Smith ready to take the next step in the NBA
Zhaire Smith is ready to prove his worth and he seeks to transition to the NBA.
Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech is a name that rises up on a lot of people’s draft boards this season with his stellar play, especially on the defensive end.
This past season, Smith averaged 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 assists per game. He also shot 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from three point range. Despite a strong performance this season, though, Smith has not been consistently appearing in NBA Mock Drafts until at least 2019.
He addressed it at the NBA’s Draft Combine in Chicago.
“Yeah, I didn’t know that,” Smith said of his seemingly low perceived value. “I really don’t pay attention to all that, but it is what it is.”
One of Smith’s biggest strengths that makes him an intriguing prospect for an NBA team is defense.
“Just being a little physical,” Smith said. “Not too physical where they can draw a foul on me, but just playing. Getting low. Just playing. Moving my feet.”
Smith had a highlight reel dunk vs. S.F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was one of those dunks you had to watch over and over again because you could not believe it. It came off of a pass from his teammate, Keenan Evans.
Although on play is rarely enough to get a player noticed, the play did exhibit Smith’s exceptional athleticism. Along with his defense, his ability to convert explosive finishes could also help his value among NBA teams and potentially help him end up in the league.
“Yeah. If it was a bad pass, I made it look good, but yeah,” Smith said of the dunk. “I just adjusted to it. It just happened. I didn’t even know that was what had happened.”
For players coming into the NBA, there is a bit of a learning curve—both with respect to surviving in the league and how to fit in with their particular team.
“I see myself fitting in probably rookie, first two years, just fitting in, doing good, being a solid role player,” Smith said. “And in a few years I can see myself as an All-Star.”
During his freshman year at Texas Tech, Smith played in all 37 games, including 21 starts. He holds a total points record as a freshman with 417 points. He also totaled 185 rebounds, 42 blocks and 42 steals. The 42 total blocks for a freshman were second in team history.
In terms of his numbers being more than “empty” production, on the season, Texas Tech was 19-8 when Smith scored 10 or more points. And during the team’s four-games March Madness run, he averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, one block and one steal per game.
Although it’s early, Smith could end up being an “under the radar” type of prospect, similar to the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell. To this point, he has been mostly renowned for his excellent defensive game, but his offensive game is respectable, even if it is still considered a work-in-progress.
As for whether he can be the “next” Donovan Mitchell, Smith didn’t shy away from the prospect.
“I think so,” he said. “…If I put in the work.”
For him, the process is just beginning. Hopefully, for his sake, his NBA journey is far from over.