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.”
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