Nichols Ready to Back Up Hype

By Don Wade

Every player has his favorite spot on the floor, that go-to place where everything seems to slow down, where the player most feels like himself even amid the chaos.

But maybe more important when you are a much-hyped, homegrown University of Memphis freshman is to have that special place off the floor. A retreat, where in this case young Austin Nichols can make the world spin a little more slowly and turn down the volume on all the outside noise.

For Nichols, that place is a pond in Collierville where even his expectations are reasonable.

“Anything that’ll bite,” he said of his targets. “I’m not gonna be selfish about it.”

Practice officially began on Thursday, Oct. 3. Even before then, friends and other self-appointed local basketball experts were telling Nichols he should be starting.

“All the time, my friends say that,” Nichols said. “They don’t know what goes on in practice and how you have to earn a spot. If I do start, that’s great. If I don’t, I’ll have to work harder to earn that starting spot.”

Nichols, a 6-8 forward who weighs around 220, likely will compete with George Washington transfer David Pellom. But Nichols is as promising (read: skilled) a big man as the Tigers have had in a long time.

Many people believed the Briarcrest star would go play for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. He was, after all, the stereotypical fit for Coach K’s program. Not saying that going to Duke and making his way there would have been easy, but by staying in Memphis Nichols chose enhanced expectations.

Coach Josh Pastner has been through this before with guard Joe Jackson (White Station). Now a senior, Jackson has improved each year and is coming off a Conference USA Player of the Year campaign. But before that? A roller coaster ride. Jackson struggled with the pressure of playing in his hometown and considered transferring. So Pastner has a coach’s concern about outside pressures getting to Nichols.

“I talk to him a lot,” Pastner said. “It’s new for him. He wants to be a college kid and people see him in the city and talk to him about, ‘hey, you’re gonna lead us to this, you’re gonna lead us here.’ Mentally, it’s an adjustment period for him. So it’s gonna take some time. As I remind everybody, there are going to be ups and downs with him. He’s a good talent, but there are gonna be ups and downs.”

Let’s talk about that talent.

“He’s like a more skilled Cody Zeller,” said guard Geron Johnson. “I’m not a professional analyst or nothing, but that’s my personal opinion. And Cody Zeller was, what, a lottery pick?”

Yes, the Indiana second-team All American went fourth overall this spring to the Charlotte Bobcats.

“He’s got an array of post moves,” said guard Michael Dixon, who transferred from Missouri. “For a big guy, you want to always keep the ball high because guards like me will come down and try to strip it. He does a great job of keeping the ball high. He finishes quick. A lot of big men get the ball, they take a long time to finish, they get fouled, shoot two free throws, miss both, so it’s like a turnover almost.”

Players and coaches both rave about Nichols’ “soft” hands, his ability to score with either hand around the basket, and his advanced passing ability. But it will take time to adapt to the more physical play of college.

“He can’t let the contact affect his shot,” Pastner said. “He’s got to be able to score the ball through getting bumped.“

Likewise, he has to be able to play through the “noise,” to know when it’s time to decompress and put a line in the water.

“I understand people are gonna talk and everything,” Nichols said. “I don’t really look for it. I just kinda go with it. I know people are going to be in my ear. It’s up to me to whether to listen to them or block it out.

“I’ll be calm, do what I know I can do,” he said. “Hopefully, it turns out good.”

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.