First, there was the debate. Would Briarcrest star Austin Nichols really stay home and play for the Memphis Tigers? Or would outside offers, including ones from Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, be too good to pass up?
Then there was the hype and the fast start. Nichols, a 6-foot-8, 212-pound forward, wowed teammates even before they had played a game. Senior guard Geron Johnson compared Nichols to Cody Zeller, the Indiana All-American, who was a No. 4 overall NBA draft pick, with this caveat: Austin, he said, was “more skilled.”
Then came the opportunity. With senior transfer David Pellom battling a sore knee, Nichols was able to start and get regular minutes. He played pretty well. Not perfectly, of course, but the ups outnumbered the downs.
As University of Memphis freshman Austin Nichols was being honored as the American Athletic Conference’s Rookie of the Year, the league’s coaches were heaping praise on the progress the Briarcrest grad has made.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
Then came what Nichols called a “freshman wall. It just came out of nowhere and I hit it,” he said. “I just keep pushing. Eventually … it was sorta like a switch got turned on.”
And so at the end of the No. 19 Tigers’ regular season (23-8, 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference), Nichols had averaged 9.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, four times won the league’s Rookie of the Week honors, and then just before the league tournament started at FedExForum was voted by the coaches as the conference’s Rookie of the Year.
Late the rave reviews commence.
“He really understands how to play the game,” Louisville’s Rick Pitino said. “He’s improved his perimeter shot. Great with his left hand.”
SMU’s Larry Brown: “Underrated passer. He’s done a great job of playing within a system. He doesn’t seek shots. His game will be as good as any big in the country next year. They’ve done a good job bringing him along. He reminds me a little bit of Bobby Jones” (a 6-foot-9 forward who, when with the Philadelphia 76ers, Julius Erving called “my vice president”).
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin started recruiting Nichols when he was 15.
“He’s a rarity, a guy that can use his left hand in the low post, can score with both hands around the rim,” Cronin said. “Keeps the ball high. He’s had excellent coaching, from his high school coach to everybody who has worked with him. His offense is definitely ahead of his defense, but you can say that about every freshman in the country.”
But it was never automatic that, come March, this was what everyone would be saying. Nichols admits there were moments when he was “frustrated.” And as much as Tigers coach Josh Pastner loves Nichols, his frustration with Nichols’ passivity forced him to sit Nichols down a few times.
“I was putting more pressure on myself than was actually there,” Nichols said just a couple of days before picking up his Rookie of the Year award.
Back in November, Pastner called in Greg Graber, a “mindfulness trainer,” and also the head of Lausanne Collegiate’s middle school. Graber immediately focused on the most practical change Nichols faced.
“He was going from playing at a small school like Briarcrest, where maybe there would 1,000 people at a playoff game, to coming to FedExForum and playing in front of like 19,000,” Graber said. “As he’s been able to improve his focus and concentration, his confidence has progressed.
“We’ll get him to visualize success, what that looks like on the basketball court. And he’ll meditate before every game. If you notice, he doesn’t do the first shootaround because he’s in the locker room meditating. And it’s paid off since he’s been doing it.”
This isn’t as far out as it may sound – mindfulness is pretty much mainstream in the sports world – and Graber says, “Austin has a great support network with his parents. From a spiritual perspective, he’s grounded.”
His focus and attention to detail in the flow of a game is, beyond his physical gifts, what impresses coaches. And for that matter, teammates.
On Senior Day here against SMU, Nichols’ first half kept the Tigers in the game until the four senior guards awakened. After the game, Chris Crawford said: “Austin’s not gonna see a Senior Day.”
A couple of days later guard Michael Dixon Jr. went further, suggesting that if this year’s draft wasn’t so deep Nichols wouldn’t even see his sophomore season.
“He’d be gone,” Dixon said. “More than likely, he’ll be gone (after) next year.”
It’s a lot to say given that the current postseason is just getting started. Nichols, no doubt, will feel some nervousness in his first NCAA Tournament. But someone else will be more anxious, which is further proof of progress.
“Before a game, I’m terrible,” Graber said. “It’s kind of ironic that the mindfulness guy gets nervous when he sees his guy play.”