About half a decade ago, Memphis was one of the most powerful and dominating schools in the NCAA. They had players like Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Tyreke Evans. They were a missed free throw and a crazy Mario Chalmers shot from a national championship. Then, John Calipari accepted a job at Kentucky and that all went away.
Memphis hasn’t been terrible since then, they’ve been good to decent but they haven’t been real contenders for a championship. When Calipari left, they lost a lot of the allure for top recruits who are often looking towards the NBA and know that Calipari has great success at churning out NBA players.
Having gotten commitments from three players in the consensus top 50 of the 2013 recruiting class is a signal that Memphis is back and on the up and up. Of those three, Austin Nichols of Eads, Tennessee is the highest ranked. Expected to go to Tennessee, Nichols surprised a lot of people after choosing Memphis following a great high school career at Briarcrest Christian High School.
Here is a highlight of Nichols to see his type of game.
There is no doubt what type of player Austin Nichols is and will continue to be. He is a 6″9, 202 pound power forward who loves to go down low and get physical. Nichols’ game has zero flash and excitement but it gets the job done and gets it done very effectively. Physically he looks the part of a basketball player but he has also worked on his skills to match his physique.
The part of Nichols’ game where he appears to be most comfortable is on the break. He runs well for a big man and is quicker than most big men. His ability to finish on alley oops is already at a good level and he will catch and finish most balls thrown near him. Nichols has great hands that allows him to catch tough passes a lot of big men might bobble or outright not be able to catch.
In the half court, Nichols gets most of his offensive chances chasing loose balls and missed shots. He has a high motor and is always going after balls going off the rim and his offensive rebounding abilities would be considered elite. Nichols is also very good at putting the ball back up off a miss without going back down on the floor or grabbing the rebound and quickly going up right away with it. While in the air, Nichols has great body control and it helps him set himself up to take the best possible shot. Another good thing about his rebounding skills is that Nichols knows to keep the ball high up and doesn’t bring it down for defenders to swipe it away from him.
As well, Nichols has a nice shooting form and his jump shot within the three point line is fairly consistent for a big man. He will never be a knockdown shooter and he is not a power forward the likes of Kevin Love who likes to step out and take threes but his ability to hit the mid range jumper will keep his opponents honest and force them to defend Nichols away from the rim instead of roaming around to help out against Nichols’ teammates.
On the other end of the court, Nichols has a very keen sense at blocking shots. His wingspan is 6″11 and you can tell just by looking at him, Nichols has incredibly long arms. Combined with his great timing, it makes opponents think twice about trying to attack the paint when he is defending it. Nichols is also smart enough to control his body and avoid getting fouls after the block by making contact with his body, which a lot of big men are not capable of doing.
While he is quick, Nichols is not what someone might call athletic. He is not the type of player who can throw down highlight reel dunks or make a crazy chase down block. There are some really quick and athletic power forwards in the NCAA that Nichols will have to face and he might find himself at a disadvantage, it is not often in high school that Nichols would have to worry about playing someone his size and more athletic than he is. It could very well happen on most nights once he gets to Memphis.
Another thing about Nichols’ overall game is that he is very cerebral and almost mechanical. He isn’t the most fluid of players and often seems like he is constantly thinking about what his next move will be, almost like it doesn’t come naturally. This also raises questions about how good he can really become and if he has a ceiling that is close to being reached. I believe that Nichols can still get much better than he is but he might never be a high scorer like other power forwards are, it doesn’t seem like he has that type of game.
Offensively, Nichols will need to add some post moves in order to compete in the NCAA. Currently, he relies on the fast break and put-backs to get easy points. Those opportunities will come far less often in college and he will need to have a reliable post game to allow him to call his number in offensive sets. Otherwise, he will become a liability when it comes to scoring and might struggle to find playing time when tight games go down to the wire. That also comes with being cerebral, he will need to really practice his post game so that it becomes a natural thing, something where he can just throw a move out and surprise his opponents.
While Nichols is already a great shot blocker, questions about his defensive abilities will also be raised. He will be fine handling himself against his own position but when teams start isolating him on guards using the pick and roll, it will be interesting. Nichols’ foot speed laterally is not great and that is often the downfall of great big men who can’t defend the PnR. Memphis’ coaching staff will have to work on him to improve his movement form side to side, thereby also improving his defense. While he’s at it, it would be good for Nichols to add some bulk to his frame. He isn’t super skinny but he could afford to add some muscle so he doesn’t get pushed around down low.
What to expect at Memphis:
If you haven’t noticed, most of the things listed as his weaknesses are things that Nichols can eliminate by working hard in practice and on his own time. If he really wants it, Nichols has the potential to be a truly special college player, one who can turn around a school on his own and make it a big name.
Nichols isn’t projected as a one year player and he might even stay three or four. His best comparison is someone like Tyler Hansbrough at UNC. He will become one of the most important Memphis Tigers and he will gain a lot of fans for his efforts and loyalty to the program.
The Tigers will be a young team next year, they are losing seven players from last season and will have a lot of freshmen. The building block will be Nichols and he will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders. The big man should be fine though, he has a high character and sounds like he really wants to become a special player. With the skills he has and his willingness to learn, over time he will become a truly dominating big man and a scary defender.