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Padding the Stats: Did In-State Schools Miss on Nebraska’s Recent Run of High-Major Talent?

May 10, 2023

This week’s Padding the Stats prompt comes via the Husker Hoops Central message board where a poster asked about a handful of in-state basketball players that Nebraska didn’t recruit out of high school that went on to have strong college careers.

Included on the list were Omaha Central’s John Tonje and Latrell Wrightsell Jr., Lincoln North Star’s Josiah Allick, Lincoln East’s Sam Griesel and Aurora’s Baylor Scheierman. All five of those players went to mid-major schools out of high school before hitting the transfer portal to end their careers at a high-major school.

The main question behind the poster’s prompt was about evaluation: did Nebraska just flat out misevaluate all of these players? Were they high-major difference-makers the whole time whom the Nebraska staff should have offered scholarships and recruited hard?

As someone who has been covering both high school and college basketball for about a decade now and saw each of the players mentioned come up through the ranks, I don’t think calling all of those guys recruiting misses is fair. Each of the paths they ended up taking brought them to this point, and I’m not sure any (or at least most) of them would have become they players they are now had they gone to Nebraska (or Creighton, or another high-major) out of high school.

Let’s start with Griesel. I wrote a full-length feature for Hail Varsity Magazine on Griesel’s path to Lincoln, so if you want the whole story I suggest looking there. Griesel was the biggest riser locally during his 17U summer of grassroots basketball who attracted several mid-major offers, but nothing higher than that. He ended up at North Dakota State as a somewhat raw wing with a great motor.

As a true freshman in Fargo, he cracked the starting lineup as a hustle guy guarding opposing forwards and averaging 6.1 points and 3.8 rebounds. He played a similar role as a sophomore, upping his production to 6.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Then, after point guard Vinnie Shahid exhausted his eligibility, Bison coach Dave Richman changed the course of Griesel’s career by moving the 6-foot-6 wing to the point guard spot.

Griesel averaged 11.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists during his first year as a starting point guard then pushed those numbers up to 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists while improving both his 3-point and free-throw percentages significantly. By the end of his time in Fargo, Griesel had developed into a player high-majors wanted as a fifth-year senior, and he obviously chose to spend that year back in Lincoln.

Would Griesel have played over 20 minutes per game and started 20-plus games as a true freshman wing who couldn’t really shoot if he had gone to Nebraska? Would the coach in Lincoln (be it Tim Mies or Fred Hoiberg) have had the vision and gut feeling to give Griesel a crack at running the point? I’m guessing the answer to both those questions is no.

Scheierman has a similar story as he also landed in the Summit League at South Dakota State where he started a few games and played just over 20 minutes per game as a freshman. He was pretty skinny coming out of Aurora and wasn’t a terribly explosive athlete, and the thing he’s most known for — his 3-point shooting — wasn’t really there that first year (24.7%). Still, he logged over 600 minutes for a 22-win team and gained valuable experience.

Scheierman broke out as a sophomore and grabbed hold of the starting point guard role, allowing him to showcase his vision and passing creativity at 6-foot-6 to go with his shooting (he jumped up to 43.8% from deep). Scheierman took another step as a junior, putting himself firmly on NBA Draft radars and earning an opportunity to transfer up to a bigger conference.

Scheierman chose Creighton and the Big East, and while he wasn’t able to play the same way or produce the same numbers he did playing in the Summit, he still had a really good year for a Creighton team that made the Elite Eight and is now heading back there for a second season looking to build on what he did this season. 

Once again, I think the freedom to play his game early in his career helped him cultivate the skill set to transition to the Big East. Had he gone to a high-major from the start, I’m not sure he would have had the ball in his hands nearly as much as he did at South Dakota State.

Griesel and Scheierman are both older examples, however; they entered the portal last season. The other three mentioned will be suiting up for new teams for the 2023-24 season.

Tonje had a breakout season as a senior at Omaha Central, averaging nearly 24 points, and drew the attention of Division I schools late. He chose Colorado State in the Mountain West and only played 8.4 minutes per game as a true freshman. He earned a more significant role as a sophomore, averaging 20.2 minutes per game with one start, but he struggled a but as he shot under 40% from the field including just 31.3% from deep. Even so, he played in every game and developed into a key rotation player the following season.

Tonje started 12 games and averaged 9.1 points while shooting 46.1%from the field including 36.4% from 3 for a team that made the NCAA Tournament. This past season, he emerged as the team’s second-best player, averaging 14.6 points on 47.3% shooting (38.9% from 3). After his breakout senior year, he entered the transfer portal to explore his options for a fifth season and quickly committed to Missouri despite interest from both high-majors back in his home state.

Would Tonje have played at all as a true freshman had he gone to Nebraska out of high school? Would he have been able to play through his struggles as a sophomore and stick around for four years to develop into the player he is now?

Tonje’s former high school teammate, Wrightsell, also didn’t look anything like a high-major player during his first two seasons at Cal State Fullerton, where he shot under 38% from the field as a freshman and sophomore. This past season, however, he emerged as the Titans’ best player and one of the best in the Big West, averaging 16.3 points while shooting 38.3% from 3. He’ll suit up at Alabama next season.

Allick was the biggest late-bloomer of this whole group as he was primarily a JV player for Lincoln North Star as a junior before averaging 15.3 points and 9.8 rebounds as a senior. He played AAU again in the spring before committing to Kansas City in May of 2019.

Allick played 16.3 minutes per game and logged 12 starts as a true freshman, averaging 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds. He broke out as a sophomore, averaging 15.0 points and 6.0 rebounds before taking a slight step backwards in role and production at 12.9 points in 2021-22. After a coaching change he entered the portal and landed at New Mexico, taking the step up from the Summit League to the Mountain West.

He started all 34 games for an NIT squad, averaging 8.4 points and 7.3 rebounds, and now he’ll suit up for the Huskers next season as a fifth-year graduate transfer.

I didn’t think any of these guys were high-major players coming out of high school, and college coaches seemingly felt the same way as all five of them landed at mid-major schools. That all five became high-major guys is a testament to their work ethic and the development of the schools they chose more than it is a failure to evaluate by coaches (including Nebraska’s).

That’s why the transfer portal can be such a great thing for student-athletes. It allows players who put in the work and expand their games to pursue their dream of playing high-major basketball, a door that may not have been open to them coming out of high school. More cynically, the portal also allows coaches to take fewer risks and let lower-level programs take care of the primary development, because they can always circle back once they’re more confident the player can contribute at the high-major level and offer an opportunity then, so long as the player enters the portal.

Nebraska has now benefitted twice from in-state players developing their games at a lower level elsewhere before choosing to come home to finish their careers. 

I can guarantee you the current staff is doing its due diligence with in-state players — as evidenced by early offers to two 2025 prospects in Omaha Bryan forward A’mare Bynum and Lincoln Southwest wing Braden Frager. Based on conversations I’ve had, there are a number of players in the 2023, 2024 and 2025 classes in Nebraska that have caught the coaches’ eyes, but players have to clear a high threshold physically and from a skill standpoint to project to the Big Ten.

Should Nebraska have offered all five of the in-state standouts mentioned above out of high school? Perhaps they could have, but I’m inclined to believe the way things played out was best for all parties, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Scheierman, Tonje, Wrightsell and Allick all play this season.

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