Outside expectations are low as most outlets have the Huskers pegged near the bottom of the Big Ten. However, Nebraska has a deeper and more well-rounded roster than any year previously under Tim Miles, and that includes the NCAA Tournament team from 2014. Will the Huskers be able to turn potential into wins?
“I think this is our deepest team,” Miles said. “You still need to stay healthy, though. We have not been able to stay healthy … That’s something that I think is important for us to put the same lineup on the floor as consistently as possible.”
In the first installment of our basketball preview series, we break down the backcourt. Check back for part two featuring the forwards and centers on Thursday.
JR Glynn Watson Jr. (13.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.6 APG, 42.1% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 81.0% FT)
It all starts with Glynn Watson Jr., the 6-foot junior point guard from Bellwood, Illinois. Watson was second on the team in scoring and assists and first in 3-point shooting as a sophomore and is set to take over as a team leader this season.
“I believe Glynn Watson is an All-Big Ten caliber player. As you look at him and you look at some of the other point guards that I’ve had that I know are special … and I look at Glynn as that type of player. He’s a difference-maker. He can get his own shot at the end of a clock. he’s not afraid to take a big shot, an important shot at the end of a shot clock or game clock. I remember against Rhode Island freshman year he dribbled to the middle and did like a 12-foot step-through and hit it with about 30 seconds left that really kind of iced the game for us. I didn’t see him practice that one very much but he took it and hit it and that’s the type of player he is. You knew he’s got some huevos in there that a lot of other guys don’t. I’m just excited to see him continue to progress. He’s shooting it better than ever, he’s fast, I think he’s passing it better than ever — his assists are up in practice.”
The Huskers were without Watson for their exhibition win against Northwood and the offense struggled mightily for long stretches as the team shot a very poor percentage in the first half and had more turnovers than assists. Watson’s health will determine the outcome of this season as much as any other factor.
“He just seems better than ever,” Miles said. “He seems like a better leader. He seems more confident. I think he now finally feels like this is his team, so to speak, and I would expect him to act and play accordingly.”
JR James Palmer Jr. (Redshirted last season)
One player the Huskers are counting on to make a big impact is Miami transfer James Palmer Jr., a 6-foot-6 guard who was a top-100 recruit coming out of St. John’s College High School in Washington D.C. before spending two seasons at Miami as a reserve.
“James Palmer has practiced well and performed well,” Miles said. “He’s a guy that can play multiple positions. He’s played one, two and three for us. If he turns it over, I threaten to play him at the four, then he plays better.”
Palmer has an unorthodox shooting motion but the Huskers expect him to be closer to his freshman numbers (36.5 percent from 3) than his sophomore ones (27.7 percent), and he’s also capable of putting the ball on the deck to create his own shot or make plays for his teammates.
“He can bring a lot,” Watson said. “He can shoot the ball, can get to the rim at will, and he can pass also. That’s a good thing. He’s going to help me a lot in the backcourt when we’re playing and he’s going to be able to stretch the floor and be able to take his guy one-on-one. That’s going to be helpful for us and helpful for the team, because he’s 6-6 and can do it all.”
Palmer has led the Huskers in scoring in every preseason game and he’s done it with high efficiency. Look for him to be one of the biggest breakout players in the Big Ten this season.
SR Evan Taylor (5.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 41.3% FG, 24.0% 3FG, 73.0% FT)
Evan Taylor is one of three scholarship seniors on the team, but he’s the only one among them who has seen significant court time as a Husker. Taylor, a junior college transfer, came off the bench for the first 10 games last season before moving into the starting lineup where he stayed for the rest of the year. At 6-foot-5 with plus athleticism, Taylor is the quintessential glue guy who will take on tough defensive assignments, handle the ball when he needs to and get his shots however they come.
“I thought that Evan Taylor did a good job at the end of the year,” Miles said. “His best game was the last game of the year. He looks stronger, quicker, more athletic than ever.”
Taylor averaged 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists in just over 24 minutes per game last season. His biggest weakness is his perimeter shot as he hit just six of his 25 attempts from 3 last season. However, he did shoot 4-of-8 in his last four games.
SR Anton Gill (3.8 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.5 APG, 71.1% FG, 27.6% 3FG, 62.5% FT)
One wildcard is senior Anton Gill, the highly-touted transfer from Louisville who suffered a serious knee injury 12 games into his Husker career that knocked him out for the rest of the season, which followed a preseason injury that kept him out of much of the preseason practice. Gill was cleared prior to the start of official practice and the coaches were encouraged by how healthy he looked. Nebraska will rely on Gill to be a defensive presence off the bench and whatever they get from him on the offensive end as he continues to recover and find his game again will be a bonus.
The Freshmen (Thomas Allen, Nana Akenten, Thorir Thorbjarnarson)
Nebraska bolstered the backcourt with a trio of freshmen in point guard Thomas Allen and wings Nana Akenten and Thorir Thorbjarnarson.
Allen appears to be the most game-ready of the group. The 6-foot-1 guard from perennial prep power Brewster Academy is a knock-down shooter who can also handle the ball. He’s working behind Watson at point guard but can also play shooting guard depending on the match-ups.
“Thomas Allen is a guy that can really shoot the ball … Terrific shooter, terrific with the ball in his hand, he uses screen-and-roll well,” Miles said.
Allen made a great first impression on the fans by putting up 18 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the team’s exhibition win against Northwood while starting in place of an injured Watson.
Akenten, on the other hand, is a pure wing at 6-foot-6 with a deft shooting touch and terrific athleticism. While he adds strength and adjusts to the physicality of the college game, the freshman from Bolingbrook, Illinois, could hear his name called when the team needs some extra perimeter shooting.
“Nana Akenten can really shoot the basketball and does an outstanding job as a catch-and-shoot type player,” Miles said.
Finally, Thorbjarnarson, affectionately known as Thor, is a 6-foot-6 import from Reykjavik, Iceland who has extensive experience with the Icelandic national team. The depth of the backcourt could make it tough for Thorbjarnarson to find minutes right away, but his first season of college ball should prove to be a valuable experience as he adjusts to the American game.
“My man Thor, bring your hammer, kid,” Miles said. “Thor is a guy that really knows how to play. He’s adapting well. After he got used to the time change he’s played better and better. There are some elements of his game he needs to improve. His outside shooting is some of that. I like where he’s at.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.