The college basketball offseason officially came to an end on Tuesday as the Huskers and other teams across the country took the court for their first practices of the 2018-19 season.
This week, Hail Varsity is breaking down the Nebrasketball roster as the most anticipated season in recent program history approaches.
First up is the core of the team, the biggest reason for excitement and high expectations. Nebraska returns its top four scorers from last season’s team that went 22-11 and 13-5 in the Big Ten: senior guards James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr., forward Isaac Copeland and junior forward Isaiah Roby.
This team will go as far as these four can take it.
“These guys just work,” Coach Tim Miles said. “You don’t see a lot of variable in them. We know we didn’t make it, we’re going to make it this year, we’re going to keep working. They’ve got great habits that way, they show up every day, work their tails off and compete really hard.
“I think a lot of it is [driven by those three seniors]. Glynn’s been through a whole bunch. Isaac’s been through a lot with the injuries and then you’ve got Palmer. When Palmer came, the only thing he really lacked were what I call ‘pro habits,’ just every day showing up and working to get better and understanding what’s going on. He’s been remarkable in that shift. I think those three have a lot to do with it and I don’t think Isaiah Roby’s far behind either.”
Palmer is one of three returning players who was named an All-Big Ten First Teamer by either the conference’s coaches or media alongside Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.
Palmer was something of an unknown heading into last season. The former 4-star recruit spent two seasons as a reserve at Miami before transferring to Nebraska. Everyone in the conference knew his name by the end of the season, however, as he averaged 17.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists with a 55.4 true shooting percentage as a junior.
This season, the 6-foot-6 wing will be the first name on every scouting report all season long.
“They’re definitely going to put tough defenders on me and stuff like that, but I just try to let the game come to me and not force things, just wait for my time … I take pride in my game, but I really don't try to think those things and put pressure on myself,” Palmer said. “I just go out there and play each and every game.”
Palmer is tough to stop in the open floor and has a knack for getting to the rim with his long strides and and ability to change speed and pace. If Palmer hopes to turn himself into a legitimate NBA Draft prospect, he’s going to have to improve the consistency of his perimeter shot (30.9 percent last season).
Like Palmer, Copeland is a senior transfer who chose to seek a fresh start in Lincoln, and he made the most of it as a junior. The 6-foot-9 forward was an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick last season after averaging 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.0 block per game.
When Copeland arrived in Lincoln, he was coming off a serious back injury that required surgery, and it took him some time to get back to full strength. However, Copeland is fully healthy heading into this season.
“It’s huge,” Copeland said. “I’m already seeing a difference, just seeing where I’m at now compared to where I was a year ago at this point, it’s just incredible. I’m looking forward to a big year for myself.”
The key for Copeland last season was the 3-point shot. For the first two months of the season, Copeland shot under 30 percent from deep, knocking down just 14 of them in 15 games. However, after working off the rust and finding his role on the team, cropland shot better than 40 percent from 3 the rest of the season. Continuing that sharp-shooting is a focus for Copeland this season.
“Continue to get stronger, improve my outside shot,” Copeland said. “I think last year I started off real slow from behind the 3, so just getting more consistent with that. Just becoming more of an all-around player like I have the ability to show in our offense a little bit more.”
Miles echoed similar thoughts.
“Some of the things I think he needed to get better at were just playing in isolation,” Miles said. “His jumper is a lot better. I think last year, the last 10 games, I think he made at least two 3s a game at about 40 percent. He looks like he’s continued that trend; his shot looks much better.”
Copeland’s frontcourt partner, Roby, broke out as a sophomore last season and his emergence was a big reason for Nebraska’s success in the Big Ten. Once Miles inserted the 6-foot-8 swingman into the starting lineup at the five, Nebraska took off as a small-ball unit capable of stretching the floor on offense and switching everything on defense.
An injury from high school robbed Roby of an entire summer and preseason of work heading into his freshman season and he struggled that year, averaging about three points and three rounds in 15 minutes per game while converting less than 40 percent of his shots from the field.
He was a different player as a sophomore, however. Despite playing just 24 minutes per game, Roby led the team in rebounding (6.3 per game) and shot-blocking (2.0 per game) while chipping in 8.7 points per game on blistering 64.8 true shooting percentage. He shot better from 3 — 40.5 percent — than he did from the field as a freshman.
Along with Roby and Palmer, Miles submitted Roby’s name to the NBA undergraduate advisory board for evaluation after the season. Unlike the upperclassmen, Roby never declared for the NBA Draft; feedback from the committee was all he sought.
“The big thing I heard was I needed a go-to move on offense, I needed to be more aggressive on offense, I need to just clean up my stuff, clean up my handles,” Roby said.
Roby's length, athleticism and instincts make him a difference-maker on defense, but his offensive impact waxed and waned throughout the season last year.
“Miles gave me a Grant Hill article and kind of compared me to Grant Hill, saying that me not being aggressive is being selfish, because I don’t like to be selfish,” Roby said. “He said ‘By not being aggressive, you’re being selfish to our team and to what we’re trying to do.’ He’s been trying to instill that in me and I think this summer I took a big step with that; just all the work I did this summer I think that’s going to help me a lot this year.”
Unfortunately, Roby will be limited as practice starts after suffering a heel injury during summer workouts. The bigger problem at this point, however, is that Roby also has plantar fasciitis, a foot injury that can linger. Nebraska is going to need a healthy Roby to play heavy minutes this season with its lack of proven depth in the frontcourt.
It very well might be Watson who holds the key to Nebraska getting over the hump in March, however. The 6-foot guard is heading into his fourth season as a starter at Nebraska, but his junior season wasn’t exactly what many expected based on the leap he made as a sophomore. Even so, he played an important role on a 22-win team as the primary ball-handler and an impact defender at the point of attack, and he’s looking to step his leadership up even more as a senior.
“I feel like I’ve got lot of experience under me,” Watson said. “Coach Miles expects me to be the leader on the team. I’m the point guard so I’m the person on the floor that has the ball the most. That’s the main key.”
As a junior, Watson averaged 10.5 points but it took him 10.5 shots per game to do it. After shooting nearly 40 percent from 3 as a sophomore, he couldn’t even crack 30 percent last season. Watson’s efficiency inside the arc took a big hit as well as he shot just under 38 percent on 2-point attempts. He simply could not score efficiently from anywhere on the floor last season and his playmaking (3.2 assists per game) did not see much of a spike to make up for his struggles as a scorer.
Last season is in the past now, however, and Miles simply wants his senior point guard to play free and play his game.
“I hope we can exceed expectations because there’s nobody that deserves it more than Glynn,” Miles said. “This summer, I was out in the western United States and he came back on campus and he texted me, ‘Coach, I’m back on campus. I’m here.’ That’s always nice to see when they let you know they’re getting back from their three-week or month-long break. Then the next day he texted me, ‘Coach, I can’t wait to lead this team and take Nebraska basketball places its never been before.’ I literally almost cried because that just meant so much to me knowing what he’s been through, seeing teammates leave. Having a really excellent season last year but having it go not where we wanted it to go.
“He was the first guy in my office after spring break saying, ‘What can I do to be better for this team?’ Wasn’t worried about playing time, wasn’t worried about his role, how many shots he was getting, he just wants to win and wants to be in the middle of it. Pretty cool stuff, Glynn’s a great kid. I’m proud of him.”
If Watson can regain his scoring touch, the Huskers will have one of the best four-man cores in the Big Ten and Nebraska will have a chance to accomplish something that has never been done in Lincoln.
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.