Former Huskers Set to Take Part in NBA Las Vegas Summer League
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska Basketball Review: Core Four

April 23, 2019

The dust has settled on the beginning of the Fred Hoiberg era, so now seems like a good time to look back at the final season under Tim Miles to take stock of what the Huskers lost and what they have coming back for next season.

Derek Peterson has taken a look at the 2018-19 season through the scope of a handful of statistics (plus/minus, finishing at the rim, defensive shot profile, assists) in his Behind the Box Score (Premium) series.

Now it’s time to focus in on the players themselves.

First up is the Core Four, the foundation this team was built on and a big reason why it ultimately crumbled.

Senior Guard James Palmer Jr.

Stats: 19.7 PPG, 36.9% FG (31.3% 3FG), 76.2% FT, 4.2 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.4 SPG, 2.1 TPG, 35.2 MPG, 105.9 ORtg, 102.6 DRtg, 4.5 BPM, .142 WS/40

Palmer came into the season with big expectations after an All-Big Ten season as a junior, but he failed to make meaningful strides in any area of his game. Palmer saw a minor increase in total scoring, but that had more to do with an increase in minutes than anything else. His playmaking and rebounding both dropped on a  per-minute basis and his efficiency, which wasn’t great to begin with, fell off a cliff.

The biggest thing Palmer needed to improve heading into his senior year was his perimeter jumper. Instead of improving that, however, he simply attempted more on a similar, sub-par percentage. To complicate matters, his effectiveness inside the arc dropped more than 10 percentage points. His ability to get to the rim and finish was his biggest strength as a junior, but as the scouting report caught up to him he struggled to maintain the effectiveness, barely cracking 40 percent on 2-point shots, and his free-throw rate actually dropped.

Palmer always found a way to get his points through sheer volume and determination, and he set a handful of school records in the process, but it didn’t turn into wins over the second half of the season and his lack of efficiency was a big part of that.

Even so, Palmer’s physical tools as a long-armed 6-foot-6 wing with combo-guard skills have him not he NBA Draft radar as a potential late second-round pick or undrafted free agent who might get a shot. He competed in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament last week and was named to the All-Tournament Team (featuring 12 out of 64 players at the event) after leading his team to a third-place finish.

Senior Guard Glynn Watson Jr.

Stats: 13.6 PPG, 41.4% FG (38.5% 3FG), 79.1% FT, 4.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.4 TPG, 34.5 MPG, 110.5 ORtg, 103.2 DRtg, 5.3 BPM, .129 WS/40

To be quite frank, Watson’s performance in 2017-18 was one of the biggest reasons why Nebraska made the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. He fell into a massive season-long shooting slump that he never pulled himself out of. He shot 37.6 percent inside the arc and 29.1 percent beyond it, and his playmaking for others didn’t take a dramatic leap to balance it out.

Watson looked like a completely different player in the nonconference this season. He was playing the best basketball of his career, shooting 46.2 percent inside the arc and 40.6 percent from 3 while scoring 14.8 points per game and dishing out 4.2 assists per game. Unfortunately, he fell off across the board in Big Ten play as his numbers dropped to 12.8 points per game on 43.1 percent on 2-pointers and 36.3 percent on 3s with 2.3 assists per game. His steals dropped and his turnovers increased.

The final result was a season very similar to his sophomore year where Watson broke out as a difference-maker. Watson made much-needed strides after his disappointing junior campaign, but he never quite found the consistency Nebraska needed from him. Even so, Watson is one of just four scholarship recruits (Shavon Shields, Benny Parker and Tai Webster being the other three) who spent four years in the program during the Tim Miles era, and his name is near the top of a couple columns in the rocked book as a result.

Watson is still spending time around the program working out with the new staff, and I’d imagine he’ll be able to have a long playing career overseas if that’s what he desires.

Senior Forward Isaac Copeland Jr.

Stats: 14.0 PPG, 52.5% FG (35.2% 3FG), 69.2% FT, 5.4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.6 TPG, 30.7 MPG, 116.1 ORtg, 100.5 DRtg, 6.8 BPM, .163 WS/40

Nebraska’s season took a turn for the worse prior to Copeland’s injury, but that torn ACL for all intents and purposes ended the Huskers’ chances at making the NCAA Tournament as they never quite managed to find a way to win without him (until that miraculous late-season run, that is).

Copeland’s play while he was healthy was one of the brightest spots from the first half of the season. He was arguably the team’s most consistent offensive performer while also holding his own defensively. He led the team in 2-point percentage, converting 62 percent of his looks, and that was with a lot of his shots coming on mid-range jumpers and jump-hooks rather than easy shots around the rim. He wasn’t a great 3-point shooter but he was solid enough hat teams had to respect him on the perimeter.  He could have rebounded a bit more and he wasn’t a great passer, but Copeland certainly made a leap heading into his senior season and losing him after just 20 games was a major blow.

Junior Forward Isaiah Roby

Stats: 11.8 PPG, 45.4% FG (33.3% 3FG), 67.7% FT, 5.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 2.0 TPG, 31.2 MPG, 105.6 ORtg, 96.0 DRtg, 8.0 BPM, .140 WS/40

Roby was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season as his insertion into the starting lineup as a small-ball five transformed the way the Huskers played. He was a strong rebounder, a terrific rim-protector and an efficient scorer, converting 61.9 percent of his looks inside the arc and 40.5 percent from 3 on limited attempts.

Roby started every game of his junior season, first at the five next to Copeland then at his more natural four position after Copeland went down and Tanner Borchardt began starting at the five. His playing time spiked (jumping 7.2 minutes per game) but his overall effectiveness did not. His scoring per-40 made a slight increase but his rebounding and shot-blocking both fell off and his efficiency cratered.

He shot just 33.3 percent from deep and showed little confidence, turning down open look after open look in order to drive into a well-prepared defense. Perhaps even more problematic was he struggled to finish at the rim at the same rate with his 2-point percentage dropping below 50 percent.

Still, at times Roby looked like the best player on the floor in Big Ten play and his unique physical tools and skill set have him on the 2019 NBA Draft radar. He’s entered his name in the draft and hired an agent, and unless he gets some unexpected feedback from scouts he is unlikely to return to Nebraska for his senior season.

The Core Four was the primary source of the optimism and high expectations surrounding the Nebraska program heading into the 2018-19 season, but their lack of consistency and efficiency coupled with Copeland’s injury are a big reason why the Huskers fell short of their goals.

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