Nebraska Basketball Review: Wing Play Exceeded Expectations
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Nebraska Basketball Review: Wing Play Exceeded Expectations

April 26, 2018

Hail Varsity’s Nebrasketball year in review series rolls on with a look at the wings headlined by Nebraska’s first First-Team all-conference player since Terran Petteway.

We began with the point guard position, which included do-everything guard Evan Taylor. Today, we’ll touch on the rest of the backcourt.

James Palmer Jr. (Junior)

2017-18 Stats: 17.2 ppg, 44.4% FG, 30.9% 3FG, 73.8% FT, 4.4 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.2 tpg, 1.0 spg, 31.0 mpg

After sitting out last season, the former 4-star recruit and Miami transfer made a name for himself with the Huskers, earning All-Big Ten recognition (First Team by the coaches, Second Team by the media). He finished fifth in the league in scoring at 17.2 points per game, failing to reach double figures just twice in 33 games. He cracked the 20-point barrier eight times, including a career-high 34 at Ohio State in January.

For a 10-game stretch in January and February, Palmer was playing as well as anyone in the conference, averaging 21.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 49.6 percent from the field, 34 percent from 3 and 78.2 percent from the free-throw line.

His offensive emergence proved to be even more crucial with the scoring struggles Glynn Watson Jr. had all season long. At his peak, there weren’t many guards in the league tougher to stop with his ability to get by defenders and draw fouls with his herky-jerky movements and long strides paired with his ability to hit some tough jumpers.

However, Palmer couldn’t maintain that high level of play down the stretch. Over the last five games, Palmer’s average dropped to 13.6 points per game while shooting 38.7 percent from the field and a brutal 3-of-20 from 3. The Huskers went 2-3 in those games. 

Palmer’s jumper (and overall efficiency) proved to be hot and cold throughout the season, but he shattered expectations after averaging just 3.6 points during his first two seasons with the Hurricanes and led the Huskers to their best conference record in program history.

Anton Gill (Senior)

2017-18 Stats: 8.1 ppg, 39.9% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 82.9% FT, 1.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, 0.7 tpg, 0.5 spg, 24.5 mpg

Gill was a complete wildcard heading into the season. Not even the coaches knew what they were going to get from him coming off the devastating knee injury that knocked him out for the year after just 12 games last season.

However, Gill surprised everyone by growing into a key rotation player and starter for the team, missing just two games all season and playing nearly 25 minutes per game. He moved into the starting five midway through the season and finished the year with 14 starts.

Similar to Evan Taylor, Gill came out of the gates on fire from 3-point range but saw his percentage drop every month. Gill shot a blistering 57.1 percent in November, knocking down 16 triples in six games. In December, that percentage dropped to a still really solid 39.5 percent, hitting 15 of them in 7 games. He shot 31.9 percent in January and February and hit just one of his eight attempts in Nebraska’s two postseason games in March. 

Gill took just 60 shots inside the arc in 31 games and hit just 27 of them. He only took 41 free throws. He grabbed just 59 rebounds and dished out just 34 assists. When his shot wasn’t falling, he didn’t really contribute much other than effort on the defensive end. That became a problem with Watson struggling as Nebraska didn’t have a consistent scoring option in the backcourt to complement Palmer. His scoring average dropped to 6.2 in conference play as he notched just three double-digit games with a high of 12 against Minnesota.

Gill certainly had his limitations, but he gave Nebraska everything he had and that proved to be far more than what was expected of him heading into the season.

Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Nana Akenten (Freshmen)

Thorbjarnarson 2017-18 Stats: 8 pts, 3-7 FG (2-5 3FG), 4 reb, 3 ast, 1 tov, 1 stl, 19 minutes in 9 games

Akenten 2017-18 Stats: 7 pts, 2-9 FG (2-8 3FG), 1-2 ft, 2 reb, 21 minutes in 7 games

Both Akenten (Nebraska’s first 2018 commit) and Thorbjarnarson (its last) chose to play last season rather than redshirt despite the lack of available playing time with more experienced options ahead of them. They played a combined 40 minutes and scored 15 points, mostly in garbage time, so this year was mostly a wash. They were probably more well-known for their part in the bench mob celebrations than for their on-court contributions.

On the practice floor, Thorbjarnarson, an Icelandic import, made tremendous progress from when he first arrived in Lincoln. The southpaw has improved his jumper, an important development as that should open up the rest of his skill set. He has a great feel for the game and should contribute to the team as a distributor because of his size and court vision.

As for Akenten, the athleticism and perimeter shot that caught Miles’ eye on the recruiting trail remain in spades. To see the floor, he has to buy into what the coaches are asking of him as he continues to adjust to the collegiate level. He’s versatile enough to play the two or the three at 6-foot-6.

Looking Ahead

The biggest question surrounding the team this offseason is the status of Palmer. The All-Big Ten performer, along with forward Isaac Copeland, declared for the NBA Draft and could choose to pursue professional opportunities either in the United States or overseas. If Palmer chooses to return, Nebraska should have a chance to build off of last year’s fourth-place finish in the Big Ten. If he keeps his name in the draft, the Huskers will have a lot of production to replace. The deadline for a decision is May 30, 10 days after the NBA Combine.

Regardless of whether Palmer returns, Gill and Taylor have both exhausted their eligibility, opening up an extra 50 minutes of playing time in the backcourt. Akenten and Thorbjarnarson will compete for those minutes along with 2018 signee Karrington Davis, a 6-foot-6 wing out of prep powerhouse Monteverde Academy. The Huskers also added Robert Morris transfer Dachon Burke on Thursday, although he will have to sit out next season.

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