James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland’s decisions to withdraw from the 2018 NBA Draft and return to Nebraska sets up one of the most anticipated season in program history. With the top four scorers and six of their top eight returning, Coach Tim Miles is getting the band back together for one more run in 2018-19.
The Huskers went 22-11 overall last season, tying the second-most wins in program history, and that includes a program-best 13-5 record in conference play.
Expectations are high amongst the Husker faithful, but perhaps even higher among some national media. NCAA.com correspondent Andy Katz recently released his Power 36, his personal preseason rankings following the NBA Draft deadline, and Katz has Nebraska ranked at No. 16, second in the Big Ten behind No. 15 Michigan State and just ahead of No. 17 Michigan.
That seems rather high considering the way this same roster (for the most part) closed out last season. If there’s anything we can learn from the last winning Nebrasketball team or even last season’s Northwestern Wildcats, returning a winning roster doesn’t automatically guarantee significant improvement the following season.
This is the same Nebraska roster that beat just one NCAA Tournament team all season and then lost to that same team by 19 points in the rematch, a game Nebraska could not afford to lose. It’s the same roster that put up 56 points in a loss to St. John’s (16-17), that mustered just 59 points in a loss to Central Florida (playing without its leading scorer), that lost at Illinois (14-18) and that went one-and-done in the NIT.
If Nebraska enters next year as the the same team it left 2017-18, the Huskers aren’t winning 22 games. They’re not winning 13 conference games or finishing fourth in the Big Ten. Nebraska’s nonconference slate is going to be tougher and the Big Ten is going to be deeper than it was last season. The Huskers aren’t going to be a top-10 team nationally by default.
The potential for a special season is evident, but in order for the Huskers to realize that potential they have to improve. Significantly.
For a very long time, Nebraska has struggled to score consistently. Under Tim Miles, the Huskers have ranked inside the top 200 in the country in scoring average just once, and even that year they were 198th. Despite having more talent on the roster than most of the previous years, Miles’ Huskers scored 65 or less in one third of their games last season. Nebraska’s infamous scoring droughts cost the Huskers dearly in 2017-18, just as the had the year before that and the year before that.
A significant part of Nebraska’s offensive struggles lies in the team’s lack of shooting. It looked like the Huskers had improved tremendously in that area early in 2017-18 with blazing starts by Anton Gill and Evan Taylor, but it didn’t last long.
In Big Ten play, Nebraska finished 11th in 3-point percentage and 10th in 3-point makes, with only forwards Isaac Copeland (42.9 percent) and Isaiah Roby (52.6 percent) shooting better than 32 percent. Nebraska’s top three shooters in terms of attempts — James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr. and Anton Gill — shot 29.4 percent, 29.2 percent and 31.2 percent, respectively. Gill is gone, but the other two return.
Improving his 3-point shot should be Palmer’s primary focus this offseason, which was likely what Copeland heard from NBA scouts and evaluators. He looked like one of the more unguardable scorers in the Big ten at times last year, but with his shot betraying him he becomes infinitely easier to guard and his efficiency falls off a cliff. If Palmer wants to have any shot at making the NBA next year, he has to get that percentage up to at least the 35- or 36-percent range.
As for Watson, he’s the key to a potential invitation to the Big Dance, and perhaps much more. Miles called Watson an all-conference guard heading into last season after the 6-foot floor general emerged as a go-to scorer and a near-40 percent 3-point shooter as a sophomore. However, his perimeter shot almost completely abandoned him as a junior, and his touch inside the ark seemed to follow.
Watson shot 29.1 percent from deep and 37.6 percent inside the arc last season, and he only attempted 2.8 free-throws per game at a 78 percent clip. The result was 345 points on 346 field goal attempts over the course of the entire season. Not great.
Watson has never quite developed into a dynamic playmaker for others as he dished out just 3.2 assists per game last season, just two tenths ahead of Palmer. So if he’s not scoring very well, and he’s not distributing all that much, and he’s playing nearly 30 minutes per game, what is that doing for your offense?
Nebraska needs another playmaker to keep defenses from loading up against Palmer, and Watson has to be that guy.
Scheme certainly helps, but even beyond scheme Nebraska’s problem is skill. It doesn’t matter if you can draw up a play to create an open look or if your offense creates good opportunities for your players if that player can’t hit the shot.
After Athletic Director Bill Moos gave Miles a paltry one-year extension on his contract, 2018-19 became a prove-it year for the coach entering his seventh season in Lincoln as Moos wants to see if Miles can build something sustainable. Wins and losses will ultimately determine his fate, but what leads to those wins is development, and that started this week for the Huskers.
The team is back on campus for summer workouts. If Palmer is going to improve his 3-point shooting, it starts now. If Watson is going to rediscover his confidence and become the scorer the Huskers need him to be, it starts now. If Nebraska is going to learn how to avoid those deadly scoring droughts, it starts now with the skill development going on in the Hendricks Training Complex.
Nebraska has a chance to have the best season in modern Husker history in 2018-19, but it’s not going to just happen. They have to earn it. They have to improve because what they did last season won’t be good enough.
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.