James Palmer Jr. has been on an absolute tear lately for the Huskers, averaging 25.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists while shooting 50.5 percent from the field, 36.6 percent from 3 and 80.8 percent from the free-throw line over the last six.
The Huskers went 5-1 in those games and are sitting at 8-4 overall in Big Ten play, good for fourth place. Not bad for a team picked to finish 13th before the season.
Overall, Palmer’s conference-only stat line reads 20 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 45.9 percent from the field, 32.8 percent from 3 and 79.6 percent from the foul line. His first six games weren’t quite at the same level as his last six, but even so what he’s done has been tremendous.
The question moving forward now becomes this: will that be good enough for a spot on the All-Big Ten First Team?
Terran Petteway is the last Husker to garner all-conference first team honors. In 2013-14, the 6-foot-6 wing averaged 18.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists while shooting 42.9 percent form the field, 30.9 percent from 3 and 78.8 percent from the free-throw line.
There’s no doubt that the Big Ten as a whole is having a disappointing season, but that doesn’t mean the league is lacking in talented players. Six players from last year’s three All-Big Ten teams (including an All-American) returned to school as did seven honorable mentions. A number of players have made leaps and some newcomers have made a great first impression. Where does Palmer fit in?
Note: the stats cited below are from conference play only.
Wisconsin center Ethan Happ was a First-Team All-Big Ten pick, was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was recognized as an All-American by multiple outlets last season. This year, he’s putting up terrific counting stats — 17 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.8 stocks (steals plus blocks) per game — but his efficiency has significantly tailed off as his true shooting percentage is a paltry 50 percent (he’s under 48 percent form the field and under 57 percent from the line) and he’s turning the ball over 3.6 times per game. Couple that with Wisconsin’s sub-.500 record and he will become an interesting case study.
Minnesota point guard Nate Mason is in a similar boat. He made First-Team last year as he led the Golden Gophers to the NCAA Tournament, but this season Mason hasn’t even been the best player on his team and Minnesota is just 3-8 in the Big Ten. He’s averaging 16.7 points and 4.8 assists but is shooting 37.4 percent from the field.
Mason’s teammate, power forward Jordan Murphy, was All-Big Ten Third Team last year and looked like the clear front-runner for Big Ten Player of the Year in the nonconference, putting up double-double after double-double as the Gophers picked up wins. However, while he’s still rebounding at a high rate, Murphy’s scoring has decreased tremendously in league play. He’s down to 15.1 points on 45 percent from the field, and again, Minnesota is in a tailspin.
Northwestern point guard Bryant McIntosh has fallen off a cliff as well, averaging 10.9 points and 5.4 assists with a 42.3 true shooting percentage for a 5-6 team after being named Second-Team All-Big Ten last year. His running mate, shooting guard Scottie Lindsey, was a third-teamer last year but is averaging 14 points on a putrid effective field goal percentage of 41.
Five of the six All-Big Ten performers that returned to school are having a worse season, and their teams are struggling as well.
Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges, on the other hand, has held up his level of of play. Though he hasn’t made the leap people expected when naming him the consensus preseason national player of the year, Bridges is still averaging 18.7 points on a 61.3 true shooting percentage with 6.5 rebounds. The Spartans are clearly one of the top three teams in the league.
At this point, Bridges looks like a lock for the first team, but the struggles mentioned above threw the door wide open for the rest of the league.
The biggest surprise this season has been Ohio State and junior wing Keita Bates-Diop. After missing most of last season with an injury, Bates-Diop is averaging 20.5 points on a 60.2 true shooting percentage, 9.1 rebounds and nearly two assists and two blocks per game. The Buckeyes are 10-1 in the league. He’s looking like a first-team lock and the player of the year favorite.
A strong contender for player of the year is Vince Edwards, who is leading the 12-0 Boilermakers in scoring and rebounding in conference play. Edwards is averaging 16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists with a 62.8 true shooting percentage.
If not for Bates-Diop, the most improved player in the conference might be Indiana forward Juwan Morgan. The Hoosiers lost three of their top four scorers and their coach as Archie Miller replaced Tom Crean. Morgan averaged a paltry 7.7 points. This year, he’s taken over as the team’s No. 1 option and is putting up 18.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game with a 62.3 true shooting percentage. Indiana is only 14-10 overall and 5-6 in the league, but Morgan has managed to maintain efficiency despite getting little help from his supporting cast.
Point guard Tony Carr draws most of the headlines for Penn State, and he’s putting up some huge counting stats: 19.8 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds. However, his effective field goal percentage is at 42.2 percent and he’s turning the ball over 2.9 times per game. Lamar Stevens is a high-scoring wing for the Nittany Lions as well, and is having a much more efficient season than Carr with a 55 true shooting percentage.
But the guy that deserves more credit than he’s getting is the third member of that sophomore class: center Mike Watkins. Watkins is the third option offensively, averaging 14.9 points, but he’s doing it while shooting nearly 70 percent from the field, grabbing 11.3 rebounds and blocking 2.2 shots per game.
Purdue center Isaac Haas (16.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 65.8 true shooting percentage) and Michigan State sophomore Jaren Jackson Jr. (13.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 stocks, 74.1 true shooting percentage) have been crazy efficient in less than 23 minutes per game for two of the top three teams.
Ranking these players by PER gives us Haas (35), Bates-Diop (33.5), Jackson (32.8), Morgan (30.7), Watkins (29.1), Palmer and Happ (26.4), Edwards (24.8), Bridges (23.9), Murphy (20.9), Mason (18.6) and Carr (17.6).
Using another advanced metric, win shares per 40 minutes, gives us Haas (.287), Jackson (.275), Bates-Diop (27.3), Edwards (.219), Morgan (.208), Palmer and Watkins (.201), Bridges (.195), Happ (.118), Mason (.104), Murphy (.091) and Carr (.090).
Despite the gaudy stat-lines and previous hype, it seems clear that Mason, Murphy and Carr don’t belong anywhere near the first team. Haas and Jackson have been tremendous, but their secondary roles on their own teams makes it tough to consider them for top honors.
Bates-Diop and Edwards have both the individual production and the team success to be no-brainer first-teamers. Bridges doesn’t have quite the same production as those two, but Michigan State is going to get a first-team nod and Bridges will likely be it. Morgan isn’t on a top-three team, but his production and efficiency has been ridiculous. He makes my team.
That leaves one spot. Watkins has a strong claim to it, but so does Palmer.
The James Palmer Jr. from the last six games is a no-doubt first-team selection. The Palmer from the first six Big Ten contests might be a third-team nod.
Whichever player shows up for the last six (along with where Nebraska finishes in the Big Ten standings) will determine what honors Palmer brings home at the end of the season.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.