Ahead of Nebraska’s 75-72 loss to Purdue on Saturday, Coach Tim Miles was asked about James Palmer Jr.’s lack of efficiency despite still putting up decent scoring numbers. Miles mentioned one tweak he was considering.
“We can put [Palmer] at the point, see if we can get Glynn [Watson Jr.] off the ball some,” Miles said. “Nobody’s even close to satisfied with the way we’re playing on offense or defense so you just keep working. Maybe put James on the ball, get Glynn off the ball, things like that. James makes good decisions and the right play often. We just need to step into our shots and believe it too.”
That change has been gradually happening throughout Big Ten play. Watson led the Huskers with 4.2 assists per game in the first 11 games while Palmer acted as a secondary playmaker with 2.6 per game. That has flipped in Big Ten play, however. Palmer is dishing out 3.6 helpers per game to just 2.1 for Watson.
The Purdue loss was an extreme version of those reversed roles, and it actually produced pretty good results. Palmer dished out a season-high eight assists and easily could have hit double-digits had a couple of his teammates not blown easy looks off great passes.
However, I’m focusing more on the impact the change had on Watson’s game. He scored a season-high 25 points, cracking the 20-point barrier for the first time in Big Ten play since Jan. 12, 2018. Watson shot 10-of-20 from the field including 5-of-9 from 3. He scored 11 of Nebraska’s first 14 points.
Watson’s first look was a catch-and-shoot 3 after an offensive rebound. Tanner Borchardt had his shot blocked right back into his hands, Watson relocated and Borchardt kicked it out to him for an open 3. Money.
A few possessions later, Watson started on the ball and dribbled around for a while before feeding Isaiah Roby inside. Purdue’s 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms was there, however, so Roby kicked it back out to Palmer.
Palmer caught the ball with 6 seconds on the shot clock and Watson off to his left. Grady Eifert was up in his face, so pulling up wasn’t an option.
Palmer put the ball on the deck looking to drive and Carsen Edwards dug down, helping off Watson. Watson relocated again and Palmer kicked it out to him.
Watson caught and fired, another open look, and again it was pure.
Watson missed his third shot, a layup at the rim out of the pick-and-roll. Thanks to great camera work by BTN, I couldn’t see what led up to his fourth shot, but it was a catch-and-shoot 3 from the top of the key off a pass from Palmer, and that one went in. Watson got off to a 3-for-3 start from deep, scoring Nebraska’s first nine points.
Watson’s first make inside the arc came off a beautiful cut.
Palmer grabbed a rebound and pushed it up the floor. He slowed down to read the floor then crossed his man up, though Aaron Wheeler was there to cut off the driving lane.
With Wheeler and Ryan Cline cutting him off, Palmer left his feet. He saw Edwards was ball-watching, and fortunately, Watson sees what Palmer sees. With the ball still in his hands, Watson starts a cut and Palmer ends up floating the pass, giving Watson time to run under it.
Edwards realized what was happening too late and finds himself out of position. However, Treveon Williams managed to get around the seal by Borchardt and still has a chance to contest Watson’s shot.
So Watson reverses it as Williams flies by and finishes off the glass on the far side.
With 11 quick points by Watson, Purdue coach Matt Painter moved his best perimeter defender, 6-foot-6 sophomore Nojel Eastern, onto him. Watson’s next look was a catch-and-shoot 3, but with Eastern’s length closing out it turned it into a tough look and he missed. His next bucket came with the ball in his hands, a layup off a crafty bit of ball-handling.
Watson’s last bucket of the half came just past the midway mark with Edwards guarding him again. Off a dead ball, Nebraska ran some actions with four different Huskers touching the ball, and at the end Nana Akenten found himself with it at the top of the key.
Watson finished the first half with 15 points, and 13 of those were scored with him playing off the ball.
Watson’s first shot of the second half was another solid look with him playing off the ball. Palmer skipped the ball to him and he pump-faked on the catch, getting his man off-balance. He took on dribble and pulled up for the mid-range jumper but missed.
A few possessions later, the Huskers swung the ball to Watson on the left wing. He ripped through and used his quickness to get past Eastern and he took it hard to the rim, sneaking a layup past the rotating help and block attempt by Haarms. Eastern won the next round, however, as Watson tried to pull up for 3 in transition and Eastern blocked it.
Later, Watson made another back cut but missed the floater. It was a great look that just didn’t go down. His next shot wasn’t of the same quality: a pick-and-roll resulted in a crazy floater by Watson over a contest from Haarms that didn’t have a chance.
Watson scored eight points the rest of the way on a pair of tough 3s and an uncontested layup at the buzzer that didn’t matter (unless you got the line at Purdue minus-4.5).
This was Watson’s best game in a long time, and he did most of it playing off the ball. He didn’t record a single assist.
Palmer created a lot of looks for his teammates, on the other hand, but he had a terrible scoring game with 10 of his 15 points coming from the foul line. He shot just 2-of-12 from the field. Palmer’s shot selection isn’t great in general, and putting the ball in his hands more offers more chances for tough shots. Even so, that looks to be the best version of Nebraska’s offense moving forward.
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.