James Palmer Jr. has an uncanny knack for getting his no matter how the game is going.
The junior guard has scored in double figures in 26 of 28 games this season. He’s scored 15 or more in nine of 11 Big Ten games. He’s cracked 20 points in six of his last 12.
In Tuesday’s win over Maryland, Palmer had a really quiet first half outside of one very loud play, finishing with two points on 1-of-6 shooting. Was this going to be the game that derailed his All-Big Ten First Team campaign?
The answer was no. Palmer exploded for 24 points in the second half, tying the program record for points in a half, as he led Nebraska to a big win over the Terrapins.
Palmer has become one of the more unstoppable forces in the Big Ten over the last month; conference foes just haven’t found a way to keep him in check.
What makes him such a dynamic player? I re-watched the game and charted each of the possessions that Palmer finished — those that ended in a shot attempts, free throws, assists or turnovers — and broke them down into play types.
Palmer finished with 26 points on 9-of-13 from the field, 2-of-6 from 3 and 4-of-6 from the foul line with five assists and one turnover.
While Palmer only scored two points himself in the first half, he did produce 13 points when you factor in his assists (which led to three 3-pointers and a dunk). This is one part of Palmer’s game that has really come on as of late as he has had four or more assists in five of his last six games including a career-high nine dimes at Minnesota. He has averaged 4.5 assists over those last six games after dishing out just 2.5 on average in the first 22 games.
A look back at that first half shows that Palmer’s shot selection and overall play was pretty solid; he just missed three makeable shots and had a fourth blocked from a good weak side rotation.
In the second half, Palmer made some of the shots he missed in the first half and had the offense run through him far more as his aggressiveness increased.
In total, Palmer used 27 possessions (not including assist opportunities that were squandered) and produced 39 points (Nebraska finished with 70 as a team).
Twenty-one of his possessions came in pick-and-roll, transition and isolation situations.
As a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Palmer went 3-of-7 from the field, 0-of-3 from deep and 2-of-4 from the line with two assists. He produced 12 points on 10 possessions. One of Palmer’s 3-pointers was good look with his defender getting stuck on the screen and the big man failing to even show; Palmer just missed. The other two shots were questionable and also off-target. One pair of free throws came from a hand check called with the Terps in the bonus, and the other came on a shooting foul.
Palmer was particularly effective when Maryland switched the screen, as he went 2-of-3 from the field and 0-for-2 from the line with an assist when the big man switched onto him (and the one miss was a shot he normally hits). Palmer’s change of direction, long strides and finishing ability make him a tough cover for opposing bigs even if the 6-foot-6 wing isn’t blessed with blinding quickness.
Palmer is probably at his best in the open floor, and that was the case against the Terps as well. Palmer got five transition opportunities where he took the ball to the rack, and he scored on three of them (including the monster dunk) with one miss and one turnover on a play that should have resulted in a trip to the free-throw line. The same traits that make him hard to stop in the half court apply even more in transition as even if a defender steps in front Palmer is capable of changing directions and taking long enough strides to get around or past any obstacle.
Palmer had three half-court isolation possessions in the first half. On the first, he drove middle, drew help from Glynn Watson Jr.’s man and kicked it out to Watson for an open 3 that he knocked down. On the second, he got the ball on the wing, jab-stepped three times then fired up a 3. On the third, he made a good move and beat his man, but Fernando came over in help and blocked it. He only iso’d twice in the second half. On the first, he took his man to the basket, elevated, hung and finished over the top. Palmer has a unique ability to absorb contact, hang in the air, adjust his release point and still finish the shot. On the second one, Fernando slid over and blocked him again.
Both of Palmer’s 3-pointers came on plays where he was spotting up and shot off the catch, with both of them coming near the right corner in the second half. Palmer’s 3-point percentage in this game was on par with what he’s done all season — he’s capable of knocking shots down but probably forces up a couple that he shouldn’t, which hurts his percentage.
Nebraska went into a dribble-weave offense at one point in the second half, and on one of those plays Palmer took a hand-off, turned the corner and got downhill, beating his man to the rack for a bucket. He recorded two assists simply by finding and hitting the open man. Finally, he grabbed the final rebound of the game and was fouled in the bonus, sinking two free throws to create the final margin.
There you have it. Palmer is most effective when he’s able to get downhill and attack. Whether it be pick-and-roll where a big switches onto him, in the open floor or in a dribble-weave set, when Palmer is putting pressure on the rim, good things happen for the Huskers. Where he struggled was traditional isolations or plays where he settled for jumpers off the dribble.
Considering how well he’s been playing lately and with his newfound playmaking, the Huskers need to continue to involve Palmer in everything they do. However, that doesn’t mean give him the ball and ask him to carry the team by himself. Put him in position to play to his strengths and the Huskers might be able to ride the hot hand all the way to the Big Dance.
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.