By now, you might be tired of hearing the story.
After eleven Big Ten games spent struggling with Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand in the starting lineup, John Groce made a change for the better. Groce let Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have their chance in the starting spotlight, and they delivered performances beyond his expectations.
Nunn jumped out of the gates more quickly than Hill and played 30+ minutes in nearly every game after becoming a starter. His season took a slight downturn at the end with poor performances against Boston and Clemson in the NIT, but those games couldn't possibly mask an extremely successful freshman year.
I already covered this in my by-the-numbers review of the season, but Kendrick's main asset for the Illini this year was his long range shooting. Nunn finished the year 31-for-80 from three, good for nearly 39 percent shooting. After looking through the numbers a little bit, it's possible that Kendrick isn't quite as good a shooter as we believe.
In February, Kendrick's first month as a starter, he shot over 55 percent from the three-point line on nearly four attempts per game. That's a scorching month of shooting and certainly not indicative of his shooting ability. That's not a slight on Nunn; it's just a simple truth that nobody shoots that well from three over a larger sample size.
In his other two months of significant playing time, Nunn was 11-of-35 (30.5 percent) on shots from beyond the arc. That's not great, but still better than most of last year's guards. In truth, Nunn's real shooting average probably lies somewhere in the middle, but not quite as high as 39 percent. With more offensive responsibility next year, I would probably wager that Nunn ends up a 34-to-36 percent three-point shooter. That's good, but not good enough for Nunn to take on a pure, spot-up shooting role.
Luckily for this young shooting guard, there's plenty of time to develop other parts of his game. He showed flashes of playmaking ability this year, almost indicative of some potential to play point guard. His ability to probe and sneak into the lane with ease is useful for collapsing the defense and opening up other options. This could be even more important next year, with a couple of sharpshooters joining the fray. Tracy Abrams is plenty good at this, but I'd be open to Nunn running a few more pick-and-rolls than he did this year to work on his intriguing passing ability.
The only other thing I hope Nunn will develop is his ability to get to the line. He seemed almost as allergic to free throws as Nnanna Egwu this year. This could be an aggression issue that works out as he gains confidence and grows more accustomed to drawing contact. I view it merely as something to watch for in the future. When you shoot free throws like Nunn did this year (80+ percent on an admittedly small sample size), you should be trying to maximize the use of that asset as much as possible.
Lastly, I couldn't help but get ahold of a fun statistical analysis of Nunn for you, done by my friend Alex Cook. He's put together a little program that compares players based on their various statistical idiosyncrasies. Kenpom has something similar, but Cook's database solely covers Big Ten players of the last several years. Try not to get too excited when you see Kendrick's best statistical comparison (the name just below his):
Sophomore D.J. Richardson! Just to make it a bit easier to process, here's that same table showing solely our two beloved Illini (click to open a larger version in a new tab):
The comparison is eerie in some ways, given the multitude of perfectly similar statistics. One cause for optimism: Nunn's biggest disparity with sophomore D.J. comes in the percentage of minutes they played during the season. We only got to see Starting Shooting Guard Kendrick Nunn for half a season. How he deals with the grind of a long year and a heavy load of minutes could go a long way in determining his success down the line.
It's also encouraging that Kendrick was able to accomplish such a similar season to sophomore D.J. in just his freshman year. It seems several players make a big jump from their freshman to their sophomore year; let's hope Nunn falls under that category and becomes a star in 2015. That said, there are still plenty of older players (Rayvonte, Tracy, Nnanna) to take shots away from Nunn on offense, so it's possible we won't see his full potential until he's a junior.
Kendrick Nunn fought hard in practice to earn his starting role and took full advantage of his opportunity. He is by no means a complete player, but he was an important cog for the offense last year. Nunn did even more than that, though: he provided a spark for a team that was spiraling uncontrollably to the bottom of the Big Ten. Plain and simple, it's hard to appropriately quantify the impact Nunn (and Hill) had on Illinois this year. I can't wait to see how he impacts the team going forward.