All athletes are measured by how high their “ceiling”, or potential, may be.
Some players hit this ceiling right away, while others never reach, or realize, it.
Illinois men’s basketball head coach Brad Underwood said redshirt sophomore Kipper Nichols’ ceiling is very high and unscathed.
But sometimes Nichols seems to be just along for the ride.
“We just try to keep the fire lit underneath him so he doesn't cruise,” assistant coach Ron “Chin” Coleman said. “When he cruises, he's not a really good player. When he has his foot on the gas, he can be a really good player for us.”
The 6-foot-6 forward out of Lakewood, Ohio, is currently flourishing in his second year — and first full season — as an Illini. Nichols is averaging 11.2 points (on 45.2 percent shooting) and 4.5 rebounds off the bench during the Illini’s 6-0 start.
But while Nichols’ numbers are (way) up from a season ago, it’s his pride that makes him stand out, according to Underwood.
The first-year head coach says pride is what makes a player coachable.
The only problem was that Nichols wasn’t always the player he is now.
Three schools in three years
It took Nichols his first couple of seasons at St. Edward (Ohio) High School to really develop into the team player he is today, said his high school head coach Eric Flannery.
“His freshman and sophomore year, he would be a little too prideful in just himself,” Flannery said. “As he got older, he really started to put his teammates first. I think that allowed his game to grow and his personality to grow.
“I think he realized what effect he can have on other people.”
Nichols led his team to the 2014 Division I State Championship and was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. He averaged 18.9 points and 5.1 rebounds during the regular season of his junior campaign.
Flannery said that Nichols was a pleasure to coach, and his’ personality and ability to be liked by everyone made his coaching job easier.
Flannery’s only issue with Nichols is his current hairstyle.
“I bust his chops every time I talk to him, whether it’s a text or whatever,” Flannery said. “I tell him to get a haircut. I think he looks awful.”
Nichols was labeled as a three-star recruit and received several offers from Division I programs such as Xavier, Northwestern and Nebraska after his strong junior season. Instead of signing with a Big Ten school, Nichols decided on Tulane University in New Orleans, fairly far away from his Ohio home.
Before he even stepped in the classroom for his freshman year at Tulane, however, some issues back home became a priority for Nichols, and he left the school without ever suiting up for the Green Wave.
Nichols has no hard feelings toward the Tulane coaching staff.
“Great guys over there, great coaching staff,” Nichols said. “Nothing bad to say about the program. I thought they were all great.”
After leaving Tulane, Nichols was left looking for a scholarship offer at the start of the spring 2016 semester. The light at the other side of this tunnel for him was former Illinois head coach John Groce and his Fighting Illini coaching staff.
“What appealed to me was that they were real personable,” Nichols said. “I got really close to them, and they were really transparent in what they told me.”
Having to sit out his first academic year as an Illini due to transfer regulations, Nichols gained a new perspective for the game of basketball.
He gained a larger appreciation for the game despite him going through ups and downs during his redshirt season.
“You learn a lot, you definitely take from each day that you’re in there,” Nichols said. “Me not being in live action at first, being able to see how things played out was kind of bittersweet because I got to take away a lot, but you can never really simulate those game reps in practice.”
“I don’t play you if you don’t practice well.”
While Nichols didn’t have much of an opportunity to build chemistry with his teammates on the court in actual games, he wasted no time getting to know them out of the gym.
Nichols became close friends with junior forward Leron Black.
“That’s my boy, we’re real close,” Black said. “We’ve spent a lot of time together outside of basketball. When he first got here, we were always together. Me, him, my girlfriend and my dog Zoey are always together.”
Another Illini who reached out to Nichols was the third-leading scorer in the program’s history, former Illinois guard Malcolm Hill.
Hill took Nichols under his wing last season and showed him what it took to be a professional and how to carry himself, Nichols said. Hill demonstrated to Nichols what it meant to practice hard and get in the gym to work on his game.
Nichols said seeing Hill’s work ethic helped him to understand what it took to become a Division I basketball player.
Despite that, Underwood said Nichols was struggling in practices at the beginning of the 2017-18 season.
“I don’t play you if you don’t practice well,” Underwood said. “I told him (in late October) that he was getting to that point. I was going to give Matic (Vesel), Samson (Oladimeji), Cam (Liss) and walk-ons and everybody else a better opportunity.”
Underwood said that it was Nichols’ pride that has led to his ability to bounce back early in the season and find success coming the bench.
After struggling against UT-Martin on Nov. 12th (four points in only 12 minutes), Underwood said Nichols came out and had a great week of practice. As a result, Nichols played well in the following two games against DePaul and Marshall (16.5 points per game, six rebounds, 48 percent from the floor).
“To his credit, he has tremendous pride, and he cares,” Underwood said. “He wants to do the right things.”
Even though his collegiate career and his redshirt sophomore season is still young, Nichols is anxious for what the future is bringing for him and his team.
“This journey has been exciting for me,” Nichols said.