Fifty-two games. That’s the number of contests that Kipper Nichols has suited up in the Orange and Blue — good for second most on the team, behind only Aaron Jordan.
The redshirt junior took a huge “sophomore leap” last season. He proved his three-point shooting wasn’t a fluke after shooting 38 percent on 2.6 attempts per game. His offensive game as a whole was also quite impressive, ending the season averaging 10 points in only 19 minutes per game. This was partly due to a bit of a quick trigger.
Early in the season, Nichols would check in the game and immediately start looking for his shot. It’s imperative he shows more patience and maturity on the offensive end of the floor and let his shots come within the flow of the offense. The other frustrating part of his game was his inability to finish at the rim. Kipper showed great aggressiveness but seemed to make the finish more difficult than necessary by getting cute and creative around the hoop instead of just going straight up and strong. His 86 percent mark from the charity stripe was incredibly valuable, and he has clearly put in a lot of work to become a plus shooter. At his size that makes him a great offensive weapon.
Nichols was often the whipping boy of the coaching staff and the fan base last season. With great improvement brought even greater expectations. His play was often inconsistent night to night and there was no telling what kind of game the Illini would get from him. Kipper’s head needs to be in every game and he needs to understand every assignment on both ends of the floor. The Illini can’t afford for that to be a question mark this year because he needs to play 25+ minutes per game this season.
Kipper was one of the team’s best rebounders next season with a defensive rebounding rate of 20 percent to lead the team and a total rebound rate of 13.4 percent, which was good for second. I think you have to be putting forth a pretty decent effort to accumulate those rebounding metrics at 6-foot-6, but that will need to continue given Illinois’ lack of depth and experience up front.
Nichols will be the starting power forward this season. It will be a tall task defensively at 6-foot-6, but should provide opportunities for mismatches on the offensive end of the floor.
Kipper simply can’t take nights off. Right now, the only healthy frontcourt viable options for the PF and C positions are Nichols, G-Bez and Kane. Adonis De La Rosa is still recovering from an ACL injury and there is no timetable for Anthony Higgs’ return this season. Aaron Jordan can play some ‘small ball four’ for short stretches, but that’s about it. That means its Nichols and the two freshmen for two spots. So Underwood needs “Good Kipper” every night. No boneheaded mistakes, no foul trouble and a winning effort. Every. Night.
If Underwood loses Kipper Nichols — or if he regresses at all — the Illini are in deep trouble. They simply don’t have the personnel to afford that. This is the main reason why Kipper’s success is so vital to the Illini’s success this upcoming season.
That means Nichols is going to have to play at least 25-30 productive minutes every single night. He will be the secondary scoring option after Trent Frazier, and I think we can expect him to average 12-15 points per game this season at similar percentages he shot last year. His rebounding numbers will improve with the additional playing time to somewhere between 5-6 per game.
Nichols will likely be asked to play some out of the pinch post, which means his game will need to develop to create offense for others in addition to himself. Last year there were times where it seemed like Kipper was doing his own thing out there, and then there was the rest of the team. He needs to help lead this group and be the glue that holds them together.
There’s a great opportunity for Kipper to put up numbers and be a very productive player, and even sniff All-Big Ten recognition. Underwood and his staff desperately need him to reach those heights in order for this group to reach its potential.
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