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Nebraska Basketball preseason player profiles: An in-depth look at each Husker Hooper

With the start of the 2017-2018 season just days away and the Huskers preseason exhibition games in the books, it is time to break down each player stepping on the court for the Nebraska men’s basketball team this season.

Take a look at our in-depth breakdown of each player fans can expect to see this season.

Glynn Watson Jr., Junior, Guard

Photo by John Peterson/Icon Sportswire

2016-2017:   13 ppg, 3 rpg, 2.6 apg  – FG%: 41.7, 3FG%: 39.7, eFG% (Effective Field Goal Percentage): 48.7, PER (Player Efficiency Rating): 16.7, WS (Win Shares): 3.0

Summary: As the only Husker to appear in every game for the past two seasons, Watson comes into his junior season as a veteran for Nebraska’s and is arguably the general leading a young squad this season. Last year, backcourt mate and the Huskers’ leading scorer, Tai Webster, played his final game for the Big Red. Now, it’s time for the two-year starter from Bellwood, Illinois to take the reigns of the offense and lead the Big Red.

Assets: Watson is arguably Nebraska’s best scorer – and a versatile scorer at that. His ability to score off the dribble and knock down tough, contested shots makes him a certified jaw-dropper for Husker fans, and he is a big reason for all of the buzz surrounding Nebraska basketball this time of the year. Offensively, his size may be deceiving, but he uses it to his advantage to maneuver through the lane and make plays for others, almost in a similar way to Isaiah Thomas in the NBA.
While many may not take his defensive ability for much, the “undersized” guard recorded 50 steals a year ago, which ranked 3rd in the Big Ten and is the most by any Husker in the past five seasons.

Needs to work on: Given the ball is in Watson’s hands as much as it is, many would like to see Watson become a better facilitator. After all, the 6’0″ guard (6’0″ might be generous) averaged more rebounds than assists last season. Watson will be looked upon by his teammates as a leader. Can he lead the team vocally? Can he be the guy that is constantly talking and giving directions to set up his team for success? These are questions Husker fans have for Nebraska’s returning top scorer. At the end of the day, we all know Watson is very talented, but can he make strides in the small intangibles to help turn Nebraska into a winning team?

Evan Taylor, Senior, Guard 

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

2016-2017:  5.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.2 apg  — FG%: 41.3, 3FG%: 24.0, eFG%: 43.2, PER: 8.4, WS: .8

Summary: Evan Taylor embodies a lot of what Tim Miles preaches to his team. He brings energy, toughness and a spark to every possession he’s on the floor. He’s a guy that will do anything he can to help his team win, which is just what Nebraska needs. He may not be the most talented player on the roster, but he is an important piece to this NU squad.

Assets: The 6’5″ senior is an absolute menace on defense. He’s everywhere And while playing with energy may seem like a simple skill, Coach Miles will assure you that Taylor’s energy is something special and can change a game in a heartbeat. Not to mention, despite the disappointing season last year, Taylor brought the effort every night. He’s a guy that Miles loves to have on the floor and he’s a great example for the younger players. Also, in Nebraska’s preseason, Miles played Taylor at the ‘4’ in Nebraska’s exhibition against Iowa State, and he has also played Taylor as the point guard, or primary ball-handler, showcasing the senior’s versatility. In the Huskers’ open scrimmage to the public, Taylor scored 10 points in 20 minutes, including the game-winning bucket with just under 4 seconds to go. If the senior can become a consistent offensive threat, the Cincinnati native is poised for an impressive season.

Needs to work on: With all he brings on the defensive end, Taylor hasn’t proved to be an offensive threat in regular season games. Yes, he has been good in the preseason, but that all gets thrown out come November 11. And given the role Taylor had on offense last season, the skepticism around his offensive game can certainly be justified.

Last season, Taylor posted a negative offensive plus/minus rating… combine that with a 17.8 turnover percentage… well, not good. And because of it, we saw teams sag off of Taylor last season knowing he isn’t much of a 3-point threat, and it hurt the Huskers’ team offense substantially. We’ll see how much an offseason of shooting helps Taylor this year. Because Evan Taylor with a jump shot would be a nightmare for other teams.

Isaiah Roby, Sophomore, Forward

Photo Courtesy of Huskers.com

2016-2017  3.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .7 apg  — FG%: 39.4, 3FG%: 20.0, eFG%: 41.5, PER: 10.1, WS: .5

Summary: Isaiah Roby seems to be the easy pick for Nebraska’s breakout player for this season. After injuries during his freshman season stunted his growth, Roby found himself playing just 15 minutes per game and never really getting into a rhythm. With his inconsistent time and health on the court, it seemed that Roby lacked the confidence to be a force for the Huskers. With a full, healthy offseason under his belt, Roby looks to take a big stride into the Huskers’ rotation this season.

Assets: At 6’8″ 226 lbs, the Illinois native’s most impressive qualities are arguably his athleticism and versatility. Last season with a healthy Morrow and Jacobson, Cornhusker fans saw Roby primarily on the perimeter, but with Morrow missing games due to injury, Roby began to fill that role, giving him experience on both the perimeter and interior going into this season. His ability to play both allows him to guard bigger players on the defensive end while creating mismatches offensively with his quickness and athletic advantage on most opposing post players. This will allow the Huskers to be a faster, more athletic team, which will ultimately lead to mismatches and transition opportunities for an offense that struggled a year ago. In addition, look for Roby to be an effective pick-and-roll screener. Instead of a Morrow or Jacobson pick-and-roll, Watson can have more options with Roby’s ability to pop and knock down a 3, along with his ability to get to the rim in space or off a bad closeout. Defensively, in just 15 minutes, Roby also was third on the team last season in blocked shots and was one of the top rebounders late in the season. In 16 minutes against Mississippi State, Roby tallied a team-high eight rebounds.

Needs to work on: Last season, Roby was struggling to stay healthy, which becomes a factor for his production. Because regardless of if you’re hurt or not, 20 percent from 3 needs to improve, which I believe it can. Roby has nice mechanics with a good release, so I’m optimistic about a better shooting season for the sophomore. Also, Roby needs to make better decisions. In fact, Roby had a turnover percentage of over 25 percent (very poor). Against Mississippi State, the sophomore had five turnovers in his 16 minutes. Roby’s seemingly lack of confidence may be a concern for Miles and the Huskers this season, but as he comes into this season healthy and with a more consistent role, look for Roby’s confidence and decisiveness to improve.

Jordy Tshimanga, Sophomore, Center

Photo by John Peterson/Icon Sportswire

2016-2017:  5 ppg, 4 rpg, .3 apg — FG%: 44.9, eFG%: 44.9, PER: 15.3, WS: .6

Summary: Jordy Tshimanga was certainly the most improved player for the Huskers over the course of last season. At the beginning, the freshman didn’t see much time, but by the end of conference play, the Canadian center was a force to be reckoned with, averaging an absurd per-40 (minutes) stat-line of 15.8 points and 12.6 rebounds. He also shot over 50 percent from the field per 40 minutes. When Tshimanga was on the floor, he was a huge asset for the Huskers, unfortunately, staying on the court wasn’t easy for the freshman.

Assets: Despite playing just four years of organized basketball, Tshimanga has an excellent skill-set for a big. His ability to score inside with a soft touch isn’t matched by many bigs in the conference. When the big was in the game, he was a force, and his numbers skyrocketed at the end of last season. In addition, his work on the glass has been quite impressive, both offensively and defensively. Tshimanga can have a strong impact for the Huskers on both ends this season.

Needs to work on: Tshimanga simply needs to work on staying in the game. His conditioning needs to improve from last year, along with his basketball IQ. He needs to play smarter, specifically in regards to foul trouble. When Tshimanga is in the game, he was a beast, dominating competition from top-level schools.

Jack McVeigh, Junior, Forward

Photo Courtesy of Huskers.com

2016-2017:  7.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, .6 apg — FG%: 37.2, 3FG%: 33.8, eFG%: 49.2, PER: 12.4, WS: 1.5

Summary: The Australian is known as the Huskers primary sharp-shooter. McVeigh can knock down 3s at will, and his quick release allows him to hit shots even when the defense is nearby. Offensively, he takes the Huskers to a new level, but the question with McVeigh is if his defense is good enough to keep him in the game.

Assets: McVeigh is lethal behind the arc. His quick release makes it very difficult to play help-side defense, creating more space for his teammates to operate. When he is in the game, Nebraska’s offense certainly rises. In addition, his veteran leadership will help a young NU roster.

Needs to work on: McVeigh needs to be more than a shooter. Mostly what’s needed from McVeigh is being able to defend – where he struggles both on the perimeter and the interior. If he wants to play consistent minutes, his defensive ability has to improve. If McVeigh can improve his quickness and strength, he will be better suited for guarding the perimeter and/or the interior. But as a wing that isn’t especially quick or strong (just 215 lbs at 6’8″), finding a man to guard is often difficult, which can be a domino leading to further problems.

Anton Gill, Senior, Guard

Photo Courtesy of Huskers.com

2016-2017 (12 games):  3.8 ppg, 2.9 apg, .5 apg — FG%: 27.1, 3FG%: 27.6, eFG%: 33.9, PER: 2.6, WS: -.1 

Summary: Anton Gill came over last season as a transfer from Lousiville, providing a lot of intrigue for Husker fans. As the new Husker only played in 12 games before being sidelined for the rest of the season, Husker Nation didn’t get to see much, but they did see a player that is very athletic and can use that athleticism to defend at a high level and get to the rim in transition. However, Tim Miles will be looking for Gill to become a more efficient, smarter offensive player to compliment his defensive ability.

Assets: Gill is a quick guard that can cause havoc for opposing offenses. The former Louisville transfer does a great job of getting in passing lanes and pressuring other guards. He also does a solid job of handling the ball and breaking defensive pressure without much help needed.  His athleticism, energy, and quickness make him an intriguing player off the bench for Nebraska.

Needs to work on: Unfortunately, I’ve been researching statistics for a little over a year and I have yet to see that someone with a negative Win Share count. Gill has a negative Win Share count, and if you’re not familiar with the statistic, it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s not good.

Gill’s struggles start with his shooting game. Not only improving his shot and shooting percentage – which he shot 27 percent from the floor last year – but he also needs to work on taking more suitable shots for his ability. Last season, Gill would often take quick, contested shots without getting good ball movement, which could lead to an even better shot or a similar shot for a better shooter. He needs to know his limitations and what the Huskers need from him offensively. Once Gill finds his role on this team, I think he can excel.

Isaac Copeland, Junior, Forward

Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire

2015-2016 (injured most of last season): 11.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2 apg  – FG%: 42.9, 3FG%: 27.2 (39% as a freshman), eFG%: 48.5, PER: 14.7, WS: 2.6

Summary: Isaac Copeland came to Nebraska during the middle of last season after transferring from Georgetown – shortly after Copeland would get the news he would be sidelined for the rest of the season due to injury. When he got to Lincoln, the former five-star recruit’s status was in question after a spring surgery and eligibility questions. Luckily for the Huskers, Copeland is back healthy and was granted eligibility this fall. The former Hoya will be looked upon to be one of the Huskers’ top weapons.

Assets: Nebraska’s first five-star transfer brings a lot to the table for Nebraska, specifically offense – where the Huskers struggled a year ago. His athleticism, combined with his skill-set, at his size will allow him to be a versatile player that’s a nightmare for others to guard. Given his ability to guard opposing post players, Copeland will force those post players to cover him tightly on the perimeter, creating more space for the Husker offense. Along with Copeland’s ability to knock down shots, the former Hoya can also score with the ball in his hands and in the two-man game. Since Miles has shown us in the past that he likes to run pick-and-rolls, the addition of Copeland is a huge improvement from a year ago. Instead of a Jacobson or Morrow like last year, Copeland’s shooting ability will allow him to stretch to the 3-point line and create space for Watson to work. If the switch comes and Copeland or Watson isn’t open on the initial action, the defense will likely be forced to switch, allowing two of Nebraska’s best scorers to have a mismatch. Since Jacobson and Morrow weren’t reliable outside shooters, defenses could stay in the paint and contain guys like Watson and Tai Webster, making it a lot harder for the NU offense to get quality shots.

Needs to work on: During his sophomore season, the more volume action he got, the less efficient he got. He will need to make sure he’s more efficient with his shots on offense this season. Defensively, Copeland can not let his offensive game affect his defense. Copeland needs to be an active defender that contributes in multiple ways.

James Palmer Jr., Junior, Guard

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Photo Credit: Scott Bruhn

2015-2016:  3.6 ppg, 1.3 rpg, .7 ppg, —  FG%: 39.1, 3FG%: 32.7, eFG%: 48.8, PER: 11.5, WS: 1.7

Summary: In Nebraska’s first two preseason scrimmages, Palmer has led the Huskers in scoring both times, tallying 23 points against Iowa State and 17 points off just six shots against Mississippi State. The Miami transfer’s scoring ability and efficiency is very impressive and will likely lead to Palmer being one of Nebraska’s top scorers. Arguably, his defense might be more impressive. Palmer’s defensive prowess, which has been given a lot of high praise, will round-out one of NU’s most complete players.

Assets: Palmer is an athletic wing that can defend at a very high level and can do more than just contribute offensively. He can shoot off screens, off spot-up attempts, he can drive the ball to make plays for others and Tim Miles has said he’s improved his toughness and finishing ability near the rim a ton. Miles said instead of looking to avoid contact and finesse his shots at the rim, Palmer is now looking for contact, and it’s shown with his number of and-1s in NU’s early scrimmages. In Nebraska’s open scrimmage to the public, Palmer scored 17 points in a 20-minute period, which most of them came when his team was down late in the game and needed him the most. Palmer completely took over the scrimmage and was scoring at will, and he capped off the performance by scoring a game-tying bucket with 20 seconds left (later to see his side lose on a Taylor lay-up in the final seconds).

Further, Husker fans remember when Terran Petteway took the Huskers to the NCAA tournament just a few years ago, well, in Tim Miles’ first radio appearance of the year on ‘The Nebraska Basketball Radio Show,’ the head coach compared Palmer’s scoring ability to Petteway – even saying that he thought Palmer was a better shooter. Giving the memories Petteway gave Husker fans during the Huskers’ NCAA tournament run, Palmer will cause a lot of excitement in Lincoln this season.

Needs to work on: Palmer also had trouble making good decisions at Miami – taking good shots and running good offense is something Palmer struggled with at Miami, but it appears that the junior has taken strides in his basketball IQ and decision-making.

Duby Okeke, Senior, Center

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Photo Credit: USA Today

2016-2017: 3.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, .1 apg, —  FG%: 60.8, eFG%: 60.8, PER: 11.2, WS: .9

Summary: With the Huskers losing Morrow and Jacobson last season to transfer, Miles went out and got Winthrop transfer, Duby Okeke. Okeke is known for being a beast down low, being a commander in the paint defensively, and provide energy on offense. Not only will Okeke be a spark-plug off the bench, but the Winthrop transfer will also be a likely Husker fan-favorite.

Assets: Duby Okeke is physically ready for anything thrown at him. He’s a beast. With his size and strength, the Winthrop transfer has a presence that helps him protect the rim and rebound at a high level. His rebounding and shot-blocking ability, combined with the energy he brings, will make him a fan-favorite right away.

Needs to work on: Okeke has a limited offensive game, and he really doesn’t look to score. With that, Nebraska ran a lot of pick-and-rolls last season, that is not something Okeke excels at and could give the Husker offense some limitations. Okeke will be used for dump-offs and causing havoc on the boards. In addition to that, Okeke needs to be mindful of his fouls as his physical presence is games will be much needed in a tough league such as the Big Ten.

Thomas Allen, Freshman, Guard

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Photo Credit: USA Today

2016-2017 (HS): 21.5 ppg, 5.6 apg

Summary: With the firing of Mark Gottfried last spring from North Carolina State, Thomas Allen – a four-star recruit – de-committed from the Wolfpack and committed to Nebraska. Allen was ranked No. 99 in the Rivals 150 and chose the Huskers over Kansas, Illinois, and Cincinnati. Creighton also had interest in the senior from Brewster Academy.  Brewster Academy coach Jason Smith, who has coached nearly 20 years and has sent over 100 players to play Division 1 basketball, said Allen was the best shooter he has ever had. Allen shot 48 percent from 3 during his senior season, leading Brewster to a 33-0 record and national prep school championship.

Assets: There’s a reason why top schools like Kansas were hoping to get Thomas Allen; the kid can shoot. And with his lethal stroke, defenders will be forced to rush out past the 3-point line, opening up driving lanes off bad closeouts and giving the freshman opportunities to get to the rim and make plays for others. Offensively, Allen brings shooting talent that will help an NU squad that struggled in that area last season. As the backup point guard, Allen has done a very nice job of controlling the tempo and running good offenses in practices.

Needs to work on: Allen certainly is talented, but with Watson playing heavy minutes, it will be tough to have both Allen and Watson in defensively. Those two, while talented, will struggle to keep athletic, physical Big Ten guards from getting to the rim and keeping them off the glass. This makes it difficult to give minutes to Allen when Watson is in the game, and we all know that Watson is going to be a big contributor to Nebraska this season. If Allen’s offensive ability can keep him on the floor, look for NU to run a lot of 2-3 zone with him and Watson in the game. Finally, Allen needs to get stronger in preparation for December’s slate of top competition.

Nana Akenten, Freshman, Guard

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Photo Credit: NBC Sports

2016-2017: 14 ppg, 7 rpg

Summary: Akenten, a 6-6 guard from Illinois, was the first signee of Miles’ 2017 class. After in-state recruit Aguek Arop decided to not attend prep school and de-commit from the Huskers, the 3-star recruit would soon make up the open spot.

Assets: Akenten is athletic and can shoot at a high level – a potential 3-and-D guy that can spark a team off the bench.

 

Needs to work on: When talking about Akenten, Miles said his team defense and ball-handling are two areas the freshman needs to work on before he gets minutes.

Akenten simply needs experience. He’s a young player that hasn’t played at this level yet. Once the freshman gets reps against better competition, he can be a helpful weapon for the Huskers in the future.

Thorir Thorbjarnarson, Freshman, Guard

Photo Courtesy of FIBA.com

2017 (U-20 World Championships): 7.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.3 apg,
2017 League Stats: 10.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg – FG%: 53, 3FG%: 38

Summary: Nebraska landed its third recruit for the 2017 season in early August as Thorir Thorbjarnarson committed to Nebraska. The 6-5 lefty from Iceland was described as “Smart, versatile, creative 2-way guy” by ESPN’s Jonathan Givony.

Assets:  Thorbjarnarson is a skillful, lengthy guard who excels at making plays on the offensive end. He can dribble, pass and shoot at a high level – which he has a longer range than many give him credit for – but he is at his best with the ball in his hands and trying to make plays for others. Thorbjarnarson has also shown some flashes of good off-ball movement in his tapes, giving him a better chance to play alongside guys like Watson. Cutting off the ball will not only get himself open looks but it can also cause help-side defenders to over-help on the cut, opening up other players for shots and driving lanes.

Also, Miles has mentioned that “Iceland’s version of Many Ginobili” has stolen the show in moments of NU practices.

While coach Miles made the comparison with Ginobili, Thorbjarnarson has a bit more athleticism than the NBA veteran, and really more athleticism than people give him credit for. In addition, moments after this video, the Icelandic guard knocked down a 3 from north of 25 feet.

Needs to work on: Thorbjarnarson has a lot of skill, but he does lack a strength and quickness for his position that could limit his playing time in a conference filled with physical, athletic players. Big Ten basketball is a lot different than the league he played in overseas, how Thorbjarnarson adapts will be a big key to his success.

Tanner Borchardt, Junior, Forward

Photo Courtesy of Huskers.com

Summary: Walk-on Tanner Borchardt, after playing his freshman season, re-joined the Husker basketball team last February. The post from Gothenburg, NE looks to add frontcourt depth for Nebraska this season. The junior has found time in both of Nebraska’s scrimmages this season and looks to be the third-string post behind Tshimanga and Okeke.

Assets: Borchardt is a strong, physical presence that can battle against other physical post players. In fact, he arguably looks more like a football player. The junior’s work ethic has earned him early minutes in the preseason and has made his teammates around him better in preparation for this season. Look for Borchardt to get some minutes if one of NU’s bigs get into foul trouble.

Needs to work on: While Borchardt’s size and strength can match-up against the other Nebraska bigs, the junior’s skill-set is a step behind. In addition, the Borchard’s competition has experience playing in games last season, while Borchardt really hasn’t seen much in-game action.

Johnny Trueblood, Sophomore, Guard

Photo Courtesy of Huskers.com

Summary: Johnny Trueblood, a Class B state champion in Nebraska (Elkhorn South), has also re-joined the team after playing his freshman year then sitting out last year.

Assets: During his little time at Nebraska, along with his successful high school career at Elkhorn South (in Omaha), Trueblood has shown a distinct ability to get to the rim. He’s a slasher. Trueblood has shown positives putting his head down and getting to the rim, which also has opened up his game to make plays for others. While the Omaha native might not get a lot of minutes, look for Trueblood to be aggressive in driving the basketball to the rim for the time he’s on the floor.

Needs to work on: Again, in his small sample size at NU and his high school career, Trueblood hasn’t shown much of an outside shooting game. It’s improved, but when the ball is in his hands, he’s much more comfortable driving the basketball, rather than shooting from the perimeter. Also, Trueblood needs to improve his quickness, strength, and physicality to defend opposing Big Ten guards.

Malcolm Laws, Senior, Guard

Photo Courtesy of Huskers.com

Summary: Malcolm Laws is in his third season at Nebraska, after transferring from Florida Atlantic. The senior from Orlando has played in 15 games in two years for the Huskers.

Assets: As a walk-on at FAU and NU, Laws hasn’t gotten much game-time. However, during his time, Laws has provided energy at the guard spot and tallied a steal and a basket against Michigan State last season. Laws strongest asset is on the defensive end where his ball-pressure has been impressive. His effort on the glass for a guard is also exceptional.

Needs to work on: During Laws’ limited action, the senior has shown more on the defensive side than on offense. Laws hasn’t shown much of a perimeter jump shot, nor has he really been aggressive in getting to the hoop. When in, Laws has been more of a guy that handles the basketball and moves the ball quickly to other scorers.

Justin Costello, Freshman, Guard

Photo Courtesy of Huskers.com

Stats (HS – 20176-2017): 18.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg

Summary: Justin Costello was once playing in the backcourt with current Husker teammate Johnny Trueblood, during his days at Elkhorn South. Costello, who is walking-on at NU, was a huge part of the Elkhorn South offense ever since he was a freshman. In fact, in his first-ever high school game, Costello played on the road in a #1 vs #2 matchup, which is where he hit a 3 in the final minute to give his team the lead and eventually the win. Again, in his first-ever high school game. The two-time all-state selection was a lethal shooter his entire high school career and tallied multiple 30-point games during his senior season. Costello comes into Lincoln as one of the top shooting recruits in the state of Nebraska.

Assets: Costello is a lethal spot-up shooter that, when he gets hot, can put up points in bunches. In high school, Costello was also a strong finisher at the rim and excelled at getting to the free-throw line.

In Nebraska’s open practice, Costello made the team’s 3-point contest championship round where he barely finished below team sharp-shooter, McVeigh, 18-20.

Needs to work on: While Costello can be an asset offensively, his lack of quickness, agility, and strength at the college level will raise questions for him defensively. To be a contributor for the Huskers, Costello will need to become a better fit for the college game and round-out a complete skill-set.

You can catch the Husker men’s basketball team in their first regular season game on November 11 against Eastern Illinois at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Tipoff is at 7:30pm CST and will be televised on the BTN Plus network.

-all statistics via Sports-Reference.com-

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