Jeremy Werner

Fact or Fiction: Kipper Nichols will play big role for Illini this season

Kipper Nichols will be eligible to play for Illinois this Saturday against BYU. Will the redshirt freshman make a big impact for the Illini this season. Illini Inquirer's Jeremy Werner and Derek Piper weigh in.

Jeremy Werner, Illini Inquirer publisher

FICTION. I get it. Kipper Nichols is the shiny new toy. And, boy, he looks good on the sidelines. What we saw in open gyms suggests he can help Illinois long-term.

The 6-foot-6 forward only 19 years old, but he's built like he's in his mid-20s. He's strong, physical and a plus athlete. He'll eventually add a potential plus defender and a plus rebounder. He can handle a bit too and can score at the rim, though his jumper must continue to improve.

You can tell Groce loves his work ethic and demeanor. His teammates love his personality, both on the court (tenacious) and off the court (funny). He seems to add a lot of "toughness and togetherness" to the program.

But I don't think we'll see much of it until next season, when Illinois must fill senior star Malcolm Hill's shoes -- likely with a committee approach of Nichols, D.J. Williams, Aaron Jordan and incoming freshmen (Javon Pickett and, if healthy, Da'Monte Williams).

I've tempered my immediate expectations for Nichols, in large part due to the timing of his addition. The Illini -- which Groce says has "strength in numbers" -- took several games to find what Groce calls "synchronization." Then it added Leron Black after four games, and they struggled through more adjustments by losing three games in a row.

The Illini, which have won four straight games, finally seem to be finding their rhythm with their rotation -- and now they're going to add Nichols to the competition for playing time.

But whose minutes will Nichols take? He's only playing the four right now in practice, and right now, the Illini are getting pretty good production at that spot.

Leron Black needs to play 25-plus minutes per game, if he doesn't get in foul trouble. He's turning into a Big Ten star with some skills that mirror Wisconsin star Nigel Hayes, only maybe with a little more athleticism.

Michael Finke is having a rough stretch, and Nichols certainly would be an improvement defensively. But Finke gives the Illini something they don't have elsewhere on the roster: a very skilled, floor-stretching four. If he continues to struggle, some minutes can become available. But he's at his floor right now. When he's at his ceiling, he's one of the Illini's better scorers.

Fans want to see more of D.J. Williams, who continues to show flashes but has struggled with inconsistency. Like Nichols, Williams adds length and athleticism on the court. But Williams also plays the three and has the edge after year and a half on the court. Nichols' minutes at the four likely would come at the expense of any Williams' few minutes.

The Illini (8-3) and Groce don't have the margin for error to give major minutes to allow another piece the time to adjust and figure out his role -- and possibly disrupt the rhythm of the rest of the team, which is still adjusting to its roles.

Could Nichols switch over to the three in the middle of the season? Unlikely, given Groce's past history of having freshman focus on one singular position. And I really wouldn't want Hill to play fewer than 32 minutes per game, so those minutes already are sparse for Williams and Jordan.

Nichols has characteristics that will help this team in the future, and he'll provide competition and push Finke and Williams. If he outplays them during practice and during his minutes on the floor, then he'll earn a role.

But given the current roster make-up, his position and the timing of his addition, fans should probably pump the brakes on expectations for how much play the shiny new toy will receive this season.

Derek Piper, lead basketball reporter

FICTION. I certainly get the excitement and intrigue surrounding Illini redshirt-freshman Kipper Nichols, who will be eligible to play in his first game this Saturday against BYU at the United Center.

He's 6-foot-6 with skill, versatility and natural physical ability. He's tough. He's built. He can run, jump and dunk. And he has one of the cooler names you'll find in college basketball.

But Nichols will not immediately live up to the bar of expectations that have been set by Illini fans. Remember, this is a player who hasn't played in an actual game since his high school state semifinals in March 2015. And he's joining a team that already has 11 regular season games and two exhibitions under their belt this season.

Of course, Nichols has been practicing day in and day out with his teammates. He looked good in open gyms. In fact, he was one of the better players in a number of them. But it is a different game now.

For starters, look at Illinois' starters at his position(s). Nichols was practicing exclusively at the four back in October. The Illini have their man at the four in Leron Black, who looks like a rising star in the making. He's putting up 14.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game with great energy, a dead-on mid-range game and a more disciplined defensive approach. You want him on the floor 25-plus minutes every night, and that's what John Groce has been getting.

How about at the three? Well, you have Malcolm Hill there -- playing 32.2 minutes per game on average. In tight battles, he has played upwards of 35 minutes, and even 37 minutes against IUPUI. There aren't a ton of scrap minutes to pick up there. Just ask D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan.

What about backup minutes at the four? Yes, Michael Finke has been in an offensive funk. And he is simply not a good defender. But the expectation remains that his shot will come around. Does Nichols have the ability to battle Finke for minutes? Absolutely. But even if you took half of Finke's minutes from the last four games and gave them to Nichols, that would be less than seven per game.

And Groce has shown that his loyalty is with players who know what they're doing and make fewer mental mistakes. Jaylon Tate has played 49 minutes the last three games. Te'Jon Lucas has played 16 minutes. Ask Illini fans who they think is better.

The fact is that this is not all in a vacuum. Or on the playground. Nichols would be a good one to have in that case. He'd be a good one-on-one defender, and his raw skill and athleticism would work in a free-flowing game with no real structure. But in a real-game setting, Nichols isn't quite yet a good defender. There is a learning curve with off-ball positioning, ball-screen rotation, when to help, when not to help, how far to help, etc. And that's all just defense.

Offensively, there's a lot to learn and adapt to with sets and rotations. It's one thing to run through it in practice. It's another to execute in the game. And in terms of playing on the perimeter, Nichols isn't a great outside shooter. That's one of the reasons the Illini decided to designate him as a four in the fall.

The Illini staff would like to put more athletes on the floor, and Nichols is certainly an athlete. They would like to get better defensively, and that's something Nichols will likely excel at down the line. But as is the case with his game as a whole, it's going to take time.

Nichols will have to earn his minutes in the rotation and embrace his role -- one that doesn't look to be all that big this season.

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