COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- He's so soft-spoken you have to lean over to catch his words.
He's so hard on himself head coach Mark Turgeon has to constantly boost his spirits in practice so he won't get down.
But when the subject of best shooter on this sharpshooter-filled 2014-15 Terrapin men's basketball team comes up, well Jared Nickens is no shrinking violet. He played on some top AAU teams over the years, but Nickens said he has never been with a group of lights-out strokers like this.
"I'd say me," Nickens said with no hesitation when asked who the best shooter on this Terrapin team is.
It's early yet, but the Terps' freshman guard trio of Melo Trimble, Dion Wiley and Nickens, the 6-7, 203-pound former four-star signee out of Monmouth Junction, NJ, has wasted little time making some noise and dialing up for an offensive-starved program, and fan-base, in recent years.
The three, coupled with newcomer and fifth-year guard transfer Richaud Pack, returners Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz, and now all of a sudden maybe Dez Wells, have been hoisting three-balls at a dizzying rate, and have made most forget about the Seth Allens and other departures of the world.
The Terps have won both games so far this season by 30-plus digits, best yet of the Mark Turgeon era, and their sharing, spacing and shooting have made many forget all the bad basketball IQ that has come through the Terrapin backcourt in recent years.
And Nickens may be the biggest surprise of the three, the former high school jump-shooting beanpole who was reluctant to attack the glass and many considered a year away given his body type when he signed. But after enjoying a physical transformation last summer to arrive at College Park with an added 26 pounds, Nickens is already showing glimpses of his upside.
And of that shooting group, none of whom who has hesitated out of the box in the Terps pre-season scrimmages and early regular season games so far, Nickens said:
"It feels great knowing that the defense can't just focus on one of us," Nickens said. "And if one of us is off we know someone else will be there to make the next shot."
Nickens said he and his teammates don't care who shoots the rock, as they all can share in the new Terrapin motion offense and have success.
"We're all cheering for each other for the shot to go in," Nickens said.
Nickens said he has always been his own worst critic, something he gets from his parents and his own competitive nature. He said he has been solid in the first two games, with rebounding and defense the areas he's still working on the most. Nickens is averaging 5 points per game and 1.5 rebounds per game in 20 minutes a game through the first two contests, knocking down a trey in each.
He also came up with two steals against Central Connecticut on Nov. 17 in the Terps 93-57 win at Xfinity Center. You can tell his stroke is smooth and has good rotation, though he rushed one in the opener and finished just 1-3, while Nickens went 1-for-4 against Central Connecticut, maybe part of some early freshman jitters. All of his field goal attempts this season have been threes, and his teammates know the shots will soon start falling for the smooth, long swingman.
"Oh, they all can shoot it, even Pack the transfer," Terps sophomore center Damonte Dodd said. "I don't want to say who the best shooter is [laugh], but I will say this: he [Nickens] can shoot it. And from the film I have watched, from what the [TV] announcers say every time he comes in, they say 'watch number 11, he's a shooter.' And they're not lying, I will say that."
Dodd said there was a preseason scrimmage when Nickens was raining down so many treys against a zone defense that he hit Nickens' shooting hand while trying to block his shot, yet the ball still went in.
"Every shot he put up went in," Dodd said with a shrug.
Nickens says he is just scratching the surface. And followers of Terrapin basketball, who have seen years of one-on-one offense and a lot of standing around, are excited about how quickly this new young group moves and shares the ball. It appears contagious, starting up top with Trimble, as the players know if they work to get their shots they will be rewarded with the ball in scoring position. The young shooters are spreading the floor and opening up new avenues for Terrapin offense already, an encouraging sign as the Terps enter another rough stretch of four games in eight days starting tonight with Fordham.
"I feel I can shoot a little better," Nickens said. "I just have to get in the gym and keep putting up my shots. And I'm pretty hard on myself. I expect a lot out of myself. I know what I can do, so when I feel I am not meeting my expectations I tend to get a little too upset. Coach [Turgeon] reminds me to just move on to the next play."
Nickens said when he has practice slip-ups he tends to get upset, his face animated, until Turgeon gives him a nudge and brings him back.
"My parents. And just myself and my love for basketball," Nickens said of his own expectations. "And the fact Coach Turgeon believes in me and trusts in me [makes me want to do well]."
Said Turgeon on Nov. 19 as the Terps prepared for Fordham, the biggest test yet of the young season.
"Jared has been good," Turgeon said. "He, like [freshman center Michal Cekovsky] 'Ceko' and Damonte [Dodd], is getting in the right spot more and more defensively, and getting through screens better. He's blocking out better, but not rebounding the way he will down the road with his length and his size. And the other night, I thought offensively....we played him at multiple positions, we even had him in there at the four on offense. You guys don't see that, but just for a few minutes. And he handled it well for a guy that hadn't practiced that very much. Did a nice job.
"He just didn't make shots last game, and we all know Jared can make shots. But Jared is really hard on himself, and those guys usually get better. He works hard. I think all the new guys have been really good for us."
Nickens said playing the four wasn't foreign to him, as he played it some in high school, and on offense it includes the same motion principles. He's up the whopping 26 pounds since his high school senior year, the biggest transformation of any Terp. It seemed yesterday he was a spindly jump-shooter afraid to mix it up much or take the bump at mid-range as a high school senior.
Nickens grew from 5-11 to 6-4 between his eighth and ninth grade years, so has always had guard skills starting with that smooth stroke. He said his father, Robert, who played at St. John's for a year, helped him as that was his forte, too.
But the physical change has allowed him to make a quicker splash than most anticipated.
"It helps a lot defensively," Nickens said of the added weight/strength. "It helps me get through screens. From when I got here in the summer compared to now, I am able to get through a lot more. It helps me offensively with securing the ball and rip-throughs, and it's helping my confidence, too, knowing I am able to do those things and not getting tied up with players."
Nickens Doesn't Lack for Confidence
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