With six seniors on the No.10 Wisconsin men's basketball team, there is no shortage of leadership outlets to plug into.
Jon Leuer is the poster child for how hard work combined with natural talent makes for a potent offensive weapon; Tim Jarmusz shows that even without a dynamic offensive game, one can still be effective with a solid defensive mindset and scout team players J.P. Gavinski, Wquinton Smith and Brett Valentyn diligence in the game-to-game preparation show on the court.
When asked to describe Wisconsin's sixth seniors, Madison native Keaton Nankivil, junior guard Jordan Taylor paused a couple seconds searching his virtual dictionary for the right word. The word he came up with – ‘priceless' – says all one needs to know about the under-the-radar forward.
"He's a priceless value to our team," said Taylor, a leader in his own right. "He may be a little overlooked, especially from a media standpoint, but nobody on our team overlooks Keaton. He is just as important as anyone on our team, if not the most important on our team at times."
Nankivil doesn't score as many points as Leuer (19.2) or Taylor (18.0), but it's hard to argue that his presence on the floor doesn't contribute to those numbers. A big man who is usually dead on when on the perimeter, Nankivil's ability to move opens up driving lanes for UW's guards and his defense has made life challenging on tough Big Ten post players like Jared Sullinger and JaJuan Johnson.
"The best way to describe Keaton is he's a silent assassin," sophomore forward Mike Bruesewitz said. "He's not going to be one of those rah-rah guys that's going to get you jacked up and beating his chest. At the end of the day, you look at his stats and he's hit got a bunch of rebounds, hit a few threes and filled the stat sheet. He's a big constant on our team."
Like any collegiate player, Nankivil's development has been a process. He averaged only 4.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per contest despite 20 starts his sophomore year, but started to lay the foundation for what it took to be successful in the rugged Big Ten. After raising his averages to 8.1 ppg and 4.7 rpg last season, Nankivil spent the summer perfecting his game, particularly his shot from 10 feet in.
The results have shown, as Nankivil is shooting 53 percent (44-for-83) from inside the arc.
"I wouldn't say it's anything where you just go to the gym and work on one thing, but it comes from experience," Nankivil said. "The more opportunities you get like that, the more comfortable you get in certain situation. The more you play, the more you can adapt on the fly."
It's also a product of having better balance an understanding of how to play off the ball, resulting in him finding the open seam in the defense and having a wide-open attempt.
"I think he has got a better understanding of off-ball movement, how to make reads and how to find weaknesses in man-to-man and zone defense," UW associate coach Greg Gard said. "That's helped his shots to get more attempts that aren't just threes. He's worked on his game, but his understanding and maturation from a knowledge-of-the-game level has improved."
Although he's a senior by nature, Nankivil can't help but wonder what could have been in store for him. Named Wisconsin's Mr. Basketball and Associated Press Player of the Year as a senior at Madison Memorial High, Nankivil, despite being behind Brian Butch, Joe Krabbenhoft, Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma, felt he had the capabilities to play.
Instead, he averaged only 2.4 minutes in 19 games, the most coming in a 10 minute stint against Florida A&M, a misstep he has made sure current redshirt center Evan Anderson understands and takes advantage of.
"You can still get experience while redshirting so in retrospect, it might have been a good move," Nankivil said. "I can't worry about it now and I am at where I am at, but redshirting is definitely a good option."
Going on to say that he's happy as long as the team is winning, Nankivil's leadership has been what has carried him through over the last week, despite shooting 3 for his lat 20 (15 percent) from 3-point range. Heading into his second-to-last home game Sunday against Penn State, Nankivil will approach the next game like he has every game – doing whatever needs to be done.
"Keaton Nankivil is still that guy who you want him to be open and when he's open, you want him to shoot it," UW coach Bo Ryan said. "He makes bigs cover him and we're always trying to tire people out, on both the offensive end and the defensive end. Keaton adds that element to us and he's been doing just fine."