There are noteworthy moments on the recruiting trail that help explain or highlight the development of the strength of a program. Obviously, five stars, one-and-dones and McDonald’s All-Americans build and write that narrative in bold. But to have a McDonald’s All-American point guard, from a basketball hotbed like Seattle, change his commitment from blue blood Kentucky to your program informs you that you’re building something special.
Nolan Hickman, the 6-foot-2 freshman that played at East Side Catholic High School did just that when he decided to commit to Gonzaga and become the point guard heir in waiting. Hickman had the upside of being a one-and-done player but chose a path that would challenge him with a roster of two upperclassmen guards, two highly touted returning sophomores and a fellow McDonald’s All-American.
The pathway to minutes seemed unclear, yet the point guard’s ability to defend, handle the ball, shoot and create off of the dribble was too potent to keep sidelined and earned him opportunities as the first guy off of the bench.
Hickman averaged 17.2 minutes per game, which is notable considering that many of those minutes logged were not as the point guard but as an off guard and auxiliary ball handler. His shooting, high IQ decision-making and court vision made him an ideal pairing with senior Andrew Nembhard whenever teams would key in and try and prevent the senior’s offense creation.
The freshman proved his ballhandling even early on. In 260 minutes in the nonconference Hickman had all of 7 turnovers. He had an assist to turnover average of 3.14. And he was doing this while showcasing glimpses of his ability as a lead ballhandler and shot-creator. Early on, Hickman was noticeably the best off-the-dribble shooter on the team. His ability to cut, change directions and step back was immediately on display.
Hickman could score at all three levels. He was consistent when he attacked the rim, shooting 71.8% and was 44% in the midrange. He drilled 50% of his transition jumpers as well. And attacking the basket was not just in transition, over 60% of those rim points came in the halfcourt offense. His three-point shooting while streaky was consistently above 30% and something that you could see progress given a larger role and more consistent minutes.
You saw glimpses of Hickman’s potential throughout the year. In a sluggish Battle in Seattle game, he was one of the sole bright spots as he kept the game competitive in his hometown, drilling two of his three attempts from outside. Hickman had eight games this season with an offensive rating above 150 and would go on to be named on the WCC All-Freshman team.
And it’s hard not to get ahead of yourself when talking about a talented freshman with a pro-level skillset in the offseason. Hickman will likely kick the tires and talk to some people about the process to get to the next level. He should and is able to keep his options open. But imagining one of the purest offense-initiating freshmen in the history of the program with the keys to the offense is a damn fun thought exercise.