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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Nolan Hickman quickly connects with Gonzaga after decommitting from Kentucky

UPDATED: Sat., May 22, 2021

Nolan Hickman, when he played for Eastside Catholic, goes up for shot under the net against Garfield’s Tari Eason on Feb. 14, 2020, in Seattle.  (Amanda Snyder/Seattle Times)
Nolan Hickman, when he played for Eastside Catholic, goes up for shot under the net against Garfield’s Tari Eason on Feb. 14, 2020, in Seattle. (Amanda Snyder/Seattle Times)

Wasatch Academy’s basketball season complete and diploma in hand after the Utah prep school’s graduation ceremony, Nolan Hickman returned home to the Seattle area and worked out six times in two days.

“I’m getting my mind ready, eating right, buckling down on my body,” Hickman said in a phone interview. “I’m going to be ready.”

About five weeks ago, that would have meant getting ready for his freshman season at Kentucky. Instead, the 6-foot-2 point guard is preparing to play for Gonzaga.

Hickman’s plans changed when Kentucky assistant coaches Tony Barbee and Joel Justus, largely responsible for his commitment last August, accepted jobs elsewhere last month. Central Michigan hired Barbee as head coach and Justus joined Arizona State’s staff as an assistant.

Hickman promptly decommitted. When a high-level recruit like Hickman – No. 22 in ESPN’s rankings and No. 29 in 247sports composite rankings – decommits, tons of other programs come calling.

Gonzaga was the first to connect.

“Immediately, as soon as my name hit the transfer portal,” Hickman said. “Mark Few (Gonzaga coach) seemed pretty genuine, seemed honest and the thing that stuck out the most is he said, ‘We underpromise and overdeliver.’ He hit me with that and I was like, ‘OK, that’s what I liked.’ And it’s only five hours away from home.”

Hickman said reports that he decommitted from Kentucky because he was homesick weren’t accurate.

“That was the least part of it,” he said. “It was the two coaches leaving the staff. I didn’t feel comfortable going into that situation with those two coaches leaving. They were the ones that really recruited me and really reached out and built a bond with me.”

Kentucky’s loss was a huge gain for the Zags, who recruited Hickman the first time around but didn’t offer a scholarship. The addition of Hickman bumped Gonzaga’s recruiting class to No. 2 in ESPN’s and 247sports composite rankings behind Michigan.

The Seattle native bolsters a guard line that went from a potential concern months ago to fully stocked. Gonzaga lost Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi and Aaron Cook.

Senior Andrew Nembhard is expected to direct the offense. He’s joined by Hickman, five-star recruit Hunter Sallis, sophomores Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther and Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton.

That’s six players essentially competing for time at three spots. Strawther has the size to play as a small-ball ‘4.’

“My thing is, iron sharpens iron,” said Hickman, who recently celebrated his 18th birthday. “I can’t wait to play with (Nembhard) and against him in practice. He’s experienced at this level. That’s something I may need being a rook to the college thing. He may teach me the ropes. That’s the type of thing that is beneficial in my position.”

Hickman is a “plus athlete with frame that will allow for strength with maturity,” according to a 247sports scouting report. “Competitor with impressive mental makeup. Does nice job balancing shooting and creating for others. Versatile scorer and savvy facilitator. Strong on-ball defender.”

In addition to daily pickup games, typically with Duke-bound Paolo Banchero and college players, Hickman works with a trainer and often does two training sessions. The first usually involves running outside or on a treadmill. Later, it’s a “functional” workout that might include plyometrics, lateral movement drills and jumping jacks.

“I really work on my craft and I’m going to do whatever it takes to develop and get to the next level,” said Hickman, who plans on arriving at GU in late June.

Hickman and Zags incoming freshmen Sallis and Chet Holmgren recently participated in the Iverson Classic in Memphis, Tennessee. Hickman was teammates with Holmgren, the top-rated player in the 2021 class, with Sallis on the opposing team in an all-star game featuring the nation’s best prep players.

Hickman let his future teammates know he was Gonzaga-bound before making his official announcement a week later.

“Crazy shot blocker, anything around the rim,” Hickman said of the 7-1 Holmgren. “A lot of people tried him at the Iverson Classic, I don’t know what they were thinking. He just gets a tip on it and that’s an art keeping it in play. The really unique thing about Chet with him being that tall is he can definitely stretch it out and shoot from 3.”

On the 6-4 Sallis: “I don’t know how tall he is, but he’s out of the gym every time he jumps. It looks like he’s jumping off a trampoline. He can handle it and get to the cup.”

Hickman played with Gonzaga commit Kaden Perry on the Seattle Rotary AAU team.

“He has an extreme motor,” Hickman said of the 6-9 forward from Battle Ground, Washington. “I can’t wait to throw it up to him and he can go get it. We already have a little connection.”

Hickman feels he already has a connection with Few in addition to several of his teammates next season.

“I’m going to bring my winning attitude,” he said. “Mark Few came to a few practices before I committed to Kentucky. He knows I bring that competitiveness every single day. I’m a hard worker and facilitator and winner. That’s what he wants from me.”

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