PORTLAND – Nolan Hickman grew up watching and consuming the multi-team college basketball events that typically land around the Thanksgiving holiday. The inaugural PK80 Invitational, held 170 miles south of his home in Seattle, was appointment viewing for a 14-year-old Hickman.
Gonzaga’s young floor general had a different vantage point at this year’s Phil Knight tourney, taking a few pivotal steps in his development over a three-game stretch against Portland State, Purdue and Xavier.
Hickman was Gonzaga’s top facilitator and arguably the Bulldogs’ most consistent offensive player in Portland, keying his team to wins over the Vikings and Musketeers and playing well in a loss to Purdue.
“Coming here has been life-changing, honestly,” Hickman said. “Just being able to play the best of the best teams. PK80’s been one of the tournaments I’ve been wanting to be at al my life growing up, so it’s a blessing being able to grow up and being able to do what I do. So, thank you. That’s all I’ve got to say to coach Few is thank you. Thank you for letting me get the opportunity to do what I do.”
In Thursday’s 102-78 win over Portland State, Hickman made just 2 of 10 shots from the field but managed to score nine points and had four assists with no turnovers. He followed that up with a 15-point, five-assist outing in Friday’s 84-66 loss to No. 24 Purdue and turned in another impressive stat line – 14 points, six rebounds and five assists – in Sunday’s finale against Xavier, an 88-84 GU victory.
Hickman’s final stat line at the Phil Knight Legacy: 38 points, 12 rebounds, 14 assists and just two turnovers. The Seattle native also managed to find his 3-point stroke against Purdue and Xavier, connecting on 7 of 14 in those games after making 5 of 16 to open the season.
“This guy was fantastic this whole tournament,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, seated to Hickman’s left during a postgame press conference Sunday. “He really grew up and he’s taking unbelievable care of the ball, he’s finding his shot and he’s really becoming a heckuva point guard.”
After averaging just 17.2 minutes as a freshman, Hickman, a former four-star recruit who was originally signed to play at Kentucky, inherited GU’s starting point guard role from Andrew Nembhard, who was selected in the second round of the NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers.
Hickman hit the ground running with five assists and no turnovers in a season opener against North Florida, but encountered adversity during a three-game stretch against stronger opponents. The sophomore made 40% of his shots and had twice as many turnovers (10) as he did assists in games against Michigan State, Texas and Kentucky.
But Gonzaga’s recent slate of games represented a crucial growth period for Hickman, who said he’s starting to get a better feel for teammates’ tendencies. The numbers show it. Next to wing Julian Strawther, who rescued GU with two late 3-pointers against Xavier, Hickman had the Bulldogs’ second-best plus/minus on Sunday (plus-14).
Before Friday’s game against Purdue, Hickman had never logged more than 30 minutes in a college game, but he was on the court for 34 minutes against the Boilermakers and played 32 more against Xavier.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Hickman said. “Just the players’ character traits, where they want the ball or where they need it. Just stuff like that.”
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