Gonzaga, throughout their run of tournament excellence and conference domination, has always been known as “Guard University.” Yes, the frontcourt has translated to more NBA-level success, but it’s the guards that largely predicate how a season is going to go. To be the ballhandler in Mark Few’s system is not just a badge of honor but a role of great duty. More often than not, you’re proceeding behind the success of a future pro and a player with a treasure trove of accomplishments.
Seldom does inexperience get the reigns unless it’s possessed by someone with discernible talent. Like one-and-done Jalen Suggs, who was supported by a transfer upperclassman in Andrew Nembhard and another veteran in Joel Ayayi. So when it became clear that the lead guard position was sophomore Nolan Hickman’s to lose, you knew it was for good reason.
The 6-foot-2 Seattle guard has been the heir apparent since committing to Gonzaga in May of last year. His freshman season was largely one of learning in sporadic minutes in a range of opportunities, often tasked as an offensive spark plug and a secondary initiator beside Nembhard rather than for him. Such is the case when playing the backup for a guy that averages 32 minutes per contest with 8 complete games.
But it was apparent why Hickman was pegged as the next Gonzaga point guard during his recruitment. He was comfortably playing off-ball or creating, even as a freshman in the nonconference. Where Nembhard may have been the best pick-and-roll lane driving guard in Few’s storied career, Hickman is in an elite class in terms of creating off-the-dribble. A litany of moves and absurd handles helps him create separation and find beats where his defender is ill-equipped or unprepared for the next move.
After Julian Strawther and Drew Timme, Hickman had the next-highest field goal percentage in the midrange, shooting 44% on his jumpers. To illustrate why this is impressive and largely a feat of Hickman’s own creation, Timme’s makes were assisted 45% of the time. Strawther’s buckets were on a pass 23% of the time. Hickman’s hits? 8%.
Hickman showed an ability and maturity to play at multiple paces and levels of the offense. He finished strong at the rim in transition and in the half-court. He shot 35% from outside in the nonconference and averaged a 78.6% field goal rate when shooting at the rim for the season.
The point guard also showed a knack for controlling the offense and protecting possessions. He played 172 minutes last season against teams ranked in the top 30 in KenPom and recorded just 5 turnovers. That’s a per 40 of 1.16 turnovers.
And Hickman will be leading the offense with plenty of help. Returning senior Rasir Bolton will be tasked as the secondary ballhandler and veteran aid, similar to Nembard’s duties with Suggs in 2021. It’s a way to lower the pressure early for a young guard going against what Few calls the toughest nonconference that Gonzaga’s ever scheduled. It also allows for the offense to take advantage of Hickman’s scoring, which he showcased at Kraziness in the Kennel, going 3-for-3 from outside and 4-for-4 from the field.
What’s also incredibly enticing about major minutes for Hickman is that his court vision and cerebral play is not confined to just the offensive end. He showcased as a freshman an incredible reaction time and recovery that could make him one of the best defensive guards in the country. He had a steal rate that ranked 11th in the WCC and a block rate good for 22nd.
It’s telling as well how the coaching staff views him. The Gonzaga contingent at WCC Media Day was asked who the most improved player on the team was. Few said Hickman. That’s a trust that can only be forged through practice battles and a watchful eye from a coach that expects a lot before handing over any keys.
Hickman’s stock could easily balloon as the initiator for what should be one of–if not “the”–best shooting teams in the country, many citing him as a breakout candidate and future NBA draft pick. And his ability and skill set raise little questions as to why.