Jimmy Nichols’ grin was bearing down from above. Just north of that, his eyes blinked while his brows raised.
Nichols, the Conway basketball star, has heard just about every compliment coaches could hurl his way over the last year. But this one was different.
Two months after he signed with Providence College, well after the recruiting pitches were over and the days of folks trying to make him feel bigger than his 6-foot-8 frame, Nichols’ face reacted to maybe the nicest thing someone could possibly say about his game, something that caused his face to twist in several displays of positive emotion and semi-disbelief all at once.
“I see him being an all-conference player when it’s all said and done,” Ed Cooley said.
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Did the Providence coach – a man who doesn’t have a kid on his roster who hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament and who had three guys drafted by NBA franchises in the past five years – really just say he expects Nichols to be an All-Big East selection against the likes of guys from Villanova and Georgetown and Marquette and Xavier?
He must have been falling back into coach-speak mode, placating a signee while simultaneously continuing never-ending game determining how much talent he has on the floor.
“No, I don’t say that about every recruit,” Cooley said. “That’s what I truly feel.”
Maybe then, the best is yet to come for a kid whom many consider to be the best high school basketball player to come out of Horry County in more than a decade.
Cementing a legacy
Through two-thirds of his senior season at Conway, Nichols is averaging 19 points, nine rebounds and three blocks per game. In a little under three full varsity seasons, he’s eclipsed 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks.
Hybrid is a good way to describe his game, both in that he can play several positions on the floor while also matching spurts of dominance with passive moments. He somehow pairs it all together, finding a subtle consistency to a game that has so few physical matches at this level.
Take last week’s game against Socastee. He failed to attack (and score) for the first 9:40, only to absolutely go off for the next three. In that short span of the second quarter, he followed two teammates’ missed shots with thunderous put-back dunks, added an assist and three rebounds and blocked shots on back-to-back Braves possessions in the midst of a 12-0 Conway run.
“He’s had some games that he takes over for a couple minutes,” Tiger coach Mike Hopkins said. “If you didn’t know who he was, you’d still say, ‘That’s the kid going to Providence right there.’ Well, Jimmy Nichols is Jimmy Nichols. He’s not a true alpha male. He still does some things right now that surprise him.”
The Tigers went on to win, keeping their region record unblemished. Nichols finished with 19 points, 13 of which came after the break.
For many high school players, that would be a night to remember. None of what he did that night surprised Nichols, though.
While he’s likely a long shot because of Spartanburg Day’s Zion Williamson and a couple others, Nichols is a viable candidate for South Carolina’s Mr. Basketball award. He’s currently listed by the recruiting service Big Shots as the fourth top senior in the state behind only three private school players. Conway is ranked in the top three in Class 5A, and a playoff run could solidify his chances to end up in the final cut for the state’s top individual hoops award.
The honor would be a major coup for the area scene; only one local has ever been named Mr. Basketball since the award was established in 1990. That’s when talented two-sport Conway star Lawrence Mitchell earned the nod. He was it, despite more talent following in his footsteps.
Alvin Green (Socastee, 2000) went on to Coastal Carolina, where he started 100 games for the Chanticleers. The year before, Courtland Freeman wrapped up his days with the Braves before heading to Georgetown University.
There were others – Tim Jennings at Conway, Simeon and Sammie Haley at Myrtle Beach and Matt Kyle at North Myrtle Beach, to name a few – who kept their names etched into various memory banks long after their departures.
But maybe most notable over the last few decades is Ramon Sessions.
The three-time Class 3A All-State selection at Myrtle Beach signed with Nevada and played three years with the Wolf Pack before departing early for the NBA Draft. He’s played nearly 700 games in the league over the course of 11 seasons.
His banner hangs in the Myrtle Beach gymnasium, a legacy growing by the year.
That’s eventually the type of company Nichols would like to keep; granted he’s tried to stave off the weight of expectations. From the scouting services – Big Shots recruiting director Kevin Schneider pointed out that Nichols is considered a much bigger prospect than even Sessions (who had one full-scholarship offer coming out of high school) – to the college coaches and fans around Conway, Nichols is frequently viewed as the player who is charged with changing the Tigers’ path.
In some ways, he’s already done that.
“It was us trying to beat teams to get into the playoffs,” he said. “Now, it’s teams trying to beat us to get into the playoffs. It’s a little different.”
The right fit
The fact that Nichols can concentrate so much on his final season in Conway instead of what comes next is something locals can thank Cooley and the rest of the Providence staff for.
His recruitment was by most standards relatively fast. His first offers came last spring after a couple nice showings with the Raleigh-based Garner Road AAU squad. In July, already 10 offers deep, Nichols received the call from Cooley, whose staff watched Nichols play a game in Charlotte earlier in the day.
“Our entire staff evaluated him and they all came back with rave reviews,” Cooley said. “That’s when we went in to offer him and went all in to get him. It didn’t take us long to [decide to] offer him a scholarship at all. One time.”
Said Nichols: “It was a little strange. When I talked to him, I knew he wanted the best for me. They told me how they played. I felt like I fit into their program.”
Providence wasn’t exactly just slinging empty words into the wooing, either. The Friars have qualified for a school-record four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, with a fifth seemingly on the way – and Cooley is in year two of a 10-year contract extension that he signed in 2016, so consistency in the staff is about as solid on paper as it gets. Providence will also be losing two wing players and another forward after this season, meaning increased likelihood for Nichols to earn playing time as a freshman. Lastly, the team’s free approach to offense and pressure defense is based on the same type of length that Nichols’ wingspan promotes.
So in September, after originally trimming his list of colleges to three in the span of two months, he needed only a couple weeks to reduce it to one. No longer was he the 14-year-old watching Kris Dunn playing for Providence against North Carolina in March Madness. No longer was he the guy hoping to play for the coach who helped make Dunn an NBA lottery pick.
Nichols had his next stop locked up, and he could focus on doing what he felt was immediately necessary.
“We’ve just got to deal with the pressure,” he said. “Every game we’ve played since we’ve been ranked in 5A, teams been giving us a lot. The teams don’t want to play Conway again. That’s how [Hopkins] always wanted it. He didn’t want people to take Conway for a joke anymore.”
Scratching the surface
When Hopkins took over the Conway basketball program in the early 2000s, it was a sign of change.
The Tigers were getting a former NCAA Division I head and assistant coach to lead a school that had not won in the playoffs since 1994. That streak found ways to extend itself. Difficult matchups against region opponents led to even more difficult first-round playoff games, if there was a postseason at all.
Tigers faithful looked to Nichols the last two years as the player who could push the team through postseason drought, even if Hopkins is vehemently played down that thought process.
“We try to make sure he understands that he’s a big part of what we do, but he’s not the only part,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got enough talent. That’s why we’re able to take him out of games and put some other guys in who can give us some effort. He is not a selfish player. I don’t try to put any pressure on him. I don’t know what he deals with talking to people around Conway. But in terms of this program, it’s not like we’ve got banners hanging around.”
Lack of prior success means nothing to Nichols. He said he was disappointed when his team lost to Blythewood in a holiday tournament in December. Up to that point, he believed an undefeated season was within the Tigers’ grasp.
Youthful bravado, perhaps, but it’s not like Nichols is going at this single-handedly. The other four Conway starters are all slated to be playing Division I ball next year, too, albeit football.
One basketball star surrounded by a handful of really good football players? That’s half true, at least.
“Before they all got their football offers, they wanted to go the basketball route,” Nichols said. “We’ve all been playing together since we were 10. So we always knew how to play; it was about us growing.”
The same was, and is, true for Nichols.
“He is just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do,” Hopkins said. “When he gets to where he can get more coaching than what I can give him, he’s getting to eat what he should, someone’s controlling his diet, lifting weights, individual workouts, continuing to teach him – because he’s a very teachable player, he’s a sponge – and you’re demanding it play after play after play…”
The sentence trails off.
The rest of what will be said about Nichols has yet to be said.