Matisse Thybulle, Jaylen Nowell preview Utah State
Jaylen Nowell didn’t even need to think about it. He didn’t hesitate, didn’t so much as take a breath to consider before he answered the question.
He was sitting in Washington’s locker room at Nationwide Arena, about to take the court for an open practice. On Friday, the Huskies will pay their first NCAA Tournament game since 2011 — and it’s happening just two seasons into head coach Mike Hopkins’ tenure.
Nowell was the only member of the original 2017 recruiting class to stick with UW when Hopkins was hired. The two arrived at the same time. Now, two years later, they’re preparing to face Utah State in the first round.
So, did Nowell believe this could all happen so fast?
Of course he did.
“We talked,” Nowell said. “Not just me and Hop, but me and the other players. We talked a lot about it. This is something that we wanted to do since I stepped on campus. To be here is really a dream come true.”
On a team with four accomplished seniors, Nowell has played a pivotal role in getting the Huskies to this point. His scoring prowess was obvious from the beginning. In his first game with UW, Nowell scored 32 points. He went 12-of-18 from the field, setting the school record for a freshman debut.
“Who comes out in their college debut and scores 30 points?” said senior guard Matisse Thybulle. “That’s insane.”
Nowell is quietly confident, simultaneously aware of his capabilities and quick to shift the focus to his teammates. He averaged 16.0 points last season, earning a spot on the Pac-12 all-freshman team. But it’s what he did in the months leading up to the start of his sophomore campaign that helped propel the Huskies into the NCAA Tournament.
When Nowell arrived at UW, he thought of himself as strictly a scorer, exactly the type of player everyone told him he had to be. It wasn’t until the summer, when he sat and reviewed hours upon hours of film with assistant coach Dave Rice, that Nowell realized he could be something else.
Nowell watched himself put up shots. He watched himself make some; he watched himself miss some. Slowly, he began to notice how often his teammates were open around him. And then he came to a realization.
“I got to make sure I get that open guy as well,” Nowell said, “and then the defense will open up even more so I can score more, too.”
This season, his scoring is up to 16.5 points per game. But the story of his development goes beyond that number. He’s taken 416 shots through 34 games this season, down from the 450 he put up in the same number of games last year. His field goal percentage has risen form 45.1 percent to 50.4 percent, and he’s dishing out 3.2 assists per game this year compared to his 2.7 last season.
“Freshman year, he would get into the lane and he would always just think to score,” said senior point guard David Crisp. “It wasn’t coming out of a selfish standpoint it was just, he’s such a great scorer he felt like if he got to his spots he could score.
“He did that a lot and that’s a big part of why we are successful. But this year, he gets in that lane and he’s aware that a lot of people are collapsing in and he’s looking for those kick outs to wide open guys. When he’s doing that, it’s contagious.”
Nowell has already scored 1,000 career points, becoming the quickest UW player to reach 600, 700, 800, 900 and 1,000 points along the way. As a freshman, he led the Huskies with 10 20-plus scoring outings. He’s added 10 more this season.
But Thybulle agreed with Crisp: Perhaps Nowell’s biggest step forward was learning when not to shoot. Because of that, the Huskies have been able to develop around him. And because of that, they’re in NCAA Tournament.
“He’s become a greater, like a well-rounded player,” Thybulle said. “He thinks (through) the game at a way higher level. He makes everyone around him a lot better now. Just to be able to see how far he’s come from that first year in just one year really has been really impressive.”
Nowell was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year this season and is a finalist for the Jerry West Award, given to the top shooting guard in the country. He’s also the only player in the nation shooting more than 50 percent, scoring at least 16 points per game and averaging more than five rebounds and three assists.
While his teammates unanimously agree that diversifying his game helped UW improve, they also reached a consensus on another point: Sometimes, the Huskies just need Nowell to take over offensively. And more than any other player on the roster, he has that ability.
“That’s something that has always been there,” Nowell said with a grin. “Everybody classifies me a killer so I guess it has always been there. It is kind of a switch to where, all right we need a win and I got to make sure that we win because if we don’t, it’s going to fall on me as one of the leaders.
“I just really love to compete, go out and compete. When I see that we’re down, I just try to go out there and do the best I can to make sure we get the win.”
Nowell scored 20 points during UW’s road victory over Oregon this season. And when the Huskies fell behind late, it was Nowell that took the reins.
He scored eight points in the final 2 minutes. After he hit a jumper to pull UW within 56-53, he drained a 3-pointer to tie the game at 56. Then, he hit three free throws with seconds left on the clock to give the Huskies the win.
“He just gets in the mode of like, we can’t lose, we got to get a bucket right now,” Crisp said. “He’s so good at getting to his spots. He knows the spots he’s successful in. He gets to them. He’s done it so many times, it’s just routine now. It’s just extreme focus from him, extreme confidence. It’s taken us a long way.”
Senior Dominic Green said it’s like something just clicks on for Nowell in those pivotal moments.
“No matter what the defense does, they can’t do nothing to stop what he wants himself to do, especially when he puts his mind to it,” Green said. “You can see a little spark turn on in his head and he just starts doing things and it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
Some time soon, Green and UW’s other three seniors will play their final game in a Husky uniform. Should he choose to enter the NBA Draft, Nowell could join them.
Right now, Nowell is widely considered a late-first round, early-second round pick. But whether he decides to remain at UW for his junior season or declare for the draft, Green knows once thing for sure: He’ll be successful.
“I think he’s going to be really good whatever he chooses to do because he works hard at his craft,” Green said. “He never takes anything for granted.”