The Four-Year Evolution of Derrick NixPosted by jnowak on March 7th, 2013
Tom Izzo said something interesting this week, which is neither strange nor rare, but it caught my attention as it pertains to Michigan State and the end of this season. As teams around the country get set to play their final home games of the year and bid farewell to their seniors, the only Spartan to be honored on Sunday afternoon after the Northwestern game will be center Derrick Nix. This means two things. First, it means the Spartans will return plenty of talent next year, and should be a contender to reach the Final Four and fight for the Big Ten title after playing a bit better than most expected this year. (Granted, there’s a chance — albeit a small one — that it could be the last home game for junior Adreian Payne and/or freshman Gary Harris, but that’s a different conversation for a different time.) Second, it means Nix’s time in green and white is drawing to a close. “You realize you get to this point of time and for the first time think, ‘What am I gonna do?’” Izzo said of what his lone senior is going through as his college career ends. It was an eventful four years for Nix, from Shaq-like free throws to being suspended to being a captain his senior year and his postgame tweets. It was nothing if not colorful.
Nix arrived on campus fresh off a Class A state championship (alongside Keith Appling) and with Michigan Mr. Basketball honors. He also was not fit for the program he was entering. Nix topped out near 340 pounds in high school and arrived on campus with a body fat percentage of nearly 25 percent. He struggled to get up and down the floor, didn’t have much leaping ability and in watching his high school highlight tapes, you wondered how he would be able to run with the Spartans. At the time of Nix’s senior year at Detroit Pershing, Michigan State’s big men were far taller than they were wide — Tom Herzog and Idong Ibok made Goran Suton look like a bowling ball — and Delvon Roe was a freshman with plenty of athletic potential. Nix was set to be the odd man out. But he and classmate Garrick Sherman, who has since transferred to Notre Dame, quickly became close friends and Nix showed the kind of potential he had. He had a sharp basketball IQ, which at times frustrated Izzo when Nix would try to overdo it and play point guard, as he enjoyed passing out of double teams to teammates on the perimeter. He had smooth moves around the basket, but as deft as his passing touch could be, he sometimes struggled to hold onto the ball. He only went to his left. And his free throws. Oh, the free throws. Nix was an abominable free throw shooter his freshman season, going 13-of-48 (27 percent) from the line. But there were always flashes of talent that led me to believe he could make it at the next level. But it would take steady progress.
And there was. First, at the free throw line, Nix’s shooting percentage has steadily climbed. With his minutes about the same, he shot just three more free throws his sophomore year, but made about 53 percent of them. He climbed to about 58 percent his junior year, before making a tremendous leap this season. As a senior, he’s already shot 33 more free throws than he did all of last season, and he has made 75 percent of them. And after years of Little Caesars diets, he has trimmed down to a healthy playing weight of 270 pounds, and a body fat the fraction of what he entered with. He is in noticeable better condition, can play more minutes, and gets up and down the floor with greater ease.
But as his numbers continued to improve over these four years, Nix found other ways to distract from his game. When Tom Izzo was flirting with the NBA, it was Nix who showed up outside Breslin Center with fans to show support for the coach. Then, strangely, when the Spartans were set to head to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational at the beginning of the 2010 season, Nix mysteriously stayed behind. He missed games against Chaminade, Connecticut, and Washington because of “personal reasons” that may have stemmed from his lack of minutes in the team’s first two games of the year. But he and Izzo got the situation sorted out and it was business as usual for the rest of the year. Then, in early April of last year, after the Spartans had unlikely 2012 success behind then-senior Draymond Green, Nix was arrested on suspicion of operating a vehicle with any presence of drugs and possession of marijuana. He was suspended indefinitely, but eventually reinstated after offering a tearful apology to the media. Tom Izzo vowed to make Nix’s life “miserable.” In the end, Izzo was satisfied with how Nix handled the incident and its aftermath because the center never missed a game this season. He was chosen by his peers to be a captain, and has played more than 27 minutes per game this season. Since then, it has only been about basketball.
Which brings it back to Izzo’s comments this week. Nix never developed into the NBA-level player that I thought he could when he stepped onto campus for the first time. He has proven, at times, to be a good player, but not a great one. There’s a chance he will see the opportunity to play professionally overseas. After all, skills like his don’t come that often in a player his size. But whatever comes next, Nix will always be remembered for his improvement on the floor and an action-packed career off of it.