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Hustle Focus: Maturity and Memphis’ NBA G League squad offer Nichols redemptive shot at hoops under FedExForum spotlight

By Pete Wickham
Grind City Media Correspondent

The “Mea Culpas” and “Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas” have all been said.

Austin Nichols insists he has made peace with himself, and the game his 6-10 frame always seemed destined to play – and dominate. Now, it’s strictly about what Nichols can do with a basketball in his hands back on his home turf as a member of the Memphis Hustle, the Grizzlies’ NBA G League team.

“I was a little burned out on ball, but I’ve fallen back in love with it,” Nichols said of rededicating himself to the sport. “I’ve matured on and off the court, trying to figure out who I wanted to be, and trying to mature as a person. I wanted to stay in the States, and when this option became available, it was great to be back home playing for the city.”

Nichols’ emotional journey comes full circle on Friday, when he plays in a game at FedExForum for the first time since he acrimoniously transferred from the University of Memphis two years ago. The Hustle will face Salt Lake City on Friday as Memphis’ expansion NBA G League franchise uses the Thanksgiving holiday break to play their lone game of the season at their NBA affiliate’s arena.

It’s also a showcase moment for Nichols, who is coming off the best performance of the season as the former five-star prep recruit and ex-Tigers standout gets reacquainted with a familiar fan base. Nichols made his first start on Tuesday and finished with season highs of 15 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in 30 minutes during a road loss to Rio Grande Valley.

That was a breakout effort for Nichols, but it’s also part of the gradual building process for the player and team. There is one big difference this time around, according to Hustle Head Coach Glynn Cyprien – who helped recruit Nichols to the University of Memphis during his stint as an assistant to Josh Pastner.

Everywhere the 23-year-old has gone – from being a Prep All-American at Briarcrest through two tumultuous years with the Tigers and then a one-game “team rules” flameout with the University of Virginia – Nichols was expected to carry his team until the NBA called his name on draft night.

This time around, Cyprien said, the bar starts low, and expectations will build gradually.

“We’re going to take it slow with him,” Cyprien said of Nichols. “It’s not for me to tell Austin that he’s going to get double-doubles every night. It’s a developmental league, and he’s going to have to learn how to play at the NBA level. There are strong, tough guys out there, and he’s going to realize this league is a lot more competitive than you think. The way he’s worked the last couple of months has been phenomenal. But our only expectation of him now is to come in and work hard every day.”

An eye injury kept Nichols out of the Hustle’s first two games, but there have been some encouraging moments since then. In a win at Canton, he logged 17 minutes and scored 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including his first trey. He also blocked two shots and got five rebounds but had three fouls and four turnovers. Entering Friday’s game, Nichols is averaging 8.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.

Nichols said he’s leaned more on Jarell Martin, a first-round pick three years ago who has been fighting each year to secure an opportunity in the Grizzlies’ rotation.

“(Martin is) my age and has had to fight for his spot and develop his game,” Nichols said. “I’m my biggest critic, and sometimes I put way too much pressure on things. But Cyp kept relaying the message ‘One day at a time. One step at a time.’”

While he puts his game back together with the Hustle, Nichols is also going about the business of putting his life back together. He was the American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year and made first-team all-AAC as a sophomore. But Nichols then announced he was leaving the Tigers in July 2014, one of a parade of high-level recruits whose departure eventually led to Pastner’s leaving for Georgia Tech.

As a “hometown hero” Nichols’ exit left many Tigers fans angry and hurt.

“If I could go back and change the past, I would,” Nichols said, adding that the timing and method of his departure were all wrong. “I did it the wrong way.”

During the year’s wait after the transfer, he found the expectations didn’t let up in Charlottesville. Nichols said a lot of people kept expecting him to be an All-American from Day One, and that it “got all in my head” and piled up inside.

“Instead of talking to somebody,” Nichols said, “I self-medicated.”

That led to his dismissal from the Virginia program after playing just one game in 2016-17. That was the “slap in the face moment” that led Nichols – who is 20 hours from his degree in drama – to start sorting out what he wanted and needed to do with his life.

“You really don’t know what you have sometimes until it’s lost … until it’s snatched from you,” Nichols admitted. “One of the toughest things was figuring out what my options were if basketball was out. I’d have to finish school, and even now that’s part of the equation. But really the major thing I asked myself was what I wanted to do if I didn’t have basketball.”

He said the burnout started to fade during the NCAA tournament last spring. Nichols had workouts with Boston and Toronto, but got injured during the Raptors’ workout and was sidelined for a couple of months. The Grizzlies moved their G-League team from Iowa to the Landers Center in Southaven, Miss., and the dance with Nichols began.

“(Grizzlies General Manager) Chris Wallace and I both had a couple of dinners with Austin to see where his head was at,” Cyprien said. “We’d heard the rumors that Austin really didn’t like basketball. But I’ve dealt with a lot of second-chance kids as a college coach. Sometimes, when a player goes through something like that, you can see in his eyes how the experience has matured him. In the back of our minds, we still think he’s an NBA talent.”

Nichols said all he had to do was look at his frame and embrace a fresh outlook.

“I don’t think I was meant to work 8-to-5 behind a desk,” Nichols joked. “With these long arms and height, might as well try to play ball.”

Cyprien said Nichols realizes that in terms of chances, “this is it” but adds “he’s got a really good support system here … there’s a lot of people pulling for him.”

It starts with the Grizzlies-Hustle coaches and trainers, and his family in Collierville. Nichols insists he’s learned from mistakes in the past and is focused on rebuilding his basketball career with the Hustle.

“One of the biggest things I learned is I realize I’m stronger than what I tell myself,” he said. “Because I had a setback, it wasn’t the end of the world. If you keep dwelling on the past, you can’t move forward.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Pete Wickam are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.