Illini’s Nunn stepping into the limelight

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Illini’s Nunn stepping into the limelight

Illinois' Kendrick Nunn (25) loses control of ball after driving to the basket during the game against Missouri at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri on Dec. 20, 2014. The Illini won 62-59.

Illinois' Kendrick Nunn (25) loses control of ball after driving to the basket during the game against Missouri at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri on Dec. 20, 2014. The Illini won 62-59.

Illinois' Kendrick Nunn (25) loses control of ball after driving to the basket during the game against Missouri at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri on Dec. 20, 2014. The Illini won 62-59.

Illinois' Kendrick Nunn (25) loses control of ball after driving to the basket during the game against Missouri at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri on Dec. 20, 2014. The Illini won 62-59.


Kendrick Nunn has been here before.

It’s the reason he is so calm and collected despite the on-court situation. Whether Nunn is knocking down clutch free throws at the end of the game, starting over a senior in his freshman year, or draining three after three, he only exudes confidence on the court.

While he’d like to start, Nunn knows that whether he is the first person called in the starting lineup or the last man off the bench, he’ll be able to adapt his game to fit the situation.

This season, that confidence, flexibility and previous big stage experience has translated to 10.4 points per game and the task of being the Illini’s most consistent scorer in a season plagued with inconsistency.

“He’s unflappable,” head coach John Groce said. “He’s been in so many big games in his career and so many big moments and big stages.”

For Nunn, his transition from unknown Chicago kid to confident Illinois star started in high school. At Simeon Career Academy, Nunn learned how to affect the game in all aspects.

Despite the fact that Nunn would mature into a four-star recruit, the now sophomore shooting guard didn’t start his first two years at Simeon. Nunn graciously accepted his role as a sixth man and helped Simeon win two state titles in his first two years.

In his last two seasons at Simeon, Nunn started and helped his team win two more.

By the time Nunn arrived in Champaign, he was accustomed to winning and playing well for winning teams. 

In his first season with the Illini, Nunn was forced to deal with losing.

The Illini lost eight straight Big Ten games last season and eventually missed out on the NCAA tournament because of their conference shortcomings.

Although Illinois struggled in his first year with the team, Nunn didn’t. Nunn averaged 6.2 points and 1.7 rebounds per game during his freshman year and played well enough off the bench that Groce gave him a chance to start over senior Joseph Bertrand down the stretch.

Nunn didn’t disappoint. As a freshman starter his numbers jumped to 10.3 points and 2.4 rebounds per game.

After the season, Nunn continued to work on his game with both the Illini and Jaylon Tate individually. Tate and Nunn have been teammates since their days at Simeon and still have a close bond.

As Nunn’s game has grown, so has his confidence.

“Obviously he’s more confident,”  Nnanna Egwu said. “Being able to play more, gaining experience. What he’s really done is understand the system especially without the ball. Boxing out setting screens.”

This year the Illini have needed Nunn’s high level of play more than ever. With Tracy Abrams out for the season and Rayvonte Rice sidelined for at least part of the season with injury, Nunn has been looked to to provide offensive stability for the Illini. 

Although he’s battled a minor knee injury of his own, especially toward the start of the year, Nunn hasn’t disappointed once on the court. 

“I feel pretty confident,” Nunn said after the Northwestern game. “At the beginning of the season, I was just getting back in rhythm (after) a couple injuries and things like that. So I’m in a pretty good rhythm now.”

While touted transfer Aaron Cosby floundered early on this season at starting shooting guard, Nunn transitioned effortlessly from sixth man to everyday starter.

“I’m a competitor,” Nunn said. “Being a starter, you’ve got to bring it.”

Nunn tallied 16 points in his second start of the season against Hampton and hasn’t looked back since.

Although he has proven he can be effective coming off the bench, it’s hard to argue with his improved offensive numbers as a starter. In the Illini’s first nine games, in which Nunn came off the bench, he averaged 8.7 points per game. In Illinois’ next nine games, in which Nunn started nine times, his average jumped to 10.

“When shots are falling,” Nunn said. “It just gives you more confidence so I attack more.” 

Shots have been falling quite frequently this year for Nunn. So far he’s shooting 42.9 percent from long distance and 45.1 percent from the field. He’s also averaging 9.7 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game and 1.8 assists per game on the season while helping Illinois to a 12-7 record through 19 games this season.

Nunn saved his most notable offensive output for the end of break.

In Evanston, Illinois, in front of many family members and friends Nunn had a career-high 25 points and knocked down two pairs of clutch free throws to give the Illini a 72-67 win over Northwestern.

“(I’ve played) pretty good (as a starter so far this season),” Nunn said. “We’ve got more to build on though.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @IlliniSportsGuy.