Kendrick Nunn has been a fast fan favorite since his arrival in Champaign, and it's easy to see why. Illinois' fortunes seemed to shift dramatically after the turn of the year - by February the Illini were caught up in the drudgery of poor play and mounting losses when a frustrated John Groce turned to freshmen Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn to re-energize the starting unit. The gambit worked. Hill and Nunn's relative explosiveness and athleticism provided a lift to Illinois defensively. Their energy was infectious and Illinis improved their tenacity on the glass as well. Wins followed in bunches and while it was a bit too late to put together an NCAA tournament quality resume, Illinois showed much more resiliency down the stretch and won a game in the NIT.
And while Hill had an impressive late season swoon, posting double-digit scoring numbers four times in Big Ten play, the true emerging star was Kendrick Nunn. After all it was Kendrick, not Hill, who made the Big Ten's All-Freshman team. Nunn's hot shooting lifted a unit that desperately needed help spacing out their offense - Nunn shot over 40% behind the arc in conference play, the Illini as a whole shot only 30%. But Nunn is more than just a shooter. He's a true do-everything sort of guard who is also a gifted defender, can also finish at the rim, and can even be relied on to lead the offense in a pinch - a pinch that the Illini might feel frequently in the upcoming season with Tracy Abrams sidelined for the duration thereof.
Even though Kendrick put up an easy 12ppg after being inserted into the starting lineup, he wasn't the sort of player that jumped off the page at you. Really seeing the impact Kendrick provided to the Illini is easier to see in a box score, as Nunn was a true stat stuffer. Nunn's even contributions were usually vital to the biggest wins Illinois managed last season. Other coaches, though, really appreciated Kendrick's energy, attention to detail, and decision-making - he didn't vote himself onto the All-Freshman team.
In fact, Kendrick's most ringing endorsement comes from none other than Tom Crean.
"Kendrick Nunn is playing outstanding for a guy that people at the beginning at the Big Ten season may not have been locked into. I think you are now, and I don't think there's any question about that," Crean said Monday during the Big Ten coaches teleconference. "Kendrick Nunn, with more minutes, provides just a little bit more explosiveness to their game that creates things for other people. The way he plays, he's a very, very high-energy type of player. And a lot of similarities, in my mind, to Victor Oladipo. And Kendrick's offense is ahead of where Victor's was at the same age, no question about it."
While it is difficult to ever really project a rise as meteoric as Oladipo's, Kendrick does have a lot in common with the early collegiate Oladipo. He's a defensively-minded guard whose offense is often sparked by winning stops on the other end of the court and turning over his opponents. Like Oladipo, Nunn is fundamentally strong defensively and uses his active feet to avoid being cited for fouls; Kendrick earned fouls at a rate of 2.4 per 40 minutes which was the lowest on Illinois' roster. It remains to be seen just how much Kendrick's offense will improve, but the more balanced roster and the additional experience should help him feel comfortable right way in his sophomore season. It also bodes well that Nunn took to conference play very quickly last year, boosting not only his totals but his percentages as a shooter.
Last year, Kendrick arrived in Champaign unsure of how big a role he could play as a freshman. By the end of the year, Nunn's play had solidified his position in the starting lineup. This year, Nunn will most likely start from day one and should find himself on the shortlist for an All-Big Ten team, the only question is which one.