Illini basketball

The Return of King Nunn

Kendrick Nunn confidenceThe game at Breslin felt like the first time Kendrick Nunn was truly back. His knee may have been physically 100% for weeks, or months.  But once healed, it took longer for his neurotransmitters to adapt to its fitness. You could call that a “mental” thing, or distinguish “mind” from “brain” if you want. It doesn’t matter.

The reason it took Kendrick longer to mentally recover his aggressive game is that the brain is so good at learning habits, and protecting the body from harm. When you discover a sensitive tooth on the left jaw, you’ll begin chewing on the right, without giving much thought to it.

I talked to Nick Anderson about Kendrick Nunn. I followed up by talking to Melvin Nunn about Kendrick Nunn. And Kendrick himself. That’s all below.

On this day, when Illini fans see the return of two injured players, I want to draw attention to the non-physical aspect of returning from an injury.

I read a lot of popular neuroscience. There’s Malcolm Gladwell, of course. Everyone knows him, right? Steven Johnson is a personal favorite. I totally recommend  Incognito by David Eagleman.  The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is another winner.

They’ll all tell you the hippocampus is great at rerouting neural signals, based on stored information. Kendrick’s hippocampus signaled that his knee was wonky, even when it was healed, because it had learned to be cautious about that knee.

John Groce kinda understood that point when, on Wednesday, he said that Kendrick had been 100% for a while now, except maybe for the confidence.

When Rayvonte Rice steps on the court against Michigan, it will be interesting to see whether he demonstrates any hesitancy in deference to his left hand. On Wednesday, Malcolm Hill said Ray has practiced just like the Ray of old. Malcolm detects no reluctance, on Ray’s part, to dice competitors.

That makes sense, because Ray plays without a conscience.  Or maybe it’s “Ray plays unconscious.” That’s the brain/mind thing again.

Ray will rip your intestines from your belly if you’re standing between him and the rim, but he’s soft-spoken and genteel if you’re not on a basketball court, impeding his progress.

I live in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  After five to six years experience, I’ve learned to avoid underestimating Ray. Maybe he’ll be Ray against Michigan. But I wouldn’t hold it against him if it took a while for him to become Ray again.

I believe Kendrick has a similar mindset to Ray:  He will kill people with his bare hands. That’s how I see Kendrick Nunn. He will cut them up, and eat their remains.

So to my mind, it was odd that the word “confidence” came up re: Kendrick Nunn. But I think I understand it now.

In the December game at Miami, I talked to Nick Anderson about Kendrick. He talked about “confidence.” It was an open-ended conversation.  I wanted his general impression. I knew he would have something to say, because Nick played at Simeon with Kendrick’s dad Melvin, who is now a dean and assistant coach at Simeon. They’ve maintained a friendship for three decades.

Frankly, I was surprised to hear what Nick had to say.


When did you first meet Kendrick Nunn?

Through his dad, when he was a little fella. I’ve known him for a while.

As far as his development, I watched him throughout high school at Simeon, and I think he’s come a long way. There’re still some things that need to be worked on.  He has a pretty jump-shot. I’d like to see him get to the basket a little more. Play with a little more confidence.

Sometimes he looks like he’s a little bit shaken/don’t know what to do at times.

Just play basketball. Let the game come to you. But I think his development has come a long way.

Were you watching him last year?

Yeah. I watched him last year. I seen the growth. It’s shown here.

But I want consistency to that jump-shot, that confidence. When you play with confidence, the game is much easier. Sometimes I think he doesn’t play with confidence.

You know, if you miss a shot, guys have a tendency to hang the head. Just play!

How about his defensive footwork?

He’s an excellent defender. He reminds me of a kid – from Chicago – who played for the Magic and a few other teams – DeAndre Liggins.

When it comes to defense, I think he’s a good defender, and you can make your living as a defender, too. But he also has offensive skills. If he can put both of those together, he can be a pretty good ball player.

Last question: We want some dirt about Melvin Nunn. Some stories that he doesn’t want known.

(Laughs) Well, you know you have to ask him about his nickname “Slope.”

I texted him about that and he said he might have to charge me for using that name. He said “It’s old school.”

(Laughs) But no, he’s a good guy. Always a funny kid on the (Simeon High) team. We just had a lot of fun being around him. Great teammate, great friend, you know?

What’s more special about it, you know, some twenty years later we still keep in touch.

You see Ben Wilson’s number (25) on his son’s back – how does that make you feel?

You know, it just shows that Ben Wilson is gone but he’s not forgotten. And I think, not only the players at Simeon – but Chicago players in general – we’re gonna carry his legacy on.

He will never be forgotten.


I would never have guessed that Kendrick Nunn would be described as lacking confidence. To me, he looks like a street fighter. He plays with an aggression that’s tempered only by guile.

But Nick Anderson has forgotten more about basketball than I’ll ever know.

For a second opinion, I asked Nick’s old friend Melvin Nunn. You’ll recall that Melvin has experience at being Kendrick’s dad as well as his coach.

Tuesday night, I asked Slope um, Melvin, if he agreed with his old friend about his son’s game.

I think his confidence is there. He’s been pretty much consistent. He’s had maybe one or two bad shooting days, but you know, you’re going to get those.

But his confidence after his knee? You know, he always had the confidence. It’s just that he had to get back in the rhythm after the knee, and the other injuries he had.

He’s never lost the confidence. But now since he’s got in the starting line-up, getting more touches and getting more reps; now his confidence has grown. Because now he has confidence not only with the jump-shot but also with his drive.

Did it surprise you that Nick Anderson thought it was a matter of confidence?

Well, yeah … because Nick ain’t really seen him play a lot in the Illinois uniform. So I guess he saw him in that game (at Miami) — and I don’t remember if Kendrick started in that game or not (he did not) — but maybe he didn’t look like he was confident in a couple of possessions. Maybe that caught Nick’s eye.

But he (Kendrick) was just getting back in rhythm during that time. You know, that was early in the season so he was really just getting back in rhythm.

You saw the Michigan State game, right?

Yes, I saw the Michigan State game.

That was the first time that Kendrick really started driving it to the hoop all season. Would you agree with that?


Yeah, he was driving ’em because once you get a second game where the jump-shot is not going in; you’ve got to dig deep inside yourself and say ‘”let me start driving the basketball.” and then he was driving the basketball against players that was his size or a little bit smaller. So he took advantage of that. He used his natural strength to create space, and he did well with that during that time of the game.

Did you hear what Dan Dakich said about playing organized ball versus playing pick-up?

Yeah. Dan Dakich was giving Kendrick a lot of praise on the way he was playing.

I always said that about Kendrick anyway, that he don’t try to press what he’s trying to do. He don’t do too much to get what he wants. You know, if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, it’s not.

But the things he was doing — and Dakich was commenting on — is that Kendrick was being patient in what he wanted to do. He looked at the defense. He held his dribble. And then when he saw an opportunity he took it. It wasn’t like he was trying to bogart over four or five players: He took his time.

Do you have any updates on Kezo (Brown) and Zach (Norvell) for Illini fans watching the recruiting trail?

Well Kezo is young, so he has a lot of growth (to do) on how to play the game at a certain level. He pretty much hasn’t been in that situation as a freshman. You know he’s been playing varsity but he still hasn’t been in that position to see what kind of player he’s really going to be.

He’s got a lot of time. As he goes on and develops, he just gotta keep people out of his ear, and let the Simeon coaches coach him, and he’s going to be like the Kendrick Nunns, the Jabari Parkers, the Kendall Pollards, the Jaylon Tates — you know, all those guys who are still playing good basketball, that are still only 18 or 19 years old. But they’re playing like they’re juniors and seniors right now.

And with Zach, Zach is growing. He’s starting to understand how to play the game the same way all the time. You know at first, Zach got lazy. He didn’t play hard defense. But now as he’s growing, he plays hard all the time.

He wants to win. He plays hard. He’s a dog on the court. He doesn’t care who’s on the court, he’s going to give it 100% of the time. And that’s what we (Simeon coaches) like about Zach in his growth compared to what it was as a freshman and sophomore.

How’s his passing?

Zach can pass.

Zach can pass off the drive. He reverses the ball — he’s not a “ball stopper.” He can shoot the deep three. He’s a nice lefty. He just maybe needs to work a little on his defense. He’s not a bad defender. He just needs to be a consistent defender.

I notice that Kendrick and Malcolm have been kicking out more when they drive. They’ve been developing that capability, better.

You know what, those two guys know how to play basketball.

Neither one of them really takes bad shots. They play and take what the defense gives them. Malcolm is a smart basketball player. When he’s driving, he knows how to get those guys to make contact with him, when he’s got the ball.

I know those guys be scouting him. When he picks up his dribble, he throws a shot fake. But he gets it every time.

So when you’re out on the basketball court, and you’ve got to think about all that, it’s not going to work. Because basketball instinct is — when somebody throws a shot fake at you — you’re going to jump.

So Malcolm does that great. And he knows how to create space to be a 6’5″-6’6″/235 lb. player.

You think Zach can follow in that mold?

Well Zach is not a 3-4 (small forward-power forward). Zach is more of a 2-1.


Yeah, Zach is more of a 2-1. He’s a combo.

Could he play point for John Groce?

Yeah, he can play some point. Because h’e 6’4″ and he can handle the ball. He’s an exceptional ball-handler. We played him at the point last year, as a sophomore. But since our senior point guard pretty much developed, we’ve played Zach more off-the-ball now.

That’s why our team looks a lot better. Because Zach is playing off-the-ball now instead of having the ball in his hands all the time.

Does that mean they’re going to be backing of of Marcus LoVett?

No, not really. Because you’ve gotta think. Jaylon will be a senior when … if Zach comes. Jaylon will be a senior. LoVett will be a sophomore.

So, when you’ve got a freshman and a sophomore that can play — you know Zach can play multiple positions, he can play the two or he can play the one — LoVett is only a one. He can’t play off-the-ball. So having Zach who can play two positions, you could use him at either. So that’s a good fit.


Following my conversation with Melvin Nunn, I texted Marcus LoVett Sr., having read about his rumored infatuation with Queens, NY.  I asked if he’d like to update his son’s recruitment status.

I received no reply.


I get it that, in the lexicon of basketball, the word “confidence” gets overworked. It’s the go-to noun for describing wildly different states of mind.

In his pre-Michigan media availability, Kendrick used the word “confidence” once, and the word “confident” another time.

I asked him afterward what he meant by employing that word.

I was using “confidence” in general, to describe anybody.

Confidence is a big factor in playing basketball. If you have confidence you can perform at a high level. If you don’t, that’s when you go toward down.

It’s just a certain level of confidence that you need to have. And if you’re feeling really high about yourself, if you think you can do it, then you’ll go out and do it.

You seem confident to me, generally


I have confidence in what I do. Not trying to do too much.


So as far as Kendrick’s concerned, it’s a go. Ray is another story, and one that we’ll all be extremely interested in watching, I’m sure.

Because even Ray doesn’t realize that his hippocampus is looking out for him. And it doesn’t give a damn about Illini basketball.