King of Memphis


by Farmer Jones / portraits Trevor Paulhus

The Briarcrest Christian School website features college-style bios for its varsity basketball players. Predictably, there’s comedy—Caleb Clark says his favorite musician is Psy, while Marc Wilhite cops to being a fan of Dora the Explorer—as well as some legitimate insight into what makes these guys tick. In the case of Austin Nichols, the bio speaks to a guy who really loves his hometown.

Favorite basketball team? The Grizzlies. Favorite musician? Local legend Yo Gotti. And favorite college? The University of Memphis, of course. For Nichols, that commitment goes well beyond an entry on a website; he confirmed it last fall when he chose the Tigers over Auburn, Duke, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Virginia.

“It was a long, kind of crazy process, but I picked Memphis because with the players that are there now, and our recruiting class, I think we can do something special,” he says. “My mom went to Memphis, so she definitely wanted me to go there. But it wasn’t so much pressure, just that thing in the back of your mind that says, Do you want to represent your city?”

Tiger fans should be thrilled that the answer was a resounding “yes.” A 6-8½, 215-pound combo forward, Nichols is a consensus top-15 player in the 2013 class. Let him tell you why: “I’m a big man who likes to run the floor, rebound, push the ball, post up, step and hit a 15-footer, and I’ve hit some threes this year, too.” He continues to hone his handle and get that long-range shot more consistent, but his skill and versatility are already too much for most opponents.

Briarcrest coach John Harrington takes full advantage of that, not only to help his team, but to help prepare Nichols for the next level. “We just don’t stick him in the post anymore—we use him as a passer, or as a pressure-relief valve against the press,” Harrington says. “You find some players at 6-9 who are just big and strong, or can only run and jump, but he’s all of those, and he’s very skilled. And he’s got very good offensive moves. Mike Krzyzewski used a great phrase with him: He said he’s a great ‘short driver,’ where he’s 12-15 feet out, one dribble spin, and he’s so long, he’s right at the basket.”

Harrington says Nichols reminds him of Kevin McHale or a younger Cody Zeller, and while the player himself might only be old enough to appreciate one of those comparisons, he knows the expectations they represent. Not that that’s a bad thing. If Nichols was afraid of expectations, he probably would’ve chosen another college, somewhere the local fans weren’t counting on him to lead the Tigers back to the brief glory days of the John Calipari era and put his name alongside Memphis legends like Penny Hardaway and Keith Lee.

No pressure, right?

“That’s definitely what we’ve talked about,” Nichols says of he and his future teammates, a group that includes three other top-100 prospects and is widely considered one of the top five classes in the country. “That’s what we’re hoping for. But right now I’m just focusing on my next game.”

Which brings us to one other entry on Nichols’ bio: career goal. “Get in the NBA and have a successful career,” his reads. In due time.