November 5, 2011

James Nunnally: Aiming for senior moments

November 5, 2011 6:54 AM

James Nunnally will return home from the gym completely spent, desiring only the kind of lay-up you aim at a couch.

But then he'll pop a tape into his video player and watch a lanky UCSB freshman whip the Thunderdome into a frenzy by scoring 22 points against 2009 NCAA basketball champion North Carolina.

And suddenly, he wants to get right back into that gym.

"Me and a couple of my friends will watch that game all the time, relive those moments," Nunnally said. "It was four years ago. That's crazy, to think about it."

He arrived from Stockton's Weston Ranch High with unlimited potential, having thrown a big scare into the Tar Heels on that evening of Nov. 21, 2008. He ended that regular season by denying Long Beach State a Big West Conference championship by making a running, last-second 3-pointer.

Living up to all that promise has driven Nunnally every waking moment since Florida ended his junior season last March in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

His final year as a Gaucho begins tonight with an exhibition game against San Francisco State.

"I've been in this program for four years," Nunnally said. "We've built a solid team around the four seniors who came in together. I just want it to be something special that I can remember for the rest of my life."

And maybe it will make James Nunnally a Gaucho to remember, too. It drives him as much as the North Carolina tape.

He followed up his freshman season by averaging 14.7 points as a sophomore and 16.3 last year, helping UCSB advance to the NCAAs both years. And yet, NBA prospect Orlando Johnson has been casting a mighty shadow at the Thunderdome.

That fact hasn't been lost on Johnson, who won last year's Big West scoring championship with a 21.1-point average.

"James has been playing really well, off-the-charts well," Johnson said. "In the past few years, he hasn't been given the credit that he deserves, and I think this is going to be a year where people really know who James Nunnally is."

Nunnally, a 6-foot-7 swingman, received only honorable mention on last year's All-Big West Conference team despite ranking among the league leaders in several categories, including 3-pointers with 62 and rebound average at 5.7 per game.

The snub lit a fire under him that rages to this day.

"Yeah, I carry a chip on my shoulder... I carry a big chip," Nunnally said. "I feel like I'm as good as anybody in the country. I feel like I deserve the respect, and I'm going to go get it."

The knock on Nunnally last year was that he'd rest on defense. He's taken that to heart, leading coach Bob Williams to say that he's made bigger strides in that area than any player he's ever coached.

"I would say right now, without hesitation, that he's the best defender on our team," Williams said. "It's something we actually saw in James as a freshman, but you don't defend at that level until you decide to.

"Coaches deciding that you're a defender isn't going to work. When you decide you can hang your hat on that, you're a defender."

Nunnally is hanging his NBA hopes on it, as well, insisting that he can defend any player, from point guard to power forward.

"I feel like I've increased the intensity," he said. "I'm playing harder and trying not to take any plays off. I think my defense is really showing what I'm capable of.

"Playing at the next level has been on my mind a lot. I think about it every day, all day. There's not a minute or an hour when it's not in my mind."

He's helped take charge of his teammates ever since Williams ordered Johnson and his achy Achilles tendon off the court several weeks ago.

"If we see something, we say something," Nunnally said. "But now with Orlando out, it has to be me and Jaime (Serna). If we see something, we have to say something, every time."

Even if it's Johnson, trying to get back into practice.

"He snuck into a drill, and I told Justin (Ericson, UCSB's trainer), 'Is Orlando supposed to be out here?'" Nunnally said. "Justin pulled him out — got him out of there quick."

Their relationship as the best one-two scoring punch in Gaucho history has been a good one, Williams insists.

"Orlando is by nature a nurturer, non-confrontational," he said. "He likes to take care of people. He's kind of a big brother to the whole team.

"They've always had a pretty good relationship off the court. And when two great players blend, you can have something special."

Michael Jordan wouldn't have so many NBA rings, he noted, without Scottie Pippen.

"They really enhanced each other," Williams said. "Michael didn't have the same success without Scottie. Shaq had his success when he played with Penny Hardaway, and then Kobe, and then Dwyane Wade.

"Great players need great counterparts."

Nunnally said he and Johnson have helped to make each other better.

"I feel like we play well alongside each other," he said. "We'll go against each other a lot, too, in every open gym. In practice, we sometimes even go on opposite teams.

"It's fun. It brings out the best in both of us."

But while Johnson spent the offseason auditioning for NBA scouts inside major arenas, and carrying the U.S. flag at the World University Games in China, Nunnally toiled inside hot, steamy gymnasiums, sometimes even by himself.

The situation turned out to be as advantageous as it was anonymous.

"I worked a lot on my conditioning, but also on my ball-handling, and my change-of-pace," he said. "You know, lulling the defense to sleep, and then exploding."

Williams felt Nunnally awoke as a complete player last year during the struggling Gauchos' late bye week in Big West play. They wrote all their negative thoughts down on paper and burned them in a trash can. And then Nunnally caught fire.

"He came out of that completely different, and he carried that into the Big West Tournament," Williams said. "His teammates really praised him and acknowledged him, especially Justin Joyner, about how big that was. To me, it was huge.

"He became unselfish, making the extra pass. He became aggressive defensively and in rebounding the ball. He became a much more complete player.

"He really got lost last year in shooting the 3-ball, and he's big enough and strong enough and athletic enough to be a more well-rounded player."

Nunnally, who celebrated his 21st birthday during his summer of toil, admits that much has changed for the 18-year-old kid who dropped 22 points on North Carolina.

"There is a lot that's different, but I try to stay the same," he said. "I haven't changed who I am... my personality. I stay happy, humble and hungry, and I'm going to keep getting better.

"That's who I am."

And he's determined to introduce himself to the rest of the college basketball world.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com

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