KNOXVILLE — The basketball learning curve from high school to college was perhaps just a little steeper for Olivier Nkamhoua than for the five other freshmen on Tennessee’s roster.
The 6-foot-8, 224-pound forward had watched highlights of his one of his predecessors at the position for the Volunteers, Grant Williams, and attempted to implement parts of the Boston Celtics rookie’s game into his.
“I really like Grant’s high release,” Nkamhoua told the Times Free Press at the Vols’ preseason media day.
The adjustment to college — and specifically Tennessee and coach Rick Barnes — was a challenge for Nkamhoua, though.
At lower levels of the game, unless there was a mismatch, he didn’t spend any time on offense with his back to the basket. Now he’s in the Southeastern Conference — a league full of talented, quality big men — and he has struggled at times on offense, shooting 55% from the field and at times looking equally lost on that end of the court while handling the ball.
He has averaged 4.6 points per game and reached double digits twice, with 11 points against Florida A&M on Dec. 4 and 10 against Ole Miss on Tuesday, and while his ability to score can be refined, that isn’t what the Vols need most from him.
Defense and rebounding are.
Offensive rebounding has been his most natural skill: He is tied for the team lead with 29 offensive rebounds this season, which becomes even more impressive once you consider he has averaged just 14.6 minutes per game. Nkamhoua grabs offensive rebounds at a 14.6% rate, which would rank sixth in the SEC if he averaged enough minutes to qualify.
“Rebounding is about who wants it,” Nkamhoua said after Tuesday’s 73-48 home win, which he finished with four rebounds. “You go after it; you get it. You can look at the rims, and if they’re loose the ball is going to be closer to the basket (on misses). If they’re tight, you’re going to have long rebounds. But those are the little things. You can’t actually guess which way a rebound is going to go.
“You can tell if a shot is long, but it can hit the back rim and go back the other way, or it can hit over a little bit and bounce right the other way. You can never know for sure. You can just trace the ball, hit somebody and go after it.”
Rebounding was one of the initial things that drew Tennessee to Nkamhoua, the only player to sign with the Vols during the spring period last year. A glance at his early highlights shows a player who was usually at his best attacking the basket in the open court, but there are some natural abilities, such as a pass he flicked over his head to a wide-open Jordan Bowden in the Vols’ exhibition victory over Eastern New Mexico on Oct. 30.
The rest of his offensive development will take time.
“He’s got to play through contact. That’s something he’s going to have to learn to do, and also learn to play quicker and be more decisive,” Barnes said Tuesday. “He has to understand where he is on the court, realize that if he gets into the right space, he doesn’t need to mess with it and instead just get into his shot. He’s got great hands and can shoot the ball. He started to slow down a little bit, but he still needs to become more physical.
“But rebounding-wise, we think he can hold his own with anybody. If he would do what we ask him to do, he would figure it out. And he’s been doing it more consistently in practice, and tonight he carried it over to the game.”
Barnes also said he and his assistants believed Nkamhoua “played his best game in doing what we needed him to do.”
That same staff has encouraged Nkamhoua to be himself on offense and let things happen.
He’s not going to be Grant Williams this season, but he doesn’t have to be. If he continues to figure things out, though, he could have that sort of impact later.
“Coach is always trying to encourage us to do better every game,” Nkamhoua said. “He’s going to give you props when props are due, but really, it isn’t about that. It’s about, ‘Do you want to get better? Do you want to do better?’ For me, it’s just building on this. I just need to rebound, play hard and lock up on defense every game, and I need to bring that energy every game regardless of what anybody says.
“I just need to buy in to what I’m being taught. It might be hard at times, but if I do it the simplest way and do the little things, it’s not that hard. … I don’t need to be some amazing scoring threat. I just need to be solid.”
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.