From starting to sitting, Michigan's Adrien Nunez taking sophomore ride 'in stride'
Ann Arbor — Sophomore guard Adrien Nunez came into the season wanting to rewrite his story at Michigan.
After playing sparingly as a freshman, Nunez had a fresh slate with a new head coach in Juwan Howard and a chance at a new beginning.
But what has unfolded over the first two months of the season has been a roller-coaster tale filled with the highs of starting, the lows of sitting and the twists of not knowing when he’s even going to play.
“It's tough. I mean, it's a change going from nothing to a lot to not a lot again,” Nunez said Wednesday. “I'm working every day, trying to work out before and after (practice), gain his (Howard’s) trust to really put me out there on the court, and I know he's trying to work through the lineups and everything.
“I'm still on that 'fresh start' plan and I'm just doing everything I can to get on the court.”
Nunez saw plenty of the court early, averaging 15.5 minutes over the first four contests — all starts — while freshman wing Franz Wagner was sidelined by a fractured right wrist. But once Wagner was fully healed and able to suit up, he bumped Nunez out of the starting lineup and into a bench role that has been riddled with unpredictability.
In his first five games as a reserve, Nunez played seven minutes against Iowa State, didn’t play against North Carolina, played six minutes against Gonzaga, checked in during the final minute at Louisville and sat the entire game against Iowa.
His minutes have only continued to fluctuate since — with 13- and 17-minute outings against Presbyterian and UMass Lowell, respectively, sandwiched around a 3-minute stint against Oregon and 2-minute appearance at Michigan State.
"You're used to getting a certain amount of minutes and then all of sudden they're gone, you know?” said Nunez, who is averaging 2.9 points in 9.7 minutes and shooting 29 percent (9-for-31) from 3-point range over 12 games.
“Mentally preparing for games is harder. I don't know what to expect, really, going into games. I don't know how much — am I going to get 12, 13, two (minutes)? That aspect is harder, but I'm just trying to take it in stride.”
Nunez admitted the drastic shift in playing time affected his confidence at first, especially when he wasn’t even getting on the floor. However, he realized he couldn’t carry a mindset of worrying about if or when he was going to play. He could only control what he can control.
As a result, Nunez has focused on doing everything he can on his end. He performs every drill at practice to the best of his ability. He has kept his “head grounded” by talking with director of player personnel and development Jay Smith. He listens to veterans like senior guard Zavier Simpson, who went through a similar situation when he was a sophomore.
And Nunez’s teammates have taken notice.
“I think he did a great job keeping his mental cool and staying confident,” Wagner said. “Everybody is young here, but I think we did a great job as a team just staying connected and making sure that everybody is ready. Things happen during a game — foul trouble, injuries in practices, stuff like that. It's very important that you stay ready and make sure you're ready when your time comes.
“Adrien is doing that every single day. He was working out before practice and he did that the last couple weeks. It's very good that he has those type of habits that's going to help in the future.”
It also helps that Nunez has been through a similar situation before and isn't learning how to handle it on the fly for the first time.
Back when he was a senior and full-time starter in high school, he saw his playing time dwindle and some of his minutes go to younger players as the season went on.
“When you put in the work, it'll happen. And I believe that, too,” Nunez said. “It happened in my high school career. I wasn't getting a lot, but I just put in work, put in work and all of a sudden I just exploded.
“I persevered through that, so I feel like I can do it again.”
Nunez knows the path to doing so starts with his defense. The biggest thing is earning Howard’s trust that he can consistently stop his guy, which is something Nunez said he has shown “in spurts."
Nunez added he also wants prove that he can be “sharp” every time he’s on the court and is striving to get into a “groove” where he can consistently hit a couple 3-pointers and get a couple defensive stops each appearance.
But until then, Nunez will continue to trust the work he puts in, with the hopes his season can have a better ending.
“I wish I would've capitalized a little more when I was starting, having those minutes right away,” Nunez said. “But it was a learning process. I was learning other things — how to even be in front of a crowd like that, stay composed, where to be (on offense and defense) and everything. It was a whole learning experience and I'm taking everything as a positive right now.”
Howard didn’t have an update on junior forward Isaiah Livers, who has missed the last two games with a left groin injury and whose status remains day-to-day.
“We're just praying that he continues to keep healing day by day, which he is,” Howard said. “He's improving day by day and we'll see how it goes from there.”
Howard added a decision hasn’t been made regarding Livers’ availability for Thursday’s game against Purdue. If he’s unable to play, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. will likely start in his place once again.
Purdue at Michigan
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Thursday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Purdue 9-6, 2-2 Big Ten; No. 19 Michigan 10-4, 1-2
Outlook: Michigan has won five of the last six meetings between the teams at Crisler Center. … Purdue ranks second in the Big Ten and No. 13 nationally in scoring defense (59.1 points per game). The Boilermakers are coming off a 63-37 loss at Illinois and are averaging 46.5 points in Big Ten road games.