‘He’s a special young player’: Why Nijel Pack is poised to be K-State hoops’ next big star

Freshman guard Nijel Pack dribbles during K-State's game against Colorado on Nov. 27. Pack, in 14 games played, is averaging 11.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. (Photo courtesy of Scott Weaver | K-State Athletics)

For 17 days, all Nijel Pack could only watch the games through a screen. He couldn’t practice and he couldn’t even be in the gym.

Pack was isolated.

After a career performance against Texas Tech on Jan. 5, the Kansas State freshman missed the next four games because of COVID-19 protocols. During his absence, teams outscored K-State by 79 points and the team lost by an average of 19.8 points per game.

Without Pack, the Wildcats even turned the ball over a Bruce Weber-worst 28 times against the Mountaineers. In other words, K-State needed its point guard back, badly.

On Wednesday, Pack returned. With limited practice and little time to condition, the freshman returned to the floor against No. 2 Baylor. Obviously, that didn’t go well for the team — losing by a school-record 48 points — but like Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told Weber, “God couldn’t have beat Baylor the other night.”

Even in the loss, Pack’s return showed promise. He took tentative shots and had a team-high 11 points in the losing effort. His team-high five rebounds and five assists also stood out. But on Saturday, Pack showed why he is the key for the Wildcats’ future.

In total, Pack had 17 days with no activity, three practices and the Baylor game to get ready for the Aggies. His response? A career-high 26-point performance with a freshman school-record eight three-pointers. Not to mention his three rebounds, five assists and three steals.

“Nijel was special to go 8/14 from three,” Weber said after the game. “He kept coming up with big plays for us to keep us in the game and give us a chance.”

It wasn’t just the statistics that jump off of the page for that game. On three different sequences, Pack showed his indispensability. With five minutes remaining, Pack moved off ball for a three-pointer, but turned it over. Instead of giving up a layup, he went back down the floor, recording a steal. That steal led to a fast-break layup.

Fans hadn’t seen that much effort on many occasions as of late for K-State.

Then, on the ensuing offensive possession, Pack showed off NBA-distance three-point range for his seventh three of the game. It was gutsy considering how exhausted he was from the prior possession and lack of conditioning.

Senior guard Mike McGuirl put it best.

“We missed him a lot. We knew how much we missed him when he was out. We’re happy to have him back,” McGuirl said. “He’s a special young player, a player with a bright future. … It’s a lot of fun. He can really shoot the ball, so it’s a lot of fun. It’s a pleasure just to be able to dish the ball for the easy three.”

Texas A&M senior Savion Flagg said it’s to stop Pack when the ball is out of his hands. Pack was effective off of screens on Saturday, just like he played all year with his slithery speed. So far this season, the star freshman shoots 42.5 percent on shots off the screen.

“They ran some really good plays, they are a well-coached team to get him the ball. We got lost a couple of times and that’s on the players just not following our rules like we’re supposed to and he got open a couple of times, we lost him,” Flagg said. “We were over helping I think and he capitalized on all of our little mistakes defensively and that’s on the players.”

If Pack off the ball wasn’t hard enough to guard, teams still worried about him taking others one-on-one. In his lone isolation attempt on Saturday, Pack drained a step-back three with ease. On the year, he’s 4-5 on those shots.

For Pack, it was just another day on the court. He said he was glad to get his rhythm back after missing so much time.

“It felt great just to be able to build up my confidence,” Pack said. “My teammates kept finding me which made it even better. Just to be able to shoot the ball and see it go in is probably the best feeling for any basketball player.”

If his performance against the Aggies wasn’t good enough to solidify himself as possibly the next breakout star for K-State, his season stats just might. Overall, he’s the best offensive guard on the team in terms of shooting (43.8 percent) and his effective field goal percentage ranks No. 211 in the country out of 2,144 qualified NCAA players.

In conference games alone, his 60.9 percent two-point field goal percentage ranks fourth in the Big 12 — a statistic that is usually dominated by post players that live around the rim.

Pack turns the ball over on just 12 percent of possessions and his assists/turnover ratio (2.65) ranks third in the Big 12.

As McGuirl would put it, Pack is a talent to be reckoned with.

“Obviously Nijel is a great young talent,” he said.

Pack is even effective on the defensive end of the floor as well. Even at 6-0, Pack is allowing shooters to shoot 39 percent from the field, which still could use some work. But Pack’s defense really stands out when he’s trailing those off-ball off of screens. On the year, shooters are shooting 15.4 percent (2-13) when guarded by Pack off the screen.

Off of hand-offs, shooters are just 28.7 percent against the freshman.

At the end of the day, Pack is exactly what this K-State team needs — he provides hope. Even after eight-consecutive losses, Pack’s development is at least some form of positivity for this team, especially when it comes to looking at the future.

With Pack’s ability to shoot the ball, see the floor and play-make and provide solid defense in certain sets, K-State has their gem. Pack brings an energy to the team that was visibly missing during his absence. For all those reasons, it’s exactly why Pack is poised to be the next big star for K-State.