Last season, on Nov. 12, Adrien Nunez was thrown to the wolves.
Following a wrist injury to freshman phenom Franz Wagner, Nunez — a sophomore that barely sniffed the floor the season prior — was thrust into a starting position.
A guard with daunting range and 3-point shooting ability, Nunez was billed as a solid force in Michigan’s offense throughout his career. It was the other side of his game, though, that left people worrying
From the early minutes of Nunez’s tenure as a member of the starting squad, this flaw became widely apparent — perhaps at no more obvious moment than in mid-November, his second start, against the Bluejays.
The game began with both teams sporting young rosters and nobody really knowing what to expect, but Creighton set an aggressive tone early and targeted Nunez.
Bluejay guard Mitch Ballock sat at the top of the key with the ball in his hands and Nunez across from him. Ballock drove to the hoop. It would be the ultimate test of Nunez’s on-ball defense, less than a minute into his starting role.
Ballock sped past Nunez and got an easy two points at the rim.
“(Ballock) blew by me, and I was like, ‘Oh, snap. I need to get this together,’” Nunez told The Daily. “That was the moment I was like, ‘Oh, I really need to work on this.’ Just getting comfortable in that position.”
From that point on, Nunez’s battle with defensive consistency proved to be an arduous one.
The rest of the season, Nunez’s defense — among other things — did not improve to the point where he would see consistent minutes for the Wolverines.
As the games left in the regular season dwindled down, so did Nunez’s playing time. Wagner returned to the lineup and Nunez returned to the bench. Some games, Nunez would only see a handful of minutes, playing the role of an offensive specialist. Others, he wouldn’t see the floor at all.
“Yeah, it’s tough, it’s a change, going from nothing to a lot to not a lot again,” Nunez said on Jan. 8. “I’m just working everyday. Working before or after, gaining (coach Juwan Howard’s) trust to really put me on the court.”
Nunez took it in stride, though, not allowing himself to fold in frustration.
Howard saw potential in Nunez. The kind of potential that makes a coach dig to find the crux of his player’s deficiencies and hammer out inconsistencies. In Howard’s mind, the best way to do that came during particular drills in practice.
Unlike other coaches Nunez has played under, Howard’s mentality on how to run drills in practice is simple: You run it until you get it right.
“That was a big thing,” Nunez said. “He made sure I was getting it. For some coaches, if a player doesn’t get it the first time or second time, they move on, but … I could mess up 10 times, he’d make me do it over and over and over again until I got it, which showed how committed he was to getting me better.”
“That was a big aspect, and it’s a big trust thing with coach now because I know he’s invested in me. He’s gonna stop practice for me just so I can get the drill.”
Nunez wasn’t the only player singled out like this, and some take to it more than others. Sometimes, it can fan the flames of that player’s frustrations and insecurities. For others, though, this crucible of performance shores up faith in the coach and their aptitude for the team’s array of concepts.
“I want to be coached,” Nunez said. “I’m not gonna shy away from that, and I feel like that is a good quality to have, just wanting to be coached. … There are definitely guys who will get frustrated when he would, not pick on you, but make you do the drill over and over again.”
Nunez used his coachability as his north star throughout the season, and eventually that guiding light led him into Howard’s office at the beginning of February. Between the repeated drills and lack of consistent play and playing time, something still wasn’t clicking for Nunez.
He needed help. Enter associate head coach Phil Martelli.
Martelli is a veteran coach that spent 24 years as the head coach of St. Joseph’s. Initially sorted into one of five players Martelli was tasked with keeping track of academically, Nunez had already established a rapport with him, one stretching back to Martelli’s initial recruitment of Nunez in high school.
But after discussing how he can improve with Howard, the pair struck up a new kind of relationship. One based on growth and film study.
Jenny Lessard — Nunez’s mother — knew her son and Martelli’s paths would cross again. She just knew it.
Through much of his senior season at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, NY, Martelli made his recruitment of Nunez to St. Joe’s personal. Through one stretch the summer before the guard’s senior year, Martelli visited 13 of Nunez’s games in a row. He wanted him in Philadelphia, bad.
Then, Nunez broke the news to the veteran coach: he wouldn’t be coming to the City of Brotherly Love, instead pursuing a postgraduate year at St. Thomas More Prep School in pursuit of other offers.
Nunez had moved on from the Hawks, but that didn’t stop Lessard from texting Martelli with a seemingly divine piece of foresight — “Our paths will cross again.”
With an extra year, Nunez’s recruitment took off and he secured an offer from coach John Beilein. Two years later, Nunez and Martelli reunited in Ann Arbor, continuing the relationship forged in Brooklyn.
“I recruited (Nunez) very hard coming out of high school, it was just a joy,” Martelli said. “It was ingenious by coach Howard to put us together, not that the other guys would’ve done just as well, but we were in a good place starting out. There was a trust there.”
That progress started with Nunez making one simple concession: He didn’t know how to study film.
Sure, like any player, he had watched plenty of film, but what the sophomore was saying was that he didn’t know how to see it. He didn’t know how to watch all 10 players on the floor at the same time and have the wherewithal to ingest what was happening and why.
“Anybody can watch film,” Martelli said. “I think a player watches himself, but you have to watch, and I mean it’s not rocket science, but you have to be able to see the whole play even when you’re not involved with the ball.”
The film study with Martelli has continued into the unexpectedly abrupt postseason with the coach sending Nunez game clips and inspirational sayings.
Watching film, running drills over and over, for Nunez, it’s all part of the mental aspect of the game. He knows he can physically do what’s required of him because he’s done it before at some point or another.
He just needed to do it in front of thousands of people.
Through nearly all of his in-game appearances, Nunez knew something was off. He was uptight, worried to death about whether he would make a mistake or squander his quickly vanishing playing time — it was a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
“I didn’t have that mentality to just act free like the way I was playing before,” Nunez said. “I was so worried about either getting taken out or making a mistake, I was so focused on that that it kinda crippled me in that way.”
Since stepping into Howard’s office to tackle this mentality problem, Nunez has done nothing but try to loosen up and make the most of his time on the floor and, simply put, have fun. The Brooklyn native is even using all of his newly found free time in the coronavirus-related quarantine to reflect and find a solution.
One outlet for Nunez to step out of his comfort zone comes from the popular app TikTok. The social media platform is used for a variety of goofy videos, and Nunez had adopted it to show himself dancing or expressing comic concepts. Currently, Nunez has 41,000 followers and nearly 700,000 likes on his posts.
“People think I’m fooling around, but that’s taking me out of my comfort zone,” Nunez said. “It’s something that I never liked, to be showy. I never liked to have the attention. I’ve always been so reserved and tense trying to do everything right, but now I’m acting like a goofball in front of thousands of people, and just being loose, that’s a big thing.”
Largely due to his lack of success this past season, many people speculated Nunez’s name would be first up in the transfer portal.
With his first recruiting class, Howard made it clear the quality of talent coming to Ann Arbor would only rise, and Nunez struggled to fit into the rotation even with plenty of opportunities. But when the pandemic hit and the season ended, the decision to stay was a no-brainer for the sophomore.
“I definitely talked a little about it with my parents, but nothing really serious, like, ‘Oh I wanna stay here,’ I didn’t want to pack everything up,” Nunez said. “I know that if I can make it here, I can make it to the next level. Even if I kill at another school, it wouldn’t be the same, so I just decided to stay.”
Buried in his decision to stay is the idea that this will be the sophomore’s first season having the same coach and system from the year prior in nearly five years. Going from high school to prep school to Beilein to Howard has meant a lot of different systems and learning curves. A creature of routine, Nunez is more confident with a year of Howard’s plays under his belt.
Now that begs the question: What will Nunez’s role on the team be in the seasons to come?
Nunez wants to be known as an all-around player, not just a shooter. That means tackling his weaknesses, including on-ball defense, being able to come off screens and playing off a shot fake.
One aspect he personally wants to tackle is his ball-handling abilities. With point guards Zavier Simpson and David DeJulius leaving the program due to graduation and transfer, respectively, the vacuum at that position is one of the biggest question marks for the team. Nunez could be instrumental in filling that void.
The bottom line for Nunez, though, is self-awareness. He knows what he needs to work on and is not shying away from the challenge.
So perhaps the next time Nunez steps on the floor in a maize and blue jersey, he won’t be watching an opposing ball handler fly past him on his way to an easy bucket. Through relentless practice, film study and self-awareness, Nunez will flash a smile after showing the product of his trials and tribulations.