CLEMSON, S.C. — Landers Nolley II scored 30 points in his first-ever college basketball game on Tuesday night, and his finest play might have been a miss.
It happened early in the second half of Virginia Tech’s 67-60 victory over Clemson. Nolley, the highly touted Tech freshman, was being guarded at the top of the circle.
A shot fake got rid of that nuisance, but two more Clemson defenders were nearby to help. Nolley split them with a quick slash into the lane, elevated over a towering rim-protector and put up a floater that looked on-target but bounced off the iron.
The young man is legit. Of all the takeaways from Tuesday night, when Mike Young won his debut as Tech’s basketball coach and returnee Wabissa Bede made two huge plays in the final minutes, that one was the most obvious and also the most encouraging.
The Hokies are young and inexperienced and are breaking in a new system. They need a centerpiece.
They have one in Nolley.
As Nolley rang up 18 points in the first half here at Littlejohn Coliseum, it was easy to see why Tech fans were so frustrated when the NCAA wouldn’t clear him last season.
He’s not just some hot-shot recruit with record-breaking high school numbers. He’s got skills that translate immediately, and they would have looked awfully nice integrated with that veteran bunch that took Duke down to the final possession in last season’s Sweet 16.
Alas, the NCAA took issue with his ACT score and would not clear him even after he retook the test. Nolley promptly made the ACC academic honor roll for the 2018-19 school year as he watched all the games from the bench.
He won’t be watching much this season. Nolley played 37 minutes in the opener — the most for any player on either team — while making 12 of 23 field goals and going 4 of 8 on 3-pointers. While posting the highest scoring output ever for a Tech freshman in his debut, Nolley also provided five rebounds and two steals.
Several traits stood out. One was his calm demeanor — not a hint of nerves playing on the road with so many eyes on him.
Another was the length in his 6-foot-7 frame. The Hokies don’t have much of that this season. That’s why they’ll be asking Nolley, a natural wing, to defend some in the post. He’s got the quickness to do it, but some the bigger players in the ACC might be able to bully him.
This, though, is where Nolley’s year of sitting out could benefit him. He says he came to Blacksburg weighing 170 pounds. Tech now lists him at 225. The former Georgia high school basketball player of the year honoree looks lean but sturdy, no pushover, like a slightly taller version of Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
Still, what was most impressive was the quick release on his shot. Especially after opponents see the video of this performance, Nolley is going to get hassled a lot this year in the ACC. He’s not going to have much time to line up his attempts.
He didn’t need it Tuesday. His catch-and-release game was in fine form, including one that just beat the shot clock to give him his 21st, 22nd and 23rd points of the night.
Regardless of whether the Hokies had won or lost Tuesday, we would have needed to remind ourselves that this was only one game. Clemson is pretty inexperienced itself. The Tigers were picked to finish 11th in the 15-team ACC — three spots ahead of the Hokies.
Clemson missed a lot of open shots that other teams might not. The Hokies got a fortunate bounce that led to the go-ahead dunk by P.J. Horne with 1:03 remaining. Things broke the right way, in other words.
But Nolley is for real. Of this, you can be certain. And as a season full of question marks begins, the Hokies have already found one of their answers.