From the outside, the NCAA transfer portal can be a portrait of chaos, doors leading to more doors, some inviting but seemingly always locked. Others more welcoming, but what’s behind? Barely any time to investigate. Once a ballplayer is inside, can he even get out?
From the inside, it looks ... pretty much the same.
“It was hectic. I’m not even going to lie,” said Josh Nickelberry, now a basketball transfer portal expert. “Schools would come in and out. Come in, say, ‘We’re interested.’ Then the next day, they took a different guy. ‘Let’s get on a Zoom.’ Then a [different player] took the Zoom an hour before. The spot was gone.”
Leaving Louisville, Nickelberry found his spot. The La Salle Explorers were offering what the guard was looking for, he said, starting with a little honesty.
“Basically, they were straight up,” Nickelberry said. “You’re going to have to compete.”
Nickelberry had been through all this before, except the world is different when you’re a high school junior, setting crazy scoring records. Everyone wants you, even the biggest programs in your state, which is no small thing when your state is North Carolina. Nickelberry’s official bio has this bullet point: “Finished his high school career with 2,904 points, making him the second-leading all-time scorer in the history of North Carolina high school basketball.”
He chose Louisville over North Carolina, North Carolina State, Michigan, and others. In college, the bullet points just became different, involving injuries. Hard to get on the court when you can’t get fully healthy. Two seasons of it. Sitting more games than Nickelberry played. His parents were wondering if he should leave after freshman year. His coaches “heard rumors and stuff,’' Nickelberry said, but he wanted to stay.
Sophomore year, more pain. It ended with 5 points in 16 minutes against Duke in the ACC tournament, his last points and minutes. The toughest injury?
“My left knee,” Nickelberry said. “I had a scope, some cartilage removed. July of last summer. It definitely was messing with my strength and explosion, lateral movement, stability.”
“Everything you need,’' Nickelberry said.
Louisville coaches weren’t pushing him into the portal, he said. He was told they wanted him to stay and compete. But what was the bigger chance, staying or going? Some big-time programs contacted him when he hit the portal, but Nickelberry had dealt with all that his first recruiting go-around. This time, it came down to La Salle, Fordham, and North Carolina-Wilmington, places where you have to figure that if he’s healthy, he’s helping.
Nickelberry, from Fayetteville, N.C., liked what he heard from Explorers coach Ashley Howard and his staff. Nickelberry said he asked more pointed questions this time around, about what their plans were for him. He wasn’t looking for promises.
“A lot of the coaches, they say the same stuff,” Nickelberry said.
It helped, he said, that Sherif Kenney was at La Salle. They’d played travel-team basketball together. The fact they kind of play the same position didn’t faze either one since it’s a position where multiple players can be on the court at once.
“That’s my boy,” Nickelberry said. “Having that connection helped.”
He watched La Salle games as he was making his decision, saw what Explorers point guard Jhamir Brickus could do. “He’s cold. He’s good,” Nickelberry said. “I can tell they play nasty. They defend. That definitely got me excited. They’re connected. They play fast. I like that.”
At 6-foot-4, he’s a combo guard. Asked to describe himself on the court, Nickelberry said, “Really just an aggressive guard. I like to score the ball. A team player, though. Team all the way around. I can score at all three levels. Rebound. Athletic. Can defend. Really all-around.”
The portal being a closed door behind him, he said, is a relief.
“Nothing against Louisville. Great program. Great coaches,” Nickelberry said. “It just wasn’t the spot for me.”
Now, Nickelberry said, “I’m grinding every single day.” Getting healthy and staying healthy is key, he made clear, “getting back right.” The rest, La Salle fans will see for themselves.