Nique Clifford made the short journey from Colorado Springs to Boulder to begin his collegiate basketball career well aware his opportunity wasn’t likely to arrive during his freshman year.
Still, going from an all-state player at The Vanguard School to a little-used bench role isn’t an easy adjustment for any young player. For Clifford, his first year with the Colorado Buffaloes proved to be an extended learning experience, from getting accustomed to that spot on the bench on game days to maximizing his practice time competing against now-departed point guard McKinley Wright IV.
“It was not what I expected. I expected to come in and play right away,” Clifford said. “But I made the most of what happened last season. We had a bunch of seniors who were experienced and I got to learn a lot from them each and every day.
“I started to embrace that role. Of course it’s no fun not playing. Nobody doesn’t want to play. But I just learned to embrace that role and be a good teammate and just learn from these guys, because I knew my time would come.”
That time is now for Clifford, who is expected to vie for a rotation spot in a crowded backcourt competition set to also include returning starter Eli Parquet, last year’s backup point guard Keeshawn Barthelemy, Western Carolina transfer Mason Faulkner, and three incoming freshmen — Julian Hammond, Javon Ruffin, and KJ Simpson. That’s in addition to two players — Clifford’s classmate, Luke O’Brien, as well as freshman Quincy Allen — projected to compete for D’Shawn Schwartz’s vacated role as a big wing/small forward.
Clifford will have the comfort of a year in the program in his back pocket when the Buffs hold the first of their 10 summer practices in late June ahead of an August exhibition trip to Costa Rica. But he won’t boast much more playing experience than the incoming freshmen. Clifford played a season-high nine minutes in the second game of the season at Kansas State when the Buffs were missing Schwartz and Barthelemy, but little can probably be discerned from Clifford’s overall stats (he went 3-for-21 in 14 brief appearances off the bench).
Yet as is often the case in head coach Tad Boyle’s program, Clifford understands his fate in the rotation likely will be determined at the other end of the floor.
“Definitely defense. I’ve been focusing on defense, making sure I can lock up and guard multiple positions,” Clifford said. “That’s my goal. And then taking care of the ball. That’s another one that coach Tad stresses, and I didn’t do a great job of that last year in practice. Especially toward the beginning of the year. I got better at the end of the year, but that’s another thing I’ve been focusing on.”
By the time the 2021-22 Pac-12 Conference schedule rolls around, that backcourt rotation likely will leave a few young players on the outside looking in. Yet it’s the sort of problem good programs tend to have, and Clifford expects to play a key role as a younger Buffs team attempts to mount a repeat run to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s going to be a real good year,” Clifford said. “We’ve got a lot of young talent. We’re already starting to gel, on and off the court, chemistry-wise. It’s going to be a fun year as long as everyone focuses on the end goal and we were like we were last year, unselfish, the sky is the limit for us.”