Nique Clifford missed the first two preseason practices for the Colorado men’s basketball team last week while trying to shake off a nagging illness.
Getting back into the swing of things wasn’t easy.
“That took more out of me than any sickness I had,” Clifford said with a bit of a breathless laugh after returning to practice. “I’ve got to get back into it.”
Of course, it was only a momentary setback for Clifford, who has resumed his place in the middle of the Buffs’ workouts. Among the many pieces that need to fall into place for the Buffaloes of 2022-23 to make a run at an NCAA Tournament berth is a next-level step forward from Clifford, the junior wing from Colorado Springs who has an opportunity to grow into not only the most dynamic player in the CU rotation, but one of the most versatile in the entire Pac-12 Conference as well.
“I just learned (last year) really how to help my team win and buy into my role,” Clifford said. “My role is going to expand more this year and be bigger for this team. I’m going to have to help out more defensively and offensively. I feel like I’m ready for that. I’ve got to step up more this year and play with confidence at all times.
“I’ve got to be consistent this year. I’ve got to shoot the ball well each game. I’ve got to defend every game, rebound every game. That’s my goal, to put all these things together.”
After playing sparingly as a freshman, Clifford became a regular rotation player last season. Yet his production ebbed and flowed like a rookie.
Clifford spent the first half of the 2021-22 season as the Buffs’ sixth man before taking over a starting role following Elijah Parquet’s midseason foot injury. Clifford spent most of the season as the Buffs’ second-leading rebounder, but former forward Evan Battey eventually claimed that spot as Clifford’s production on the glass dipped during the course of Pac-12 play.
Like that rebounding production, Clifford’s numbers generally were solid, though inconsistent. His assist (43) and turnover (49) totals were close to even. He shot a solid .400 from 3-point range, but averaged just 1.8 attempts per game (24-for-60). It was a similar disparity overall, as Clifford finished with a .453 field goal percentage but averaged just 5.5 attempts per game.
That should change this season. The three players who put up the most shot attempts for CU last year — Jabari Walker, Battey and Keeshawn Barthelemy — all are gone. While Clifford started the final 17 games last year as the two-guard, given the Buffs’ depth along the wing and his 6-foot-6, long-armed frame, he easily could see minutes at the three spot this season as well.
“I think this is the year for him to be a consistent contributor, both offensively and defensively,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “He’s got the ability and talent to do that, there’s no doubt about it. He had a good offseason in the weight room. Now the opportunity is his.
“The biggest jump usually comes between freshman year and sophomore year. But, going from their sophomore year to junior year, they’re going from an underclassman role to an upperclassman. Which means it’s not just about Nique and how Nique is playing. Now Nique has to think about his teammates that are younger that are maybe struggling a little bit, and he’s got to get outside of himself and eventually, hopefully, become a leader for us.”