Mitchell Smith remembers exchanging some texts with Reed Nikko before they arrived in Columbia in the summer of 2016, but having never seen the center from Maple Grove, Minnesota before, he was initially caught off guard when they met.
“I didn’t think he looked anything like that,” Smith said, chuckling. “I mean, he’s a big goofy dude. We’re kind of both similar.”
Smith and Nikko share a special bond; they are the only two remaining players from Missouri’s 2016 recruiting class. The pair, roomates during their first summer in Columbia, stuck it out with Missouri after a miserable 8-24 freshman season that eventually resulted in Kim Anderson’s firing.
“I might get a little choked up to see Reed walk across the floor,” he said. “We’ve really been together since day one. To see his growth over the years, it’s great. I’m proud of him.”
It’s players like Nikko that make one truly appreciate the four-year project, a player that arrives and initially contributes little but turns into a productive piece on the floor by the end of their time in school.
Remember Ryan Rosburg? Remember Steve Moore? Given how few scholarship players have completed four years in the program for Missouri over the past decade, it might be hard to sometimes. But four year players matter. They are important in building programs.
As Georgia coach Tom Crean said after Anthony Edwards’ game tying layup was rejected at the rim in the closing seconds against Missouri back on January 28th, “You have to recruit the Reed Nikkos of the world. They don’t grow on trees.”
Nikko will be the only senior to be honored Saturday at Mizzou Arena before the Tigers tip off against Alabama, and his ovation from the crowd will be loud. It should be as loud as possible.
“To have as much fan support as I feel like I have right now,” Nikko said, “and just be playing good basketball, it’s a really special moment. It’s a little weird to have all the attention solely on you. I’m not necessarily used to it or comfortable with it, I’m just trying to be appreciative of it for what it is.”
No, Big ‘Sota was never going to demand any sort of spotlight. Nikko signed to Kim Anderson’s staff as a relatively unheralded three-star player on October 5, 2015, right in the middle of the darkest stretch in modern Mizzou Athletics history.
In his first season for Missouri, he shot 51% from the floor averaging 2.6 points a game.
In four years with the program, he’s gone from sparingly used backup with brick hands to a reliable post presence with an ability to score the ball. Nikko didn’t come into his own out of pure comfort; with Jeremiah Tilmon sidelined for much of SEC play with a foot injury, Nikko stepped up out of necessity.
Since Tilmon was sidelined after Kentucky in early January, Nikko has stepped up to average 7.4 points per game, shooting a career high 63% percent from the field.
Oh, and then there are the free throws. In none of his first three seasons did he even average 60% from the charity stripe. This season? He’s improved that clip to 75%.
“From a basketball standpoint, I think it was just a case of ‘I know I have the ability to play the game, but at what level can I be good, can I maximize my talent,” Martin said. “He’s always been a guy that’s been about his business.”
In terms of maximizing talent, consider Nikko’s recent performance in Missouri’s 61-52 win over Vanderbilt last week. The senior scored a career high 14 points, making all five of his field goal attempts and all four of his free throws.
While Scottie Pippen, Jr. led Vanderbilt out to leads as big as nine, Nikko remained a composed presence, demonstrating his ability to catch the ball on the block and work his way to the basket. It’s no wonder that he is playing with so much more confidence as of late.
“Just kind of seeing that I’m capable of going out and playing at that level was big for me,” he said.
As he was developing, Nikko’s highlights usually involved dunks and emphatic rejections in the post. When his senior season is all finished up, they will show quite a bit more of Nikko going one-on-one with his defender, often with a solid degree of success.
It’s safe to say that Big ‘Sota has maximized his talent for Missouri, and has been shown as much love in the stands as he is by players in the locker room.
“His approach to what it means to be a good teammate, in the locker room talking with younger guys, being a student of the game, he’s always displayed that,” Cuonzo Martin said.
It was Jordan Geist who was the ringleader of a trio of Tigers that cycled through various nicknames for Nikko, before eventually settling on Big ‘Sota. That one stuck.
“Between Geist, Kevin (Puryear) and Adam (Wolf), they cycled through nicknames throughout the early part of my career like crazy,” Nikko said. “I thought it was just another phase, to be honest, but that one stuck. I guess it’s hard to complain when you have sort of an iconic nickname.”
He’s embraced the nickname, as well as a greater role on the court. Known as a more quiet personality for much of his time in Columbia, the Fisheries and Wildlife Management major has also found a bigger voice.
“Even since I just met him last summer, I think he’s come out of his shell a little bit,” Dru Smith said. “As Coach Martin would say, his shoulders weren’t standing up as proud as they are now.”
In his first three years at Missouri, Big ‘Sota started just three games for the Tigers. This year? He has heard his name announced in the starting lineup 19 times. His ovations have grown louder and louder as he has shown Missouri fans what he is capable of, and will have one more chance to put it all out there at Mizzou Arena Saturday.
“I have nothing to save,” Nikko said. “I just want to leave a good effort and have that be what fans remember me for.”