It’s no secret that Derrick Nix’s journey hasn’t been an easy one.
Since his freshman season in 2009, Nix has been embroiled in battles over his weight, his footwork, his conditioning, his maturity within the locker room and, more notably, his highly-publicized personal demons. Upon his April drug arrest and subsequent suspension from the basketball program, many believed it was the beginning of the end for the senior center, who was expected to be the heir apparent to the departing Draymond Green.
Despite the frequent turmoil and the calls for Nix’s removal by fans and members of the media following his arrest, head coach Tom Izzo saw something worth salvaging in the 6-foot-9 Detroit native. And Nix continues to show Izzo he made the right decision.
In a breakout performance Saturday against Texas, Nix led the No. 20 Spartans with a career high 25 points and 11 rebounds to earn the third double-double of his career, as MSU (11-2) defeated the Longhorns (7-5), 67-56.
It was a showing that heavily alludes to the developing maturity of Nix on the basketball court, within the chemistry of his teammates and with Izzo himself.
“Nix and I have a love-hate relationship,” Izzo said. “I love to hate him sometimes. I think like every relationship it has grown into one where he listens more every day. He still struggles at times and gets frustrated with himself sometimes. The hardest thing for anybody to do is to take criticism.
“He has grown up enormously in the last two years, trust me.”
After completing his community service and being reinstated before the season began, Nix took a big step in being named a team captain along with sophomore guard Russell Byrd. Since then, Nix has become a more vocal leader on the floor while continuing to develop his game and making himself more effective in the paint.
The result has left Nix averaging 8.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, ending with a double-double in two of his last three games after not having a single one since in the first game of his freshman season nearly three years ago. The numbers often come with Nix being double-teamed, as opponents recognize the strength of he and junior center Adreian Payne, who’s also flourishing with 8.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this season.
Against the Longhorns, Nix shot 11-for-13 (84. 6 percent) from the floor and bumped up his season free throw shooting average to 70 percent after going 7-for-10 on the afternoon. He also picked up a seemingly momentum-shifting technical foul in the second half that fueled the momentum of the Spartans for the rest of the way in a winning effort.
After spending much time reflecting on mistakes of the past, Nix said he’s indebted to Izzo and his teammates for giving him the chance to come back and make an impact.
“I always think about that every day,” Nix said. “I owe this program a lot because I gave this program troubles, I can say. I feel like I owe it to Coach Izzo personally because he’s been in my corner the whole way when I wanted to quit, transfer and I didn’t go to Maui.
“All of the drama and all of the situations I’ve been in, I feel like I have to give back and the only way I feel I can give back is going out there and playing as hard as I can every night.”
The strong showing by Nix certainly was recognized by Texas head coach Rick Barnes, who didn’t have an answer for the Spartan big man for much of the game. More importantly, it was an effort he hoped players on his team took notice of.
“I actually told our post players, I told (Texas center) Cam Ridley, I said you need to do what (Nix) does,” Barnes said. “If you do that for us, we’ll be pretty darn good. You have to give him credit and Tom again kept going to him. We didn’t have an answer for it.”
Nix will continue to be a valuable asset as the Spartans close out their non-conference schedule and prepare to open up Big Ten season. The Spartans hit the road for a New Year’s Eve date with No. 13 Minnesota before returning home to host Purdue on Jan. 5.