BLACKSBURG—Landers Nolley made no bold proclamations this time around. Instead, the Virginia Tech redshirt freshman basketball player let his play do the talking.
A year of brazenly declaring his goal to “be the most impactful freshman in the country” and the “ACC rookie of the year,” Nolley finally got the chance to play in a game for the Hokies. And the 6-foot-7 Atlanta native did not disappoint.
Nolley—who redshirted last season after delays in being declared academically eligible—scored 30 points in Tech’s season-opening 67-60 win at Clemson on Tuesday night.
“Making a bold statement like that, of course, all eyes are going to be on you,” Nolley said of his preseason boast last year. “When you don’t get to back it up or produce, of course it’s going to be tough. Being held back, it’s always going to add fuel to the fire.”
Nolley burned the Tigers on Tuesday from all over the court, hitting four 3-pointers, grabbing five rebounds and making a pair of steals. He logged 37 minutes in total in his debut, showing off the versatility that his teammates saw all last year in practice.
“He can play a little bit of everything,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins. “Terrific shooter. Defends his butt off. He’ll just do whatever it takes to win.”
Wilkins knows Nolley’s skill-set all too well. He was often tasked with guarding Nolley in practice, and said it was struggle to stay in front of him in zig-zag drills last year while Nolley starred on the scout team.
Off the court, Nolley struggled with having to sit out, with not getting the chance to back up his big words from the preseason.
“He took it kind of tough,” said Tyrece Radford, Nolley’s freshman year roommate who also redshirted. “Every day, I’d just see the look on his face. He was like, ‘Bro, I wanna play.’”
Instead, Nolley sat out the year, using practices to get better while learning from the program’s stars, players like Justin Robinson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Ahmed Hill and Kerry Blackshear Jr.
That group, coached by Buzz Williams, led the Hokies to the Sweet 16, where they came within a basket of upsetting Duke. They’re all gone now. Williams bolted for a job at Texas A&M. Robinson, Hill and Ty Outlaw were seniors. Alexander-Walker left school early for the NBA draft. Blackshear Jr. transferred to Florida.
In fact, Nolley—who originally committed to Georgia in high school before Williams flipped him to Tech—considered leaving, as well. He entered his name in the NCAA’s transfer portal.
“I’m here because I feel like this is home,” Nolley said. “What Coach [Mike] Young and the staff said to me and what they needed me to do is what I want to do. I felt loved. So I stayed.”
Nolley bristles when asked how close he came to transferring.
“I wasn’t close to nothing,” Nolley said. “I was in the portal for a reason. I stayed for a reason. Coach Young made me feel loved. The mission that he sees, the plan he has for me is amazing.”
Tuesday night at Clemson, Nolley offered a glimpse of that plan.
“Obviously, Landers Nolley was the best player on the floor,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell. “We kind of knew that going in. He was the difference maker.”