By Scott Nickerson
Less than halfway through his 5th season as a high school basketball coach in the talent rich state of Georgia, Millbrook native Jon-Michael Nickerson has won his 100th game. He was averaging 23 wins per season leading into the start of the 2019 season. After coaching Class 4A Sandy Creek High School to a win over Trinity Christian of Sharpsburg, Georgia, Nickerson’s record as a high school coach is 100-27.
Nickerson began his high school coaching career in 2011 as the head coach at Excel Christian High School in Cartersville, Georgia. The Eagles were in Class 1A, the smallest classification in Georgia’s Independent School Association, the equivalent to Alabama’s AISA. He knew success wouldn’t come easily. The Excel basketball team had never experienced a winning season in its 23-year existence. In his first season as head coach, Nickerson led the Eagles to a 14-12 record. His second season leading Excel resulted in even more improvement, as the Eagles finished with a record of 26-3 and a trip to the Elite Eight of the GISA Class 1A playoffs. Nickerson works extensively on player development as a coach, and two players from that year’s team are currently playing professional basketball internationally. Nickerson was named 2012-2013 Northwest Georgia Tip-Off Coach of the Year.
The following season Nickerson joined the staff at the University of Memphis as a graduate assistant coach for a Tiger’s team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. After one season at Memphis, Nickerson joined the staff at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI) as an assistant coach, where he remained for two years before returning to Alabama prior to the 2016-2017 basketball season.
At that time, Nickerson’s alma mater, the Stanhope Elmore High School Mustangs, were in need of a head boys’ basketball coach. As the only Mustang’s player in the history of the school to play Division 1 basketball (Kennesaw State), combined with two years of coaching experience as a high school coach in Georgia, and two years of Division 1 college coaching experience, some felt like Nickerson was the logical choice to be the next head basketball coach at Stanhope Elmore.
That was not meant to be.
“I spoke to Principal Jamie McGowin and told him that I wanted the job. He said that I would get an interview, but I never even got a phone call,” Nickerson said, reflecting on the past.
In the spring of 2017, Nickerson was hired as the head coach at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Georgia, a Class 4A public school competing in Georgia’s High School Athletic Association. In his first season, Nickerson led Sandy Creek to the GHSAA Class 4A Final Four, losing by one point in a controversial finish to nationally ranked Upson-Lee High School, a team that was the defending state champions and riding a 51-game win-streak at the time. Nickerson’s focus on player development again rewarded his players, as Patriot’s Guard Jarred Godfrey earned a scholarship to Division 1 Fort Wayne, where he is currently the starting guard as a sophomore and averaging 16 points and 5 rebounds per game. Nickerson was named the 2017-2018 Fayette County (GA) Coach of the Year.
Nickerson’s second season at Sandy Creek featured more achievements for the Patriot’s program, as they went through 14 games of region play undefeated for the first time in school history, winning the region championship for the second year in a row. Prior to his arrival, Sandy Creek had won the region championship only once. Patriot’s senior TJ Bickerstaff was named the Georgia Class 4A Player of the Year, and earned a scholarship to Division 1 Drexel University, where he has played in every game this season as a true freshman and is averaging 17 minutes a game.
This season, the Patriots are currently 7-3, with all three losses coming to teams ranked in the Top 10 of Class 7A, Georgia’s largest classification. Describing the toughest team to coach against in his high school career, Nickerson quickly said it was his team’s matchup earlier this season with Norcross High School, a team featuring six future Division 1 prospects, most notably 6-10 forward JT Thor, a senior considering either Kentucky or Kansas to play college ball next year.
This year’s Patriots team is not without their own future star, led by junior Jabari Smith, a future NBA player that stands 6’8” and is an exceptional dribbler, knockdown shooter, and elite defender and rebounder. Nickerson’s team also includes a couple of other potential Division-1 basketball prospects, as well as Brian Branch, who will suit up for the University of Alabama next year on the football field.
Nickerson described the reason why his program has been so successful helping players earn collegiate scholarships and providing the opportunity to continue playing basketball after high school, something many kids in the state of Alabama don’t get to experience.
“We model our program, and all of our practices after those at the college level I experienced as a player at Kennesaw State, and as a coach at IUPUI. Three days a week during the summer we will commit two hours to skill drills, whether dribbling, shooting, or moving without the ball, and then follow that up with an intense workout in the weight room where I push the kids to their limit, and then participate in highly competitive basketball games at night with other schools. It’s during those summer practices when I see the most improvement in our kids.”
After achieving so many personal and team goals, there is still one outstanding: a state championship. Nickerson will lead the Patriots as they seek to return to the Georgia Class 4A Final 4 for the third consecutive season, but this time he hopes to come home with the title.