My feature on Derick Nelson from Sunday's edition.
By PAUL KAMPE
Of The Oakland Press
The road trip the Oakland men’s team is currently on involves stops in Las Vegas.
Before Thursday’s game at Southern Utah and again before it departed for Kansas City for Saturday’s game, the team was stopping in Sin City.
As you might expect, the team won’t be gambling in casinos, hotels and other gaming spots during its stay. But senior forward Derick Nelson, however, is accustomed to playing the odds — he was doing it well before this season ever began.
Nelson’s foray into statistical analysis began sometime after he broke his foot just days before the beginning of last season and his subsequently failed comeback attempts, and the time at which he decided to take a medical redshirt and return for one more season — hopefully at full strength — forgoing his chance to play professionally for the time being. And the reason was simple:
“I don’t have any rings,” he said.
“That’s how people remember you. You can be a great player and have all the stats to show, but no one will remember you (without a championship),” Nelson said. “That’s what I play basketball for. I want to win and get a ring. I want to go to the tournament. That’s something you don’t forget 20-30 years from now. You can look at that ring and say ‘I played in the NCAA tournament.’ That’s why I came back.”
Weighing against the comeback was the fact that playing professionally would have helped Nelson financially, raising his 3-year-old daughter, Somiyah. His daughter can’t always make it to the games, but she’s with him on the hardwood — Nelson has her birthday inscribed on the front of his size 15 Nikes: 1-31-07.
“It was a little difficult to decide because I have a daughter,” Nelson said. “I always want to be able to support her, but I also didn’t want to leave and not have my chance with this team I knew was going to be good and get one more chance at getting a ring.”
If Nelson’s decision to return to Oakland could be compared to gaming, he would likely be playing with a large stack of house money.
Surely, the return of point guard Johnathon Jones and center Keith Benson, two of the league’s best at their respective positions, had to influence Nelson’s decision making. Then came the preseason polls, many of which picked Oakland as the best the Summit League had to offer.
And after a tough non-conference schedule where the Golden Grizzlies took their lumps, they opened league play with nine straight wins, and in the process, tied a nearly two-decade-old conference winning streak.
Yes, the odds certainly still look to be in Nelson’s favor.
As well as things have gone, Nelson and Co. know nothing has been won and nobody is being sized for their championship rings just yet.
Whether the Grizzlies escape with a victory or they’ve just run away with a game, Nelson is one of the first to say that’s what he expects out of his team and he’s quick to relate the victory to the team’s quest for a title.
The time on the bench last season, which was every game but two, ended up being a great learning experience for Nelson, but “It just seemed like it was taking forever,” he said.
He was able to see things through a coach’s eyes that he may not have picked up if he were pacing the court on a healthy foot. He said the time also helped him grow as a leader, and he’s been elected a team captain this year.
Nelson, who stands 6-foot-5, is the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.1 points per game and one of the Grizzlies’ leading rebounders, but his biggest contributions this season have come on the defensive end.
As the team dynamic has changed, so has Nelson, who has transformed into the league’s best defender, according to coach Greg Kampe.
“We’ve won because he’s taken it upon himself to go out and guard the best player on the other teams game after game,” Kampe said.
Nelson, an All League First Team pick in his last full season in 2007-2008, has shown maturity in his transformation.
“He’s handled it very well. He’s smart enough to know. It’s been a transition for him and we’ve communicated quite a bit. It’s never been an issue. He agrees with this and he knows we can win,” Kampe said. “He’s been all-league and led the team in scoring. He’s done all those things. He wants to win a championship. That’s what he wants to do.”
Nelson’s ability to be a shut-down defender, an impact scorer and rebounder make him a very versatile player. That fact is not lost on Jones, a fellow senior.
“It would be hard without him, because he brings a toughness to our team. He does a lot of the dirty work. He gets rebounds, finishes and guards their best player,” Jones said. “Without him, I don’t know who would step up and do what he does.”
With their preseason posturing, the Grizzlies have been saddled with the league’s largest bull’s-eye on a nightly basis.
It seems like almost every league game is a close one, and last weekend’s homecoming win over Oral Roberts was probably the closest, most narrow margin of victory they’ve had, but they seem to find ways to win.
Entering Saturday, Oakland has four conference wins in games decided by three or fewer points. Playing each game as the prey seems to suit Nelson.
“I like being the favorite, every night you have the challenge of staying in that No. 1 spot,” he said. “That’s something I love to do. I like getting everybody’s best shot.”
Fully healed, Nelson has been benefited from favorable odds and chances are he’ll ‘cash out’ a fulfilled man.
Paul Kampe covers Oakland University basketball for The Oakland Press. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.(Oakland senior forward Derick Nelson came back to the Grizzlies for a full senior season, despite offers to play professionally following a foot injury, which kept him sidelined for all but two games last season. The Oakland Press/VAUGHN GURGANIAN)