By Joe Henricksen
It’s not very often when a man can just ignore the eye-test — in any part of his life — but …
True story. A college assistant coach calls the Hoops Report. The program where he coaches is in need of a shooter, a player that can consistently knock down shots from the perimeter and with some range. The following takes place:
Coach: “Joe, we need a shooter. We need one bad.”
Joe: “Have you done anything with the Jordan Nelson kid down in Lincoln? He’s one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the state.”
Coach: “He’s not a true point guard.”
Joe: “I thought you needed a shooter?”
Coach: “My boss won’t take a 5-10 white kid.”
Joe: “He’s 5-11, close to 6-feet.”
Coach: “My boss won’t take a 5-11 white kid.”
Every year, the Hoops Report gets on a soapbox. Well, maybe it’s more like jumping on the bandwagon of certain players that are overlooked by Division I schools. Today, at this point in the season, it’s Lincoln guard Jordan Nelson.
Last year the dismay was over Riverside-Brookfield’s Sean McGonagill, who the Hoops Report believed was the ideal low-Division I point guard. The Hoops Report heard it all regarding McGonagill and why he couldn’t play at the Division I level. “He’s not quick enough.” … “He’s not athletic enough.”… “He’s a very good shooter but he needs to be a great shooter to play at our level.” … “Who is he going to guard?”
I’m hear to ask: “Have you seen how many inferior players are playing low-Division I basketball right now?” And McGonagill, who is a strong, heady point guard who will run a team like a coach, is as tough as they come and can knock down shots, wasn’t good enough to play anywhere at the Division I level other than Brown and North Dakota? Puh-leaze!
Basically, the recruitment came down to Brown out of the Ivy League and North Dakota. They both loved him, wanted him badly. But the problem was, no one else really did. And the Hoops Report, which did see the flaws in McGonagill but also appreciated his strengths, couldn’t figure out why.
McGonagill chose a great education in the Ivy League and an opportunity to play right away. And he hasn’t disappointed. The 6-1 McGonagill is playing 33 minutes a game for Brown and is averaging 12 points, 5 assists and 4.2 rebounds a game as a freshman, including a season-high 39 points in a win over Columbia.
Now, more than a year later, the same questions surround Nelson, the record-breaking three-point shooter from Lincoln, a central Illinois town just down the road from Bloomington-Normal.
Numbers don’t mean a whole lot when it comes to recruiting. But we’re talking about Lincoln, a basketball school with players and tradition, and Nelson has put up some staggering numbers during his four-year varsity career.
Nelson is averaging 22 points a game and has knocked down 107 three-pointers already this season while shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc. He’s made a whopping 342 three-pointers in his career — 342! — and is a career 40 percent three-point shooter. He dishes out 3 assists a game. He shoots over 82 percent from the line. He broke the Lincoln single-game scoring record with 48 against Springfield Lanphier.
But put the numbers to the side for a moment. The reason Nelson is a Division I player is that he offers up a bonafide Division I ability: shooting the basketball. His shot is pure, and it’s a jump shot from 15 feet, 20 feet and 25 feet, with the mechanics and textbook release that is the calling card for every great shooter. For that reason alone, in a day where suddenly poor shooting has become an epidemic in college basketball, Nelson can play somewhere at the Division I level.
Plenty of Division I schools have poked around and kept tabs on Nelson, including Evansville, Creighton, Southern Illinois, Eastern Illinois, Navy, Southeast Missouri State, IUPUI, Colgate and La Salle. But so far, aside from a host of Division II offers, only Southern Illinois-Edwardsville has made an offer — and that is a conditional offer, where he will walk-on for a year and be given a scholarship in 2012.
There is no question the process has had an impact on Nelson as he plays out his senior year.
“It’s absolutely frustrating,” says Nelson, who also has a grade-point average over 3.0. “The waiting around for schools to offer, playing all those games and playing your butt off and no one seems to take notice.”
So what is the problem?
The naysayers will point to Nelson’s slight frame at 160 to 165 pounds. Will he get beat up a little at the college level? Sure. But for every five physically imposing players with great bodies and athleticism who can’t shoot or play a lick at the low-Division I level, there is one Jordan Nelson, who will put the ball in the hole, extend an opposing team’s defense and actually make an opposing team’s advanced scouting report.
The critics will argue he’s 5-11 and isn’t a true point guard. The Hoops Report contends he’s a solid enough ballhandler to run the point for his high school team. And he’s so valuable off the ball, coming off screens and spotting up on the perimeter, that he can flourish in the right system.
Skeptic coaches point to his lack of athleticism. But he is shifty, quicker than you think and a better defender than he’s given credit for.
Nelson can imagine what goes through a college coach’s head.
“The coaches probably don’t think I’m big enough to pass the so-called ‘eye-test,'” says Nelson.
That “eye-test” has certainly cost deserving players Division I scholarships in the past. And it will continue to in the future. While Nelson may not be a difference-maker at the Division I level, the “eye-test” should not cost a player and shooter the caliber of Nelson a Division I scholarship.
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