Luke Nelson remembers feeling butterflies ahead of the visit.
He was a teenager who’d just begun playing for the Reading Rockets, a professional English basketball team, while attending a nearby school. Basketball meant the world to him, but it hadn’t been that big a deal in Worthing, England, where he’d grown up.
Now the prospect of playing in the United States, which had always seemed like a dream just out of reach, was slowly coming into focus.
A Division I coach coming to visit me, all the way in England?
UC Irvine coach Russell Turner, the coach in question, knew that Nelson was a kid he did not want to lose. So he made the trip across the pond. He’d make another the following year.
But backtrack a few months to the summer of 2011, when this story had first begun to sharpen.
Turner was coming off his first season at the helm in Irvine. He was building a program, and knew first-hand that international recruiting could have a dramatic impact on that process.
In ‘94, Turner had taken a restricted-earnings coaching position at Wake Forest, just as a certain big man from the US Virgin Islands named Tim Duncan happened to be entering his sophomore season.
Dave Odom, then the Wake Forest coach, was one of the first DI coaches to recognize the huge benefits of extending recruiting reach outside US borders. After Duncan, the consensus National Player of the Year as a senior and the No. 1 pick in the ’97 NBA Draft, came Darius Songaila, a 6-9 stalwart from Lithuania.
When Turner headed out West and joined Mike Montgomery’s Stanford staff in 2000, he kept close tabs on the respective rises of Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Considered “mid-major” programs, the Bulldogs and Gaels fostered success by bringing in top international players (the Gaels began a prodigious Australian pipeline that continues today).
In each of the past six seasons, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have won 25 games. Duke and Kansas are the only other two teams in college basketball to have accomplished that feat. The Zags recently made it seven on the trot.
Wilson made a list of his selling points at Irvine: great weather, tremendous location, diverse student body, excellent education. All of those could appeal to a prospect from another country. He began assembling a coaching staff with experience recruiting abroad.
Ali Ton, currently the Anteaters’ associate head coach, proved a prescient hire. The son of a professional coach in Turkey, Ton had moved to Southern California as a teenager before heading to Davidson, where he finished as the all-time assists leader. He’d played professionally in Turkey, and was an assistant for the country’s U-20 team that competed at the ’05 European Championships.
At Radford, his previous coaching stop before Irvine, Ton had recruited Art Parakhouski from Belarus, who’d developed into the Big South Conference Player of the Year.
So, in the summer of ’11, Ton headed out to the U-16 European Championships in Macedonia, where Nelson was competing in Division B with England.
While watching the games, Ton became captivated by a hard-charging guard with this consummate ease to his shooting motion. And yet Nelson, who’d never spoken to a college coach before, couldn’t believe Ton was there to watch him. Even as he watched Ton head over to engage his father in conversation, he felt sure that Ton had mistaken Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot prospect on the team, as the son of Stephen Nelson, who stands a broad-shouldered 6-4.
But Ton quickly alleviated those worries. A connection was forged, and the Nelsons stayed in contact with the Irvine staff for months via email. Then came a Skype conversation, then that first in-home visit with Turner.
There were seven and eight international prospects Nelson and his staff were following at that time, but as he connected with Nelson’s family and tracked his development, he was floored by just how badly this kid wanted to improve at the game. When they first met on that visit at Reading, they hit it off immediately.
The recruitment became something of a serendipitous ‘six degrees.’ Ton had played and coached at Davidson, the alma mater of Steph Curry, Nelson’s favorite player. Turner had been a Golden State Warriors assistant during Curry’s rookie season before taking the Irvine job in 2010. “The connecting fibers to this story made us feel like we had a good chance,” Turner says, over the phone.
Irvine was the first school to show interest in Nelson, who committed in November ’12. Even when “high-majors” came sniffing (Nelson remembers five or six in particular), he wasn’t going to be swayed from his commitment. He’d known this staff since he was 16.
But this wasn’t a standard case of a recruit sticking with a choice out of loyalty. “He and his family had researched us at Irvine, and devoted a lot of time figuring out if this was a great fit from an education standpoint, whether a University of California degree would be valuable outside of the U.S. (The answer was an unequivocal Yes.)
“They took a measurement of our coaching and the program we were building. That meant how we play, what our respective backgrounds were as coaches, how he would fit in to our system. Luke was very careful in weighing his options, like a high-level student of the game would be. We recognized those qualities and recruited him in a way that fit him,” says Turner.
Turner’s staff recounted the recruiting process of many top international guards. Many had shrugged off professional opportunities in Europe and come to the United States to compete at the DI level and obtain a degree. Many had flourished in so-called “mid-major” programs.
At Irvine, he’d get the chance to play major minutes as a freshman. As the season approached, Ton told anyone who’d listen to watch out for this incoming freshman from the other side of the pond.
Nelson was named the 2013 Player of the Year in England’s Division 1, the youngest prospect ever to earn that distinction. Add to that his England Basketball U-18 Player of the Year honor, which marked the third consecutive time Nelson had been the top choice in his respective age group.
Now it’s early March, and Nelson is averaging a team-best 12.1 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and just over a steal per game. He’s started all but two games, hitting 47% of his shots, including 37 percent from three.
And he won’t turn 19 until the end of June.
Some of Nelson’s earliest memories entail heading to his dad’s professional basketball games with his mother and sister. There was the time he was asked to do a ceremonial coin flip during halftime. He thinks he called tails, but he’s not too sure—he couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old.
How much did Luke learn from Stephen throughout the years?
“Oh, we could be here for hours,” Nelson says over the phone on a recent Wednesday afternoon. “I think defensively is the area he’s helped me the most, though. He had a 6-11 wingspan, and he used to read players’ eyes to get steals. But the biggest thing was improving the mental side of my game.”
Nelson often played up in competition, and sometimes when he struggled, he’d grow so disconsolate that he’d want to stop the game. When he was 13, playing with 14- and 15-year-olds at a U-15 Final Four, he committed two costly turnovers that allowed the Manchester Magic to cut what had been a 20-point lead for Nelson’s team down to three.
Stephen, who was coaching, subbed him out. Nelson stormed to the bench and collapsed into a chair, where he stewed in a tear-ridden haze.
This is where it gets tough, having a father for a coach. How best to respond to a son who’s in visible pain? “But he found a really good middle ground,” says Nelson. “He told me it was OK, to keep a calm head. Most of the time, he’s not a calm coach, but he picked a good time to be calm. He looked me in the eyes and told me there were eight minutes left to play, and that we’d win.”
Which is exactly what Nelson’s team ended up doing. He calls that a turning point. At subsequent Final Fours, he thrived.
But he struggled when he began playing for Reading. Away from home for the first time, Nelson couldn’t find a good balance between basketball and school. He’d toss and turn at night, unable to sleep. But Stephen made frequent trips to help out, and slowly, the tide began to turn.
Nelson entered his second year with a revamped outlook. He realized that this was an opportunity to learn from top coaches, to ply his trade against great competition. He realizes now that this outlook helped prime him for his eventual switch across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to a campus that rests within 15 minutes of Pacific blue.
Nelson is part of a ’95 England generation considered to be one of the strongest in recent memory. The national team performed well at the London Olympics, and Nelson notes with pride that two teams have qualified for Division A in the European Championships—the first time that’s ever happened.
This past summer, he poured in 29 points against a talented Spain side at the U-18 European Championships. Both Turner and Ton were on hand in Latvia to witness that thrilling display. Nelson averaged 19 points per game for the competition, which led England and ranked second among all players.
Mario Elie, a former NBA player who coached Nelson for a Basketball Without Borders All-Star game in Moscow, said that in Nelson, he sees a cross between Steph Curry and Monta Ellis.
That was something Turner talked about with Nelson during his recruitment. On top of the Curry connection, he’d coached Ellis for five seasons at Golden State. He liked Elie’s two-pronged comparison. “(Luke) and Steph are about the same size, and people don’t realize how tall, or long, Steph is. Luke shoots easy, but he can create separation like Monta. The separation is what makes his shooting look so easy.
“I’m already looking forward to having a full offseason where he can push himself hard in the weight room. Think about how much you grow from 17, to 18, to 19. There’s a point where it clicks and starts to grow together,” Turner says.
Incoming Irvine freshmen come to campus for the second session of summer school. Nelson’s international commitments caused him to arrive a week and a half later than the other recruits, but since there was no language barrier to breach, he found it somewhat easier to integrate the university community.
Plus, Turner quips, that accent makes him a bit of a celebrity.
His family got to come visit him at Irvine during Christmas break, witnessing first-hand the improvements Nelson has already made. He’s upped his sense of positioning and spacing on both ends of the floor. He keeps implementing little things that make such a big difference.
It adds to the base Stephen helped form. The eyes darting this way and that on defense, always keeping tabs on passing lanes to jump and tendencies to exploit. The guys who enjoy the most success in this game share two qualities, Turner says: incredible basketball IQ and coachability. “Luke’s as coachable a player as I’ve been around. You tell him something one time, and he can not only understand it—but then he goes and does it. That’s a luxury. He’s special in that way.”
Nelson will never look like a body-builder, but then, as Turner points out, neither does Kevin Durant—and look how much that’s hurt the Thunder star during his time in the NBA. Years of playing against men in England’s professional league accelerated Nelson’s understanding of the game. As he keeps maturing, the physical side of the scale evening up with the mental, watch out.
Just 15 minutes from the beach, Irvine is perhaps better known for its sprawling campus, with its penchant for endearing quirkiness. There are 24 residence halls that pay homage to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with names such as Rivendell, Misty Mountain and Hobbiton. Ring Road abuts the clustered community.
Add burgeoning success in men’s basketball to the list of renown. In ’12-13, UC Irvine won 21 games and cracked the Big West tournament championship game. They earned the first post-season bid in 27 years and advanced to the second round of the CollegeInsider.com tournament. This past November, Turner signed a contract extension through the 2017-18 season.
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, the Anteaters have won seven of eight and hold a one-game lead atop the Big West standings. They’re 18-0, and 10-0 in conference, when holding opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field.
Since joining the Division 1 ranks in 1977, the Anteaters have yet to crack the NCAA Tournament. Now for the second season running, they find themselves on the cusp.
Some serious international flavor has helped key the charge. Along with Nelson, four players on the Anteaters roster this season originated from outside the States. All are freshmen (one is a redshirt), including 7-6 Senegalese sensation Mamadou Ndiaye, who averages 3.1 blocks, 8.4 points and 6.0 rebounds—in just 21.1 minutes per game. Ndiaye’s 90 blocks are an Irvine record. He’s within striking distance of Michael Olowokandi’s conference record of 95.
He’s helped form a formidable Anteaters nucleus that includes just one senior—and it’s a good one—in Chris McNealy (11.6 points.) Alex Young, a sophomore who’s averaging 4.7 assists, pairs with Nelson in the backcourt. Six-foot-eight junior Will Davis II is the reigning Big West Defensive Player of the Year. Before Ndiaye came along, Davis’s 88 blocks in ’12-13 were tops in program history.
“I feel good about the plan we set and have followed,” says Turner. “Every school needs an identity given the characteristics of where they are. Ours is the right plan for here.”
Just before Nelson’s phone interview wrapped, he said that the team was brimming with confidence. There was a big game the following night, against UC Santa Barbara at home. With a win, the Anteaters would wrestle sole possession of first place in the Big West away from the Gauchos.
And that’s exactly what they did.