A chat with Reeves Nelson

I am quite fascinated by what’s gone on with Reeves Nelson this season, and how he has handled his detractors, of which there are many. He has been consistently poked and prodded for his defensive skill and effort, all the while leading the team in scoring and rebounding, and that’s just not very typical. Quite frankly, most times players who are as prolific as Nelson has been this season (14 ppg, 9 RPG, .586 FG%) get free passes for the deficiencies in their game.

When Nelson responded the way he did after the Arizona game – calling out a reporter by name for questioning his defense – I was struck by the fact that this is a 19-year old kid, with 19-year-old kid emotions, and I wanted to get some time with him. We couldn’t spend too much time together because of the throng of reporters, but he did answer a handful of questions.

Here’s what he had to say:

JG: It seems to me that most of the criticism of your defense hasn’t really been about your ability, per se, but your effort. Do you distinguish between the two? Do you think performance and effort go hand-in-hand?
Reeves Nelson: “I understand that. But I think a lot of people who aren’t really familiar with the game, don’t really understand the difference between on-ball defense and help defense. Obviously, they’re two different things. Like I’ve said, I’ve been very confident in my man-up defense – I pride myself, it hurts when people score on me one-on-one. At the same time, I do admit that I haven’t been as good as I could be on help-side defense. I’m still working on it. I’m not great at it. Last year, I didn’t really play much man-to-man at all in this system. I’m still trying to work on it. Everyone has weaknesses and that’s definitely one of mine.”

JG: Coach Howland said something interesting today about the zone defense of last year really stunting some of the players from learning man-to-man?
RN: “Playing zone the majority of the year, for everybody, we didn’t really get a chance to learn coach’s principles. This year, I was a freshman on the defensive side of the ball. That definitely contributes.”

JG: This team really is still very young; do you think the team knows all of those little nuances of the game? The tricks? The team doesn’t even have a senior…
RN: “I still haven’t really sat down and thought about it because we’ve just been focused on preparing for games, but when you do think about it, it is pretty crazy to think about how we don’t have a senior. I said at the beginig of the year, with more and more game experience we’re going to keep improving. We have a lot of talent and we like working together. We ahve a good coach who knows what he’s doing. I’m not surprised we’ve seen continued improvement.”

JG: How do you try to improve on those little things?
RN: “You just have to play. I’m definitely not the most experienced or know the most about basketball – I’m only 19 years old – but every day I try to learn something new. If I see something I need to improve on through the game – maybe if I get blocked, I try to do something different the next time – and there are sorts of little things you can do to improve. You just have to learn from your mistakes and correct them.”

JG: How has this team changed from earlier this year?
RN: “At the beginning of the year, we were trying to figure out who we were and what we could do. Now we’re a lot more confident. If we do fail, we just get right back up.”

And a last one, from a question from the Times’ Ben Bolch:
RN: “I don’t really read what anyone writes about me, I just hear it from the people that are close to me. The fact that they’re reading that stuff makes me want to do better so that they don’t have to read it anymore. I just use any slight against me as motivation to do better. My whole life, really. If someone says I can’t do something, I’m going to try to prove them wrong. That’s how I am.”